Katherine Mansfield wearing an Arabian shawl, Rottingdean, Sussex. From the Ida Baker collection of photographs of Katherine Mansfield. Ref: 1/4-059878-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Jane Stafford: Katherine Mansfield, born Kathleen Beauchamp in Wellington in 1888, died 100 years ago in Avon, a small suburban town on the outskirts of Paris. She had had tuberculosis probably since 1918, and her final years had been spent as an itinerant invalid in various European hotels and pensions, seeking sunshine, trialling quack cures, concealing her illness from suspicious proprietors – and writing. Some of her most famous stories date from this final period – from the gentle satire of “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”, to the inexorable horror of “The Fly” to the mining of memory of her New Zealand childhood. But not sentimentally. In “Her First Ball” an awkward teenager at a dance with her more sophisticated cousins longs to be back home on the verandah “listening to the baby owls crying ‘More pork’.”  In “The Doll’s House”, mean Karori schoolgirls ape the inclusions and exclusions of their parents. Her “At the Bay” is an act of literary resuscitation on her extended family, their beach community, her own childhood and that of her dead brother. “It is so strange to bring the dead to life again” writes the dying author to a friend. “All is remembered.”

In July, the combined forces of the Te Herenga Waka Victoria University English Literatures and Creative Communication Programme, the Stout Research, the International Institute of Modern Letters, and the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society/Katherine Mansfield House & Garden are holding a conference to mark the centenary of Mansfield’s death and it is squarely focused on these final years.

Entitled Last Things and Legacies, we invite papers and audiences for papers that concentrate on that final flurry of productivity, and the circumstances that surrounded it – personal, medical,  economic, cultural, historical, associative. And we look at Mansfield’s ‘legacies’. This can be done literally: she left a slightly ambiguous will suggesting her husband John Middleton Murry destroy everything he didn’t use. So he used (and monetised) absolutely every last scrap, censoring only the notebook entries that criticised his dilatory  behaviour, and constructing for posterity his own version of her – ethereal, sentimentalised, spiritual, far from the spikey, funny, forensically intelligent reality .

But there are also the metaphorical legacies – in literary scholarship and in creative production. Mansfield had an edgy relation with the literary snobs of Bloomsbury, a combustible friendship with DH Lawrence, and was initially viewed condescendingly by literary critics (gender, sexuality, colonial origins, the inferiority of the short story form, being published in ‘mags’, being an all-round outsider, etc.). That has changed and her status as a significant figure in the modernist movement is now secure. And her modernism is seen as being refracted, reinforced and refashioned through other lenses: feminism, gay writing, the literature of empire, of expatriation, of illness.

Academic treatment of Mansfield as a New Zealand writer has moved from sentimental biographical readings – in fact, she once had a dream that she was back in NZ without a return ticket and woke horrified. Instead critics pay attention to context of the invented, uneasy and highly materialist world of late colonial New Zealand, and the relationship of her work to other colonial authors, from Rudyard Kipling to Henry Lawson. Postcolonial critics examine the notebook she kept during a camping trip through Te Urewera; gay critics the relationship, at school and after, with Maata Mahupuku (“I want Maata. I want her as I have had her—terribly”); studies of print culture her canny negotiations with the commercial world of publishing.

Our conference also has a creative writing component. This is reflective of the way in which present-day creative writing – and the arts in general —  engages with and is energised by Mansfield’s legacy. The essayist and poet Nina Mingya Powles’ poem, “If Katherine Mansfield were my best friend”, begins: “She would teach me how to apply winged eyeliner/ in a moving vehicle”. Of course she would. And then make fun of you behind your back.

The Mansfield persona invites artistic intimacy albeit of a rather scary kind, as Sarah Laing’s graphic novel Mansfield and Me demonstrates, by mashing together events from KM’s life and that of the author. Mansfield initially trained as a musician, so fittingly in Charlotte Yates’ album Mansfield, 12 artists set Mansfield poems to music. Janet Jennings has composed a new song cycle using Mansfield poems. The new Royal New Zealand Ballet’s “biographical dance work” Woman of Words (i.e., KM) premiers in late March at the Wānaka Festival of Colour.

To call this activity an industry reflects its breadth and energy but  also suggests a wee bit of programmatic diligence. Not a Mansfield thing. “I am no critic of the homely kind” she wrote. But if it is an industry, it is in full and extremely various production.


Harry Ricketts:

He was

He was the user of a number of aliases

– Stephen Swift, Charles Granville,

Henry Charos James – perhaps others.

He was a writer of lyric poems (of their time).

He was arrested and brought back from Tangiers.

He was tried at the Old Bailey in 1912

for serial bigamy and fraudulently obtaining funds.

He was found guilty on both counts; none of his ‘wives’

held it against him. He was obviously a charmer.

He was the publisher of In a German Pension,

Katherine Mansfield’s first collection of stories:

around 500 copies, green cloth gilt, collector’s item.

He was great-great uncle, Charles Hosken.

The conference Katherine Mansfield: Last Things and Legacies will be held at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University on July 7-9.

Jane Stafford is professor in the English Programme of Victoria University. She is the co-author of Maoriland: NZ Literature, 1872-1918 and the author of Colonial Literature and the Native Author: Indigeneity...

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