This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University of Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, oral historian and lesbian and gay activist.
Today I'm going to be looking at Katherine Mansfield, regarded as one of our greatest writers and someone whom we know had very important emotional and probably sexual relationships with women. Should we be thinking about Katherine Mansfield as a lesbian? Do we want to use a noun like that, a label, in relation to her? Should we think of her as a lesbian writer, whatever that might mean, when actually most of the things she writes about aren't to do with same-sex relations between women, unless, of course, we think that there is some kind of sensibility that would be apparent in women, whose primary relationships are with other women, that would affect the ways in which they write about things and give them another kind of sensibility? That's a possibility, and people have tried to look at her writing in that way.
Let's think about her. She's born in 1888 in Wellington. She comes from an upper-class background. Her father was Australian, Harold Beauchamp; her mother, Annie Burnell Dyer; and they later become Sir Harold and Lady Beauchamp, very important people in Wellington, Lady Beauchamp running the social scene here. Her father later becomes a director of the Bank of New Zealand and has other significant social roles.
They lived in several house around Wellington as the fortunes of the family improved, and the children attended, initially, local public schools, but as the family became wealthier they were later sent to private schools.
When Katherine Mansfield - Kathleen Beauchamp as was her original name - was 12 they were transferred from Wellington Girls' High School to Miss Swainson's School, now Samuel Marsden Collegiate School for Girls, and that's where Katherine Mansfield first met Maata Mahupuku, probably her first lover - certainly a very intense and close relationship between the two of them.
The Beauchamps, like other wealthy New Zealanders, wanted to see their children's education completed abroad, and in January of 1903 the family sailed for London where the three older girls were enrolled at Queen's College in London, and their maternal aunt, Belle Dyer, remained there as chaperone. It was at this school that Katherine Mansfield met Ida Constance Baker whom she later called Lesley Moore, or LM.
During her time at the school she was exposed to a number of different ideas. She became familiar with the work of Oscar Wilde. Of course the Oscar Wilde trial had happened not that long before then. She becomes more worldly. She makes a trip to Belgium where she encounters some interesting people there, and then she returns to New Zealand in 1906.
She becomes involved, in Wellington, with Edith Kathleen Bendall who she refers to as EKB, and that relationship was very important to her. She appears to be having very intense friendships with EKB and with Maata, who also returns to Wellington, and she appears to be having relationships with the two of them at that time here in Wellington.
Now, Maata is Maata Mahupuku, she's from Wanganui, she's also known as Martha Grace and sometimes as Princess Martha. She was the daughter of Kahungunu chief Dick Mahupuku and Emily Sexton, who married Nathaniel Grace after Mahupuku's death.
Pat Lawlor, in his early biography, says that Katherine and Maata's early relationship was of some concern to their teachers, and that Sir Harold and Lady Beauchamp did not favor the friendship. And this might be because they were aware of its intensity and disapproved of that, or it may be because of the fact that Maata was Maori and there may have been some racism involved in their concerns about this.
They had met up in London before Katherine returned to New Zealand, because Maata had been at finishing school in Paris, and she was accompanied by her own chaperone, Miss Turton. It was during this time that Katherine allowed Maata to purchase clothing and leave the bill for Harold Beauchamp to settle, so there may have been some problems around that.
In her journal Katherine refers to Maata as Carlotta, and she writes, "O, Carlotta - have you remembered? We were floating down Regent Street in a hansom - on either side of us the blossoms of golden light - and ahead a little half hoop of a moon."
Then in June, 1907, in her journal she writes, "I want Maata - I want her as I have had her - terribly. This is unclean I know but true. What an extraordinary thing - I feel savagely crude - and almost powerfully enamored of the child. I had thought that a thing of the past - Heigh Ho! My mind is like a Russian novel."
And around about that same time, Maata wrote in her own diary, which she then gave to Katherine, "Dearest K writes ducky letters. I like this bit, 'What do you mean by being so superlatively beautiful as you went away? You witch! You are beauty incarnate.'"
