"Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth."
This month 92 years ago, New Zealand-born writer Katherine Mansfield died of tuberculosis in France at the age of just 34. During her short life Katherine wrote short fiction that became internationally acclaimed. She changed the literary world forever with her fresh, unconventional approach to narrative and prose.
She was a legend, and way ahead of her time. I remember studying her stories at high school, and being so taken with them that my friends designed an 'I Seen the Little Lamp' t-shirt for me.
Born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888, Katherine was the daughter of a prominent Wellington businessman and a mother who was described as "delicate and aloof". She grew up in the affluent suburbs of Thorndon and Karori, but found colonial New Zealand just a little bit stifling and provincial.
After a few stints in the UK (and no doubt causing a few headaches for her conservative, upper-class parents) the restless teenager moved abroad and never returned, but New Zealand remained in her thoughts as she penned some of her most famous short stories, which covered timeless themes such as poverty and class division in The Doll's House and The Garden Party, and desire and betrayal in Bliss. They were highly unusual at the time for capturing feelings and moments, often from a child's perspective, and using symbols to convey emotions.
In the UK she befriended other modernist writers such as DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf (who famously admitted that Katherine produced the only writing she was jealous of). Her life, especially her love life, was bohemian and tumultuous, including an on-again, off-again relationship with the writer John Middleton Murray. She had no children but gave birth alone to a stillborn baby in Germany in 1909. Her first collection of stories, 'In a German Pension', was published in 1911 to wide success, and she was praised for her sharp wit and humorous character portraits. In 1914 her beloved brother Leslie was killed in the war, and she turned to her childhood memories of New Zealand while writing 'At the Bay', 'Prelude', and 'The Garden Party'.
Katherine spent most of the rest of her life shifting between London and France, becoming sick in 1918 and dying in 1923 of a fatal haemorrhage just weeks before her most famous work, 'The Garden Party and Other Stories', was published. Her most successful writing years were in the early 1920s as she frantically wrote against the clock, but much of her work, including private journals and manuscripts, was published posthumously – and somewhat controversially, given she'd privately recorded very intimate details of her love life – by John Middleton Murray.
It wasn't until several more decades had passed that Katherine's writing became more widely appreciated. Now, almost 100 years later, Katherine is still one of NZ's most internationally famous authors and is credited with creating the modern short story. Her stories are beloved around the world and taught in schools as examples of modernist literature. Fans can visit her birthplace in Thorndon, Wellington, which is maintained by the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society.
Read more about Katherine Mansfield, including:
- The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Wordsworth Classics)
- Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life
- Journal of Katherine Mansfield
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