Katherine Mansfield: 'I want to be a child of the sun'

In February 1922, Katherine Mansfield wrote in her notebook 'Short stories seem unreal and not worth doing.  I don't want to write;  I want to Live.'   This was a quiet moment of despair for someone who had once written, 'I am a writer first and a woman after'.  Katherine was aware of the rapid advance of her tuberculosis, which had invaded every part of her body, and was almost always in pain.  She had less than a year to live.
An emaciated Katherine Mansfield - one of the last photos
The knowledge of her imminent death pervades everything she wrote in the last years of her life.  It includes some of her most profound and celebrated stories.  At The Bay contains a passage where the young Kezia is on the beach with her grandmother.

'Does everybody have to die?'  asked Kezia.
'Me?'  Kezia sounded fearfully incredulous.
'Some day, my darling.'
'But, Grandma,' Kezia waved her left leg and waggled the toes. They felt sandy.  'What if I just won't?'
The old woman sighed again and drew a long thread from the ball.  'We're not asked, Kezia,' she said sadly.   'It happens to all of us sooner of later.'

 Her journals and letters during those last two years contain some of her best writing and there are some heartbreaking passages.  Katherine was young and gifted, and she wanted to live a full and vibrant life.  Instead she had to spend most of her time in bed and cope with the knowledge that her husband was having a rather clumsy affair with her best friend.  She wrote in her notebook about her own hopes - not death and darkness and the paraphernalia of sickness:  she wants to feel that she is walking toward life and light.  While she knew perfectly well that she was dying, she could still write of her hopes and dreams - the little cottage in the country with a garden, animals, books, music . . .

'... 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.'  

Her personal turmoil led her to the teachings of PD Ouspensky and eventually to Gurdjieff.  Katherine looked into the abyss of human emotion. Her suffering set her apart from people living ordinary lives and gave her a very special insight into the nature of life lived in the constant shadow of death.   After she took refuge with Gurdjieff at Fontainebleau, she wrote to Ouspensky:

'You know that I have long since looked upon all of us without exception as people who have suffered shipwreck and been cast upon an uninhabited island, but who do not yet know of it.  But these people here know it.  The others, there in life, still think that a steamer will come for them and that everything will go on in the old way.  These already know that there will be no more of the old way.  I am so glad that I can be here.' 

Katherine Mansfield died at Fontainebleau  near Paris, on January 9th, 1923 a few months after her 34th birthday.  She was buried in a small cemetery at Avon.

Kathleen Jones  'Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller' (Penguin NZ and Edinburgh University Press)
Gerri Kimber  'Katherine Mansfield:  The Early Years'  (Edinburgh University Press) 
Redmer Yska   A Strange Beautiful Excitement   (Otago University Press)


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