Pat Lawlor interviewed Maata and reported that she revealed unpublished incidents in Katherine's life, saying that Katherine had left New Zealand because of a flirtation in 1908, and saying that Sir Harold had locked his daughter in her room as a punishment, and to console her Maata had climbed up to her room. Maata revealed other sensational aspects of her alleged knowledge of Katherine Mansfield which Lawlor said he did not wish to publish.
So, there are clearly all kinds of clues and rumors and incidents that are of interest in relation to this. One of the most interesting is a story that Katherine Mansfield writes, and she writes it placing a protagonist in The Thistle Inn. In the story she writes, "I can never forget the Thistle Hotel. I can never forget that strange winter night."
".... My room was opposite hers. She said - could I lace up her evening bodice, it was hooks at the back. Very well."
The story ends, "She told me as we walked along the corridor to her room that she was glad the night had come. I did not ask why. I was glad, too. It seemed a secret between us. So I went with her into her room to undo those troublesome hooks.... Like a sleepy child she slipped out of her frock and then, suddenly, she turned to me and flung her arms around my neck.... And Youth was not dead."
This story was called "Leves Amores," and it was eventually published from a copy that Katherine Mansfield had sent her school friend Vere Bartrick-Baker, whom she referred to as Mimi.
In January, 1922, Katherine wrote, and this was about a year before her death in 1923, that she'd "received a frightening letter from Mimi, which brought back the inexplicable past. It flashed into my mind, too, that she must have a large number of letters of mine, which don't bear thinking about. In some way I fear her." This suggests that Katherine had sent Mimi similar stories or letters, regarding her as a safe confidante.
Mimi was the girl who had introduced Katherine to the 1891 unexpurgated version of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" at school. And it was at school, according to biographer Claire Tomalin that the two, that's Mimi and Katherine, were suspected of immorality of a kind unspecified.
Now, it appears that her parents may have read this story. Certainly Katherine gave the story to her father's typist to type, and it may be this that's the reason that there's an incident which does result in the fact that they are prepared to allow her, in 1908, to return to London unchaperoned. Now, this is a young woman where they felt that her sisters and her constantly needed chaperones on the voyage; suddenly they're prepared to allow her to go off to England on her own and have a remittance - to have some money that she's going to regularly receive in order to live there. In a sense, she's a remittance woman in the opposite direction, and a possible explanation of this is that there's a scandal going on, that they don't want her in Wellington, it's going to affect the family's reputation, and that they are concerned.
It's likely that they're more concerned about her relationship with Maata, and there is evidence that Maata, during an engagement party for Katherine's sister, came to Wellington and she attended it. It's very unlikely that she would have stayed with the family at Fitzherbert Terrace; it's much more likely that she would have stayed at The Thistle Inn up the road, so this story was actually about Maata at The Thistle Inn, and that the parents did end up reading it.
Even Antony Alpers talked about this and says that there was an episode that happened, and he wonders whether a story that was being put about, which was about a dance with a sailor at a ball, and he wonders whether there was an adventure, actually with a man, or with Maata and whether the Beauchamps were concerned about Katherine's chastity or whether they had the word pervert in mind.
Now, Katherine also had a relationship with Edith Kathleen Bendall, and she writes about this fairly frankly in her journal. In June, 1907, she writes about an episode with Edith Kathleen Bendall at the Beauchamps holiday cottage in Day's Bay, that's the cottage that's the subject of the story "At the Bay," but that's not what she's writing about in her journal. She writes, "I feel more powerfully all those so-termed sexual impulses with her than I have with any men. I feel that to lie with my head on her breast is to feel what life can hold. Pillowed against her, clinging to her hands, her face against mine, I am a child, a woman and more than half man. We lay down together still silently. She, every now and then pressing me to her, kissing me, my head on her breasts, her hands around my body stroking me lovingly - what an experience! And when we returned to town small wonder that I could not sleep but tossed to-and-fro and yearned and realized a thousand things which had been obscure. O, Oscar! Am I peculiarly susceptible to sexual impulse? I must be, I suppose, but I rejoice now each time I see her. I want her to put her arms around me and hold me against her. I think she wants to, too, but she is afraid and custom hedges her in, I feel. We shall go away again."
