Histories

A Lion In The Day

How Katherine Mansfield, one of New Zealand's most prolific storytellers, found strength to deal with her chronic pain through her fiction.

I’m a lion all day, darling, but with the last point of daylight I begin to turn into a lamb and by midnight—mon Dieu! by midnight the whole world has turned into a butcher.”

– Katherine Mansfield, in a letter to her husband, 1913.

Katherine Mansfield is considered one of New Zealand’s most famous writers, despite leaving the country in 1908 when she was barely nineteen, and never being able to return.

While the stories that form her legacy as a prominent modernist author are undeniably significant it is Katherine’s life itself that is remains compelling to millions of readers. Both Vanessa Redgrave and Kate Elliott have portrayed her in recent years in movie and television adaptations of her works: first in 1974’s BBC miniseries, A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, and then again in 2011, in the biopic Bliss.

Actress Vanessa Redgrave as Katherine Mansfield.

Actress Vanessa Redgrave as Katherine Mansfield.

Small wonder. Now lauded as a woman ahead of her time, she was an openly bisexual teenager, her activities driving a wedge between the defiant writer and her socially respectable family. Her early years would see her suffer at least one miscarriage, a rushed marriage which ended on the same night it began, excommunication from her mother, and her eventual settlement in Europe, far from home.

In 1909, she contracted gonorrhoea, which Claire Tomalin argues in her biography A Secret Life was responsible for Katherine’s susceptibility to the tuberculosis which eventually killed her. Certainly, the sexually transmitted infection was the catalyst for the many debilitating illnesses she experienced afterwards, including peritonitis, pericarditis, pleurisy, and gonococcal arthritis.

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield by Anne Estelle Rice.

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield by Anne Estelle Rice.

She was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, when she was 27. She would eventually live another six years.  Tomalin’s biography describes her as a “chronic invalid” from 1910 onward, throughout her writing life.

Despite this, her mastery and the volume of her work are renowned, and she was celebrated among her contemporaries. Virginia Woolf, a great friend of Katherine’s, is recorded as having said that hers was the only writing she was ever jealous of. She published three short story collections during her life, as well as creating a legacy of innumerable poems, letters, and notebooks. Sixteen different collections have been released since her death, and three major biographies.

Her letters and journal entries, many of which were published posthumously by her second husband John Middleton Murry, give unique and deeply personal insight into what that life was really like.

As a researcher and a sufferer of arthritis myself, it was this particular affliction that drew me closer to Katherine. Her letters detail her pain, both physical and emotional, but also reveal a relentless spirit and sharp wit. Katherine never stopped believing that she would be cured. But, she confesses to a friend; “I feel about 800, Koteliansky, for I can hardly walk at all—nor turn in my bed without crying out against my bones.”

Under such conditions – the fevers, joint and abdominal pain, inflammation in her hands and rashes from arthritis, and the fatigue, coughing, and loss of appetite and weight caused by tuberculosis, it seems nothing short of a miracle she managed to be so prolific.

I scoured her words for some clue to her strength of character and tenacity.

In strange foreshadowing of my search, she says in a letter in 1922; “’I think the only way to live as a writer is to draw upon one’s real familiar life – to find the treasure in that.…And the curious thing is that if we describe this which seems to us so intensely personal, other people take it to themselves and understand it as if it were their own.”

A rare photograph of Katherine Mansfield during her life.

A rare photograph of Katherine Mansfield during her life.

In October 1922, desperate for relief from her failing body, she moved to Georges Gurdjieff’s “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.” She had decided her health was the result of a sickness in her soul and that the highly questionable Gurdjieff could help to “cleanse” her. His rigorous routines included hard physical labour, denial of heating, and instruction for her to sleep in a loft above a pen of cows. Unsurprisingly, these measures did not improve her condition.

Murry arrived at the Institute in January 1923, and found her in strangely good spirits. In fact, it has been written that these last months were the happiest of her life. Perhaps at least she had found a place to calm her intensely restless nature.

But, following dinner with her husband after his arrival, she bounded up the stairs – and caused the final pulmonary haemorrhage that at last took her life. She was 34 years old.  

Recently, a previously unpublished folder of Katherine’s poems was discovered. While she was never really known as a poet, Mansfield’s work is certainly lyrical, and these works, written when she was 22, show deep promise and bring into sharp focus how much was lost by her untimely death.  

One of the works, unsettlingly entitled “To KM,” as if Katherine were addressing herself, appears an unnerving but strangely soothing prediction of her swift final bow.  

“A moment – a moment … I die.”

“Up and up beat her wings.”