Mansfield stories almost untold

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

She's now known as Wellington's most famous daughter, but when writer Katherine Mansfield died 91 years ago, there was little appreciation of her place in New Zealand letters.

Mansfield succumbed to tuberculosis at Fontainebleau, outside Paris, on January 9, 1923, aged 34.

Although known as a fine writer, and a Wellingtonian, she had yet to achieve the pre-eminent place she now occupies in New Zealand cultural history.

The Evening Post published an appreciation of her work a few days afterwards, noting she was from Wellington and a well-regarded writer, but hardly giving her the kind of splash she might get today.

"She was really at the beginning of a most successful literary career and her work was conspicuous for its quality," the paper noted. "There was nothing of the 'best-seller' about it, although it is understood it was successful too from that point of view."

The paper was, however, rather beholden to English critics for assessments of her work. It quoted extensively from reviews in The Times and other British papers.

Some of their comments could easily be seen as sexist today. The Times said she couldn't understand masculine things and how men thought because she was a woman, but she "preferred not to belittle what she does not fully understand".

Mansfield had the gift to "show us everything as we would naturally see it if only our eyes were a little stronger . . . This takes us a long way, particularly with women, for their life is chiefly the life of personal relations".

In her active writing years, Mansfield was occasionally mentioned or reviewed by the Post, but she was much better known and regarded in Britain.

At the time, perhaps, there was little appreciation of "New Zealand literature" - she was seen as a figure of English writing, who happened to come from New Zealand.

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However, on July 28, the Post published a full review of her last collection, The Doves' Nest, including extracts from her journals. Mansfield had written, shortly before she died, that she wanted to write books in the future, "but different books".

"What those 'different books' would have been we shall never know," the Post wrote. "This is perhaps the last set of stories from the pen of the brilliant young writer that the public will ever have the privilege of reading."

Exactly how much of Mansfield's unpublished work might be around was not clear at the time.

In March, the paper had published a notice on her will. "The authoress left £164 . . . she requested her husband [John Middleton Murry] to publish as little and burn as much as possible from her papers."

Her instructions did not stop Murry publishing two editions of her journals and her letters.

Four new unpublished manuscripts were found in London in 2012.

 - The Dominion Post


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