Katherine Mansfield played an important role in the modernization of short-story technique. Born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, on October 14, 1888, she was the daughter of a successful Wellington businessman, Harold Beauchamp, and his wife, Annie Burnell, a sickly woman who was somewhat detached from her children. With three sisters and one brother, Mansfield was reared without physical want (her father eventually became a director of the Bank of New Zealand) in and around Wellington. She traveled to England in 1903 and spent four years there attending Queen’s College in London, thoroughly enjoying the intellectual stimulation and new friends. It was at this time that she met Ida Baker, the girl who became her lifelong close friend and who appears in various guises in some of Mansfield’s stories. Mansfield returned unwillingly to New Zealand in 1906 and resigned herself to living with parents from whom she felt increasingly alienated. She began to practice writing by experimenting with stories and sketches, and in 1908 she returned to London alone, determined to become a literary artist. She dropped her surname in 1910 and settled on Katherine as her first name.
She immediately plunged into a bohemian lifestyle, found herself pregnant, married a man (not the baby’s father) and left him on the same day, and was sent to Germany by her family to have the baby. She had a miscarriage and, during her half-year there, wrote her first published stories, a series of satirical sketches of German people which already showed themes of female subjection and domination by the male. Returning to England, she met John Middleton Murry, who became her lover and later her husband. From 1912 to 1917 she continued her close relationship with Baker and later became acquainted with the Bloomsbury group of socialites and artists, including Virginia Woolf. Mansfield wanted to be considered as an equal by this group, but they generally looked on her as an interesting provincial type. She worked for several years as an assistant editor of Rhythm, a literary magazine, at the same time that she continued to develop her creative skills.
By 1918 Mansfield had been diagnosed as having tuberculosis. She and Murry married shortly after this disquieting news, but they lived apart for extended periods because of Murry’s inability to give her the strong spiritual and even physical support she needed at this time. As the possibility of death became more real for her, she began to reassess her childhood experiences, which had provided her with themes for many earlier stories. The deaths of first her brother and then her mother helped this process of reassessment and helped her gain a new understanding of her parents, as seen in her long story “Prelude” (1918). The years 1920 to 1922 marked a final brilliant period of activity with the creation of her most famous stories, including “Bliss” and “Marriage a la Mode,” incisive portraits of English and Bloomsbury lifestyles, and “The Garden Party” and “At the Bay,” new treatments of old childhood experiences. “At the Bay,” in particular, is Mansfield’s final coming to terms with death, life, and troubling childhood remembrances. She finally succumbed to her illness in Fontainebleau, France, on January 9, 1923.
Mansfield was vitally concerned with the male-female relationship, which was fraught with danger, as she saw it, for both sexes, but particularly for the female. This view grew out of her youthful uneasiness about relationships between the sexes, as evidenced in her overbearing father and passive mother, who never showed much love for her children. Her later experiences in England, including her marriage with Murry and relations with friends, provided material for her stories and fueled her doubts about possibilities for successful male-female relationships, doubts which help explain the sexual ambivalence seen in many of her female characters, as well as in Mansfield herself. Her crucial childhood experiences also always haunted her and fueled her suppositions about human relationships, such as her expressed idea that to become a mother meant acceptance of a feminine, passive, masochistic identity as well as acceptance of illness and death. Mansfield did apparently recognize, at the end, that her father, while gruff and outspoken, had an underlying desire to be loved, while his extreme drive and ambition were preferable to inertia and decline. She finally saw her mother as recognizing her father’s needs and attempting to cope with them. Finally, Mansfield accepted her own death as part of life and death in the universe, a manifestation of the cycle of nature she had seen played out in the outdoor surroundings in the New Zealand of her youth.
Mansfield demonstrated that problems of social relationships, even problems having to do with sex, could be handled in the short-story form in a very artistic fashion, using symbolism, nonchronological narration, and impressionism instead of straightforward exposition. Although she was sometimes criticized for utilizing a narrow range of subject matter, the advance of her art and technique in her later stories was impressive. Her symbolism, for example, was fairly obvious in the early stories, while in the final stories it was handled so delicately as to almost defy detection. Mansfield’s stories show a willingness and eagerness to analyze human relations, along with an attention to sophisticated art and presentation that rewards close and thoughtful reading.