Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life | Claire Tomalin

Katherine Mansfield was born a century ago and died in 1923, but there is still something tantalizing about the ‘faint ghost with the steady eyes, the mocking lips and, at the end, the wreath set on her hair.’*

*quote from The Diary of Virginia Woolf: 1925-30 (1980)

I read, but did not particularly enjoy Claire Tomalin’s biography about Thomas Hardy: The Time-Worn Man a number of years ago. The fault was not Tomalin’s though, it was Hardy himself. I found him to be a rather disagreeable man and Tomalin was unable to convince me otherwise. Maybe it’s something to do with being a creative genius, but many literary biographies depict their subjects as being rather unpleasant people – often selfish, arrogant, demanding and false – they often treat those who love them poorly. The flip side being their charming, entertaining, passionate side that draws people to them. In Hardy’s case, I could find little of this side to make up for the other. I suspect Tomalin had the same problem.

In Katherine Mansfield’s case, she presents her honestly, warts and all. The warts are pretty warty, but the all is delightfully wonderful. When Katherine Mansfield sparkled she truly sparkled, even her many flaws glittered bright. She was hard to ignore or forget. She got under people’s skin and crept into their hearts. She annoyed them and angered them, but they always came back for more. Others loathed her with an equal passion, but came to admire her work, or at least her dedication to writing and modernism and experiencing life on her terms.

Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life has been languishing on my TBR for many years, but 2023 marks one hundred years since she died of tuberculosis at age 34. To commemorate this event another Clare (Harman) published All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the Art of Risking Everything which I began reading a couple of months ago. Her approach is to reveal biographical details via ten of KM’s short stories. I’m really enjoying it, but the difficulty with this approach means that the biographical information comes out in a non-chronological fashion. It wasn’t necessarily a problem until I was about halfway through. I was getting a little confused and felt like I needed a detailed chronological overview to appreciate this approach all the more.

So I picked up Tomalin’s book to fill in the gaps.

I’m so glad I did. She writes such engaging, interesting biographies. She gives you plenty of detail, such as quotes from letters and early stories without overwhelming you with every single thing KM ever wrote from age eight (I’m looking at you Heather Clark, author of Sylvia Plath’s bio, Red Comet)! I also trust the interpretations that Tomalin draws – they come from her deep research as well as her personal awareness of issues that women face who try to break into areas traditionally dominated by men.

I was fascinated to learn that Tomalin had started researching a biography about Mansfield in the mid 1970s, but put it aside after Jeffrey Meyers publilshed his biography on KM in 1978, then Antony Alpers with another one in 1980 that revised his earlier work from 1953.

It took her a number of years to feel that she might be able to bring something new to KM’s story, “a different perspective“. She admired Alpers approach but felt he was “inclined to accept (J. M. Murry’s) version of those events in which he was involved.” Meyers she found more cynical with his focus on Mansfield’s darker side without “fully exploring the nature of this darkness.”

Tomalin’s aim, then, was to explore KM’s medical history more carefully to reinterpret “certain key questions in her life” as well as the blackmail episode in 1920. She also felt that KM’s friendship with D. H. Lawrence had been “underplayed“. Furthermore Tomalin had access to the OUP Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield Vol I & II and the Cambridge University Press Letters of D. H. Lawrence Vols I, II, II & IV which were not available to Alpers or Meyers. She concluded her Foreword with,

Hers was a painful life, and it has been a painful task to write about it; but I am glad to have done it, and to have had the chance to salute a character in whom recklessness and scrupulousness combined in so extraordinary a fashion.

I hope this shows you why I instantly felt in very safe hands. I was confident I was about to read a thorough, sympathetic and thoughtful exploration of KM’s life. And that is exactly what I got.

The book contains an extensive notes section as well as a comprehensive bibliography. The appendix includes KM’s very first short story, ‘Leves Amore‘ plus the 1951 correspondence from The Times Literary Supplement discussing the issue of plagarism or adaptation of Chekhov’s story, Spat khochetsia, by KM into The Child Who Was Tired.

Tomalin believes that this was a “minor and forgivable action: she had not copied the story so much as used it.” Naturally there is a fine line between “mimicry and plagarism“. Tomalin sensitively discussed how this tension affected KM – her fear of being “caught at any sort of disadvantage, exposed to mockery, vulnerable to gossip” – and her concern about what Murry would think of her. “The fear of exposure must have nagged and tormented her like a sharp pebble in her shoe.

One can never know for sure, of course. KM’s actions and reactions towards this story and to the blackmail attempt suggest a guilty conscience (you can read both stories by clicking on the links above) or at least embarrassment. Tomalin’s timeline of events suggest a mix of youthful carelessness and creative homage that got away from her. Once she made the error of judgement to publish the story without proper acknowledgement KM was caught in a web of her own design. Every time she tried to wriggle away from it, she found herself even more entangled. A messy, uncomfortable quandary that couldn’t be wished away or ignored, no matter how hard she tried.

