The Fictional Mansfield

So, Thursday afternoon and Neil and I are on a train to Cambridge. This weekend there’s an international conference, at the university, on Katherine Mansfield and her contemporaries. It seems a good place to promote the new biography, which is why I’ve agreed to give a short lecture about KM.. This is also rather scary, since I’m a writer, not an academic and we have very different approaches to the same material. At the moment I feel rather like a goat who is about to wander nonchalantly into a pride of lions, hoping they won’t notice I’m a different species!

I’ve decided to talk about the different authors who’ve used Katherine Mansfield as a fictional character - there are at least 16 novels about her, which seems something of a record for any author - unless someone out there can tell me otherwise. Two of her lovers wrote her into novels, using actual letters and diary entries, then her husband John Middleton Murry wrote 3 novels with KM as the central female character; then D.H. Lawrence cast her as Gudrun in Women in Love and Christopher Isherwood used her as Elizabeth in The World in the Evening.

Since 1940 there has been a further trickle of novels - American novelist Nelia White’s Daughter of Time, C.K. Stead’s Mansfield, Janice Kulyck Keefer’s Thieves, Linda Lappin’s Katherine’s Wish and Joanna Kirkpatrick’s In Pursuit.

Why this fascination? That’s what I’ve been trying to explore. What makes fiction writers choose one character rather than another? Isherwood said that KM’s life conformed to the ancient pattern of narrative tradition - paradise lost, paradise regained. But I also wonder whether it was KM’s enigmatic personality, her fascination with masks, and multiple identities, that intrigued all those authors who set out to explore who she was.

I’m looking forward to staying in Cambridge, which is such a beautiful city - the train is on time, the sun is shining and there are lambs frisking in the fields beside the railway line.


  1. Best of luck with the lions Kathleen. I hope I am not impertinent to say I know how you feel, as I am an autodidact in all things classical yet have the temerity to 'translate' pseudo-Seneca.
    I wonder if the enigma of KM invites novelists to write an idea of who she might be, rather like my obsession with writing about Seneca in an attempt to explain his life and shed light on mine?

    ps sorry about the duplicate follower - I am having trouble with my 'dashboard'

  2. The thing to remember about academics is they are all bark and no bite.
    Have a good time.
    I've never been to Cambridge, I must rectify that the next time I make may way "Uptop"

  3. Thanks you two! (or three if I count the duplicate). Yes, i agree Al - the academics i've just met are really nice - no bark at all and certainly no bite! And you must go to Cambridge, it's utterly beautiful. All that history is seductive.


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