Mansfield, Katherine (Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, Kathleen Mansfield Murry)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Mansfield, Katherine (Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, Kathleen Mansfield Murry)

Mansfield, Katherine (Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, Kathleen Mansfield Murry) (1888-1923) New Zealand diarist, essayist, and short story writer

A modernist fiction writer, Katherine Mansfield produced essays and stories that revealed the unassuming beauty of her homeland, New Zealand, as contrasted with the formality and soullessness of European settings. Born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington, at the southern tip of North Island, she completed Wellington Girls’ High School and Miss Swainson’s School, a private academy for privileged teens, before entering Queens College in London. She read the outback verse of Henry Lawson, Australia’s FRONTIER poet, and concurred with his view of Banjo Paterson’s song “Waltzing Matilda” (1895) as a symbol of the trekker forever on the move in a menacing environment. During a three-week journey into the New Zealand bush with her father in 1907, Mansfield wrote of a contrast between the prissy regularity of English gardens and the splendor and savagery of the island outback, with its falls, rapids, ferny dells, and thermal valley, an opinion expressed in The Urewera Notebook, published posthumously in 1933. In her imagination lived “Visions of long dead Maoris, of forgotten battles and vanished feuds” (Mansfield 1997, 287). In the towns of Rotorua and Taupo, she recognized that immigrants threatened the integrity of Maori lands and the people themselves, whom she mourned for “passing, passing” (Mansfield, 2006 171) amid the moaning of swaying trees in the vignette “In the Botanical Gardens” (1907). In the poem “To the Memory of Stanislaw Wyspianski” (1910), she saluted the sketchy history of New Zealand and proclaimed herself a tainted pioneer, one of a horde of lawless intruders.

After settling in London in 1903, Mansfield felt herself cut off from the homeland she had once dismissed as petty and dull. Freelancing for Athenaeum, Blue Review, Native Companion, New Age, Rhythm, and Signature, she disclosed her sense of displacement and rootlessness by describing characters in transit, at doors or gates, on gangways or boats, or along sidewalks. Her letters and fiction reveal an unease among British citizens who appear judgmental of colonials. In the allegorical vignette “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1912), the welcoming of a white child to a Maori native hamlet transports the title figure to a less structured milieu than that of the British ruling class. Wading in the sea, Pearl's introduction to elemental nature, ends abruptly with an imperialist interpretation of danger. Uniformed police take her back to her parents, who prefer the safe sterility of a white social order (39).

While fighting tuberculosis Mansfield published only three more volumes of her work before her death in France from a pulmonary hemorrhage on January 9, 1923. She endured World War I, her mother's death, and the loss of a younger brother, an Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) soldier, who was killed in a grenade accident. She symbolized the settler's alienation in a dreamscape dominating “Old Tar” (1913). The title character imagines that the building of a large home in territory bought from Maoris will satisfy his longing to possess a part of New Zealand. As his garish residence reaches completion, it takes on the gothic proportions emblematic of imperialism of an alien intrusion on the landscape.

Postwar shifts in attitudes toward the empire left Mansfield feeling estranged from the British ultracolonials, as though she were a refugee. Knowing she was ill, and suffering a difficult relationship with her paramour and then husband, John Middleton Murry, she hurriedly issued fiction collections in the time she had left. In the story “Je ne Parle pas Frangais” (1918), she describes human spirits as “portmanteaux—packed with certain things, started going, thrown about, tossed away, dumped down, lost and found, half emptied suddenly, or squeezed fatter than ever” (122). The demanding image suggests her personal changes of heart as she pursued her career in Europe while maintaining a secret self that longed for the South Pacific.


Mansfield, Katherine. Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006.

----- . The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks. Wellington, N.Z.: Lincoln University Press, 1997.

Smith, Angela. “Landscape and the Foreigner Within: Katherine Mansfield and Emily Carr.” In Landscape and Empire 1770-2000, edited by Glenn Hopper, 141-158. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005.