Lovers, stories and regret: The life of Katherine Mansfield

Claire Harman’s new biography of the New Zealand-born writer, ‘All Sorts of Lives’, brings due attention to an overlooked talent
March 1, 2023
All Sorts of Lives: Katherine Mansfield and the art of risking everything
Claire Harman (RRP: £18.99)
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Katherine Mansfield caught gonorrhoea at age 21 and tuberculosis a few years later. She was very ill for the last years of her life, when she produced her greatest short stories. When she died in 1923, aged 34, her friend Virginia Woolf declared regretfully that she was now “a rival the less”.

Each chapter of Claire Harman’s compelling new biography, All Sorts of Lives, describes one of Mansfield’s stories and places it in the context of the author’s life. Many—including the famous “The Garden Party”—take place in New Zealand, where Mansfield spent her first 15 years. Although she attended school in London, and was close friends with the Bloomsbury group and other prominent English writers, she felt she was an outsider—referring to herself as “the little Colonial”. She was married twice and had numerous affairs with men and women.

Some of her fiction was copied almost directly from her own diaries. Her 1915 story “An Indiscreet Journey” depicts lovers meeting in the French war zone, and was written just weeks after Mansfield had herself travelled to Paris, disguised under an androgynous haircut and a borrowed coat, to meet one of her own lovers. Mansfield, whose brother died in a training exercise, vented her frustration with writers who ignored the war