Then she writes in between February and May, 1908, "I shall end, of course, by killing myself. I purchase my brilliance with my life. It were better that I were dead already, but I am unlike others because I have experienced all there is to experience. But there is no one to help me. Of course, Oscar, "Dorian Gray" has brought this to pass. I am now so much worse than ever. Madness must lie this way. Pull yourself up!"
It's clear that Katherine was familiar with the work not only of Oscar Wilde but of John Addington Symonds, Edward Carpenter and Walt Whitcombe. She read books at the General Assembly Library, arranged through her father's connections, and she mentions Edward Carpenter, who wrote "The Intermediate Sex," in a letter, and she also writes, "I find a resemblance in myself to John Addington Symonds." So, it appears that she actually has quite a bit of information and that her information is that homosexuality is degenerate, it's a perversion, and she starts to become very frightened about all of this, and especially if she is sent away from Wellington then that clearly is going to be very traumatic for her.
Now, both Maata and EKB remain in New Zealand and she corresponds with them for some years. And Katherine Mansfield writes several stories inspired by these women, and traces and clues can be seen in relation to that.
Meanwhile, although she's having these intense relationships with these two women, she continues her friendship with Ida Baker, and when she returns to London that's the person with whom she resumes a friendship and a relationship, and that's the relationship which endures for the rest of her life until her death in 1923. So that's actually the most important relationship of her life - certainly the most consistent. When she returns to London she's met by Ida Baker. She stays with her family before she moves to a hostel.
And then she becomes involved with the New Zealand musician Garnet Trowell and moves in with his family as a paying guest, and she appears to have been trying to create a relationship with him. She writes to Trowell that she felt as though, "Nature said to me, 'Now you've found your true self. Now that you are at peace with the world, accepting instead of doubting, now that you love, you can see.'"
Another lodger at the hostel has described Trowell as slender, dreamy and cultured, and Alpers commented that he was not markedly masculine. Her interest in the Trowell's, they were twins, had begun in New Zealand. She had written in her journal that Arnold Trowell "must always be everything to me because he poured into my virgin soul the life essence of music, and here is the kernel of the whole matter - the Oscar-like thread." So, clearly she is dwelling on her emerging sexuality. She is concerned about this and the circumstances, and she's particularly concerned because before they'd returned to New Zealand she'd visited the Trowells in Brussels where she'd met their homosexual friend, Rudolph, and shortly afterwards Rudolph had shot himself. Antony Alpers comments, "The circumstances which belong to the world of Oscar Wilde, and the love that dare not spread its name, were very disturbing to Katherine Mansfield. Did that sort of thing lead to suicide?"
And perhaps the Trowells and Rudolf were involved in homosexual relationships at that time - the Oscar-like thread - or just as significantly, perhaps Katherine Mansfield believed that they were. She wanted to marry Garnet Trowell but his parents intervened and the relationship ended. Suddenly, in March, 1909, she married George Bowden, a singing teacher she'd met only a fortnight before. Bowden, age 31, lived with a male friend, Lamont Chand [?][00:16:14]. Again, perhaps they were homosexual, or perhaps Katherine Mansfield believed they were.
She was constantly, in her journals and in her letters, seeking "my people;" perhaps a reference to homosexuality as well as to like-mindedness. Claire Tomalin suggests that she married Bowden because she was pregnant to Arnold. Even if this were the case she may still have preferred to marry a man that she thought might have an inclination toward his own sex.
Bowden, in his own recollections, recalled that when they first met she looked like Oscar Wilde, so perhaps she was attempting to signal her sexuality through dress. For their wedding she dressed in black as if for a funeral, and afterwards they went to a hotel where Katherine Mansfield immediately left him and fled back to Ida Baker.
She returned to the hostel and Ida Baker found her a flat. And then her mother, because of these incidents, comes to London, there's a good deal of trouble and she takes her to Germany to the Bavarian spa, Bad Wörishofen, and that is the place where Dr Kneipp has the water treatment, and the water treatment was thought very useful for nervous and mental problems, and it was frequently used for sexual problems. So, it may well be the case that Lady Beauchamp thinks that Katherine has a sexual problem because of her interest in women. This has upset the marriage, certainly she's not pleased with her, and she sails back to New Zealand and she cuts Katherine out of her will, and that's pretty drastic.
