• Mansfield Musings

The Missing Scenes

Since Two Tigers was first produced more details of Katherine Mansfield's early encounter with the musical Trowell family have emerged. Sue Casson shines a light on new research.

Garnet, Dolly and Arnold Trowell


When you set out to dramatize a life – however many years lived crammed into just over 2 hours on a stage – there are clearly decisions to be made. What to put in – to be compelling and as true to the facts as is possible, but equally importantly, what to leave out. The decisions you make mould your story and make it individual.


With research still fresh in one’s head this paring down is often the most difficult. Where to shine the spotlight and what to leave in the shadows. Two Tigers focuses on the life-long romance of John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, as I interpret their meeting and subsequent relationship as a springboard into their literary life, the emotional background to her terminal illness and (contentiously or not) the basis of her legacy. Although there are two tigers, my primary interest is with KM – and how her life was shaped by meeting JMM rather than the other way around.


The decisions I took when we were first constructing the show were dependent on the research then available. Even then, 60 years on from Mansfield’s death (and 20 or so on from the death of Murry) biography was subject to his curation. Ruth Mantz, Katherine’s first biographer felt this most keenly, and has gone on record to say the biography that resulted from her collaboration with Murry was not the one she wanted to write, and although Antony Alpers life of Mansfield was revised and republished as the 80s began, under Murry’s eagle eye it drew a discreet veil over episodes in her life that were later more comprehensively explored by Claire Tomalin, with her revelations of Katherine’s Secret Life.


Murry wasn’t part of Katherine’s early life, they first met when Katherine was 23. She had left New Zealand nearly 4 years earlier, and was already separated from her husband, George Bowden. Inevitably, from his viewpoint, facts about the time before they met, particularly the more scandalous aspects, were scarce, depending on how much she may or may not have told him, and equally perhaps, given his view of his wife as a woman without flaw, how much he may have wanted to know.


Because of this lack of facts, and my decision to put the two tigers at the centre of the show, earlier romantic attachments and entanglements in Katherine’s life naturally got put to one side or passed over in a few tantalising lines. It's fair to say her relationship with Murry was her longest relationship with a man by far, but he was also by no means her first love, and later biographies, have shed revealing light on this area of her life.


Although it is hard to see the worldly wise Katherine Mansfield that we have come to know as an impressionable adolescent, the arrival of the musical Trowell family into her world when she was just 13, must have brought the dreams she was beginning to nurture of living an artistic life into sharper focus.


Dedicated to their musical art, with twin sons of Kathleen’s age already anticipating a future of European study and performance they seemed enviably cosmopolitan. Though the Trowells play a minor role in the biographies to which I had access, discovering them now it seems very likely that their decision to settle in London in 1908, just months before Kathleen’s own departure may have influenced her own decision. She wanted to return to London, but now she saw it could be done, and what’s more there were to be soulmates on her doorstep.


The impact of these soulmates, in particular one, Garnet Trowell, with whom she had her first serious relationship shortly after her arrival in London she could not have seen. For her birthday that year he produced a ring, the clear intention of which was clear to his family. Had they accepted her, had she not become almost immediately pregnant, she might have assimilated happily into the supportive artistic family she craved. Without the view of the world she gained in losing this she would have been a different sort of writer, but arguably a person more at peace with herself.


As it was, the pregnancy indirectly resulted in her first book, the satirical observational stories she wrote In a German Pension, as her mother discreetly took her away from London to have the baby. It led to a swift marriage for respectability's sake with a man she didn't love, forcing her, whether she later played up to it or not, into the role of a bohemian woman, married and separated - the woman of the world Murry's parents so strongly objected to for their son - and in a matter of 18 months carried her far further from her conventional New Zealand family than a mere sea voyage.


By the time she encountered Murry she was a published author, to all appearances already living the artistic life amongst interesting people that she had in mind when she set out from New Zealand. The fascinating carapace of an independent creator she had cultivated covered the personal anguish - of miscarriage, of abandonment - that had forced her to grow up quickly in order to survive. This is the KM we see in Two Tigers. But without pulling focus to flesh out these missing scenes, in the re-imagined show, now I know more, I need to find a way to feed these events that shaped her life into the woman she became.


Join me next time as I continue my Mansfield Musings. Subscribe at the top of the page to make sure you don't miss out!


Photograph of Garnet, Dolly and Arnold Trowell from Katherine Mansfield House & Garden's recent Mansfield & Music exhibition

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