The 90th Anniversary of Katherine Mansfield's Death
|Katherine's last photograph|
She died at Fontainebleau, in Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, haemorrhaging to death in front of her husband on the very day he had come from London to visit her.
Katherine had known she was going to die, though she preferred to ignore it and just get on with life. Her struggle to come to terms with the death sentence that was advanced TB sometimes makes harrowing reading, but her courage is humbling. Three months before she died, as she made her decision to go to Gurdjieff, she wrote in her diary:
'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.'
I don't think for a moment that she believed that Gurdjieff could cure her with his spartan regime and musical exercises. I think she went to find a safe haven, something a little like a hospice, away from the people she loved, whose grief had become a burden. It was probably, she wrote in a letter 'the soul's desperate choice'.
In Katherine's notebook she writes of what she wants. Not death and darkness and the paraphernalia of sickness; but to feel that she is walking towards life and light. She wants 'the power to live a full, adult, living breathing life in close contact with what I love - the earth and the wonders thereof, the sea, the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world . . . I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be - (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it's no good - there's only one phrase that will do) - a child of the sun.'
Strange things happen after the death of an author. They either sink gracefully from view, or their work develops a life of its own, marching forward into a future they could never have imagined, read by people in bizarrely different circumstances, finding meanings they never consciously intended. In Katherine Mansfield’s case, her husband, the editor and critic John Middleton Murry, was so full of guilt at the way he’d treated her when she was alive, he made it his life’s work to preserve and publish everything she’d ever written. His obsession with her ruined the lives of his subsequent wives and created a poisonous legacy for his children and grandchildren. His second wife was so desperate for his attention that she turned herself into a replica of Katherine Mansfield in order to please him. Murry really believed that their daughter was in some way ‘Katherine’s daughter’ and that’s what he insisted she be called. The damage percolated through three generations. But Murry’s obsession did mean that Katherine’s work was preserved for the future and her genius, both as a writer of fiction and a memoirist, were recognised.
|John Middleton Murry at work|
This was a woman who made the most of her short life, even as she trailed like a gypsy from health resort to health resort, frantic to find a cure. Katherine was a very remarkable woman as well as a brilliant writer and her early death was a tragic loss, not only for her friends and family, but for literature.
Within the last couple of weeks Neil and I have published an e-edition of my biography (originally published by Penguin NZ and Edinburgh University Press in UK). I’ve updated the biography to include new information that has come to light in the last few weeks (exciting new discoveries!) and included lots more photographs from my own archives. It's very reasonably priced at £5.10, so even the most impoverished Mansfield fan can now afford it!
Available on Amazon.co.uk
and on Kobo