This post is now long enough. There will be lots of overlap with Clare Harman’s book. So I will leave us with Tomalin’s opinion on why Mansfield’s stories still resonate one hundred years later.

Her voice was the voice of modernity, bright, short-winded, sometimes whimsical, often ambiguous, with no claim to wisdom and no time for the scene-setting of the classical novelists. Her territory was that of the fragile emotions, half-understood feelings, the fine edge between the ridiculous and the pathetic; she could render the vulnerability of the young, the sad stirrings of the sick, the jealous, the powerless, those who make animals or inanimate objects the focus of their feelings.

Title: Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life
Author: Claire Tomalin
ISBN: 9780241963302
Imprint: Penguin
Published: 21 June 2012 (originally published 29 October 1987)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 292
Dates Read: 10 March 2023 - 30 April 2023
Origin: TBR
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

23 thoughts on “Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life | Claire Tomalin

    1. I like Tomlin’s writing style and she filled in a number of blanks for me (that were affecting my ability to thoroughly enjoy the Harman bio), but I would be keen to read what Jones unearthed /reinterpreted during the 30 yrs between their bio’s.


      1. Yesterday I picked up my library reserve of Claire Harman’s book. I think I’ve read all the stories she ‘takes a fresh look at’ but I’ll start with The Garden Party because that’s the one I love best and see how I go.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I read some of Mansfield’s stories a good half-century ago and liked what little I saw, so your piece is an excellent reminder to pick up the short story collection I acquired recently in this, her centenary year. I may have mentioned before that I came to her via a vague interest in the Russian guru Gurdjieff, whose spell she came under not that long before she died, but soon became more impressed with her writings.


    1. I’m not sure that Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man did much to help Mansfield. Some say she knew she was dying and that his methods stimulated her intellectually during her final days, but it’s hard to see how the hard labour, spartan conditions and Gurdjieff’s cruel rages helped her physically or emotionally at this time. Unless his system (as it had progressed or devolved into by the time he got to France) confirmed her lifelong belief that she was an unloved outsider.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. I had never heard of him before. I’m always fascinated to hear how others have come across these long lost players in history – our reading certainly takes us to some weird and wonderful places!!

            Liked by 1 person

            1. In the late 60s I was lent The Dawn of Magic (1960) by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier – later published as The Morning of the Magicians – which is where I first came across Gurdjieff, amongst a lot of other tosh. A stupendous book of mystical speculation, it was a precursor of other nonsensical unscientific factoid books like Chariots of the Gods? though marginally better written, mixing together mysterious books, historical characters, artefacts, structures and making unjustifiable claims about their supposed qualities, connections and powers. Heady stuff for a teenager but no less dangerous than other conspiracy theories doing the rounds!


  2. I haven’t read a lot of Mansfield, or of Tomalin – just her Jane Austen. I like though the idea of knowing a writer well enough to enjoy the intersections of their life and her writing. I wonder how many I know that way, Miles Franklin of course; Eve Langley; to a lesser extent Patrick White (it’s a long time since I read David Marr).
    I ran into the Mansfield Murray relationship somewhere and got the idea he was a shit who treated her as a skivvy.


    1. Yes, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Murry. KM would not have been an easy person to live with and she had her flaws, but the whole time I thought of him as a prat (when I wasn’t using stronger words)!

      KM is certainly moving into that league of authors I know well, although JA has had a 40 year start on her. Now that I’ve finished The Battlers, I’m keen to know more about Kylie Tennant. Have you come across a good bio about her?


  3. I think I have the Grant … but it’s in a TBR box! I’ve been meaning to read it.

    I need to read more about Mansfield. Does Tomalim touch on her relationship with Elizabeth Von Arnim at all. My sense is that Mansfield appreciated her to a degree but didn’t like her much.


  4. I like Claire Tomalin after reading her bio on Charles Dickens. I visited Hardy’s place in Dorchester, a few years ago, and bought another bio of him: Thomas Hardy: Behind the Mask by Andrew Norman. I only discovered later that Tomalin had written a bio.
    Katherine Mansfield is a fascinating character, and I have only read an historical fiction of her life by Linda Lappin. I did like that one very much, but it is also interesting to read a real biography as well. Sounds like you had two books to complement each other. That gives another perspective on the story.
    Great post, and I would definitely like to read this bio.


    1. I have really enjoyed diving into KM’s life with two very different biographies. I hope to write up more about the other one soon. I can recommend both, although Lisa also recommended the 2010 bio by Kathleen Jones, Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller.


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