News of the scandal reaches Wellington, and Vera Beauchamp, the sister, her fiancé was warned against marrying the sister of somebody like Katherine Mansfield. So, contemporary theories of biological determinism might have encouraged the belief that there was some kind of inherited perversion in the family.
Katherine stayed in Germany until the end of 1909, possibly miscarried her pregnancy, and she possibly had an affair with Floryan Sobienowski who infected her with gonorrhea, subsequently making her vulnerable to the tuberculosis infection from which she died. She may have thought that having a number of heterosexual affairs might cure her interest in women. Perhaps she's bisexual, as some biographers have written about her. Perhaps she's just very interested in sexual experimentation. It's difficult to know, however she's clearly not very happy, and clearly she finds all of this a great worry and disturbance.
When she returns to London she performs at the Cave of the Golden Calf, which is a nightclub patronized by lesbians and run by Frida Strindberg, an acknowledged lesbian and the former wife of Swedish playwright August Strindberg. She's also familiar with the Bloomsbury circle and Lady Ottoline Morrell's group at Garsington, though she feels ambivalent about Bloomsbury, or Bloomsbuggery as she calls it, where discussions on the loves of buggers, sodomy and sapphism were common.
She became close to Virginia Woolf from 1916, their connection probably expressed in this passage, "Again there came that silence that was a question, but this time she did not hesitate. She moved forward very softly and gently. She put her arm around her friend - a long, tender embrace. Yes, that was it, of course. That was what was wanting." So there are many other kinds of passages where she writes about those kinds of things.
She becomes involved with John Middleton Murry in 1911, and he became a lodger in her flat, and after some weeks her lover. They married in 1918 after her divorce from Bowden. She writes in her 1919 journal that, "I had been the man and he had been the woman. We'd always acted more or less like men friends. Then this illness getting worse and worse and turning me into a woman."
Others also perceived them as men-friends. One Bandol Frenchman recalled, "Monsieur with his cigarette and his stick, and Madame with her cigarette and her stick, it was impossible to tell which was which they were so alike." So, that's the relationship she had with him. It's quite an intense relationship, but largely carried on through letters, and difficult at this stage to know how physical that relationship might have been. She becomes very ill from 1918. It's unlikely that she had any kind of physical relationship much with anybody after that.
Ida Baker, later known as LM, in her memoirs she puts in a poem that Katherine Mansfield had written to her called "The Secret":
In the profoundest ocean
There is a rainbow shell.
It is always there, shining most stilly
Under the great storm waves
And under the happy little waves
That the old Greeks called "ripples of laughter."
And you listen, the rainbow shell
Sings - in the profoundest ocean.
It is always there, singing most silently!
And this might suggest the existence of a secret Katherine Mansfield self, special to Ida Baker and to LM, which cannot be destroyed even by storm waves.
She writes earlier in her journal, "I think quite seriously that LM and I are so extraordinarily interesting. It is not while the thing is happening that I think that, but the significance is near enough. Have I ruined her happy life? Am I to blame?"
And she writes in one of her last letters to Lesley Moore, "I had better end this quickly for the old feeling is coming back, an ache, a longing, a feeling that I can't be satisfied unless I know you are near - not on my account, not because I need you, but because in my horrid, odious, intolerable way I love you and am yours ever."
And she ends her life by going to Fontainebleau. She becomes interested in the teachings of Gurdjieff, which is interesting in itself because a year later a number of American lesbians also go there. So, that's an interesting, esoteric kind of religion, and it's unclear whether she just goes there because she feels it will help cure her tuberculosis or whether she wants some other kind of more spiritual, psychological change, but an entry that she writes in her journal is interesting. She writes in October, 1922, "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." And it may be that she was hoping to begin anew and to find a way in which to live her life. Unfortunately her health completely declines and she died.
So, we don't know from this stage what her life would have been like had she lived longer. We don't know how important the relationships that she had with women were, but I think we can say that she's certainly deeply conflicted about them. They were important to her, and in those ways it's very interesting to think about how same-sexuality has been such an important part of the lives of many creative women in New Zealand.
Transcript by cyberscrivener.com