Katherine Mansfield's life is at the heart of Sue Casson's musical drama Two Tigers, but without John Middleton Murry, would she still be remembered today?
So far in my musings on Mansfield the figure of John Middleton Murry, Tiger Two in my piece, has been conspicuously absent. He isn’t a popular part of the myth that has grown up around his wife. Criticized by her friends when she was dying for his lack of practicality in caring for her and inability to face the fact of her death, once she was gone he faced further criticism for ‘cashing in’ on the papers she left him as her legal literary executor, and airbrushing the messier details from her life to leave her reputation intact.
Yet, despite it all, the fact that Katherine Mansfield’s writing is now acknowledged as being at the forefront of the modernist movement is in large part down to his efforts at keeping her name alive in the face of her early death.
Mansfield's literary reputation in 1923
When she died of tuberculosis at the age of 34, after a lifetime writing, Katherine Mansfield was just beginning to make a literary name for herself. After her early success with a book of satirical sketches In a German Pension, it was a decade until her next collection Bliss and other Stories made it into print, and she only started to come to critical attention with her third, The Garden Party published just a year before her death.
It seems unlikely that her burgeoning reputation would have been any more than a flash in the pan without Murry’s dedication and belief in her genius, particularly with casually misogynistic Modernist voices such as that of Wyndham Lewis prepared to dismiss her as ‘nothing but a writer of two books of short stories’
Perhaps it was in reaction to dismissal like this that during the year following her death alone Murry ensured the publication of a further collection of stories compiled from the papers KM had left behind The Dove’s Nest – and a selection of her poetry. In the years that followed he added to these excerpts from her journal, a scrapbook of fragments, and editions of letters exchanged between them. All in all, editing these editions of her manuscripts was a job that almost took the remaining 30 years of his life.
Criticism of Murry
For his immediate literary circle, Murry’s attempts to ensure his beloved wife was not forgotten were ill-advised and mawkish. The Adelphi magazine that he founded under the shadow of his bereavement was rarely without a contribution by Katherine Mansfield, and he marked the anniversary of her death with a poem dedicated to her (although written some years earlier) describing her as
‘A child of other worlds, a perfect thing…’
Setting the tone for the biographical accounts that he oversaw whilst he was alive.
Some suggested that this over exposure was disproportionate to her talent, although I would venture that her subsequent success suggests this wasn’t the case. However the self-absorption of which Murry is often accused would have made him happily deaf to any view of Mansfield as an artist other than his own. If this belief gave rise to his presentation of her as a major literary talent, he was perhaps at the same time, unwittingly making it so. KM, had spent her life believing that appearance was the key to becoming what you wished to be, words put into the mouth of Raoul Duquette in Je ne parle Pas Francais.
'He was looking the part, he was the part. How can one look the part and not be the part? Or be the part and not look it? Isn't looking being? Or being looking? '
Aware of how her husband valued her writing, Katherine formally entrusted it all to him in the will she drew up less than 6 months before her death, writing in a separate letter
‘All my manuscripts I leave entirely to you to do what you like with… leave all fair – will you?’
And there as this blog ends the controversy begins. What is fair? Was Murry unfair? This is something I look forward to exploring in my next blog. I hope you’ll join me too. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing at the link above.
Portrait of John Middleton Murry, Katherine Mansfield's husband. Ref: 1/2-028641-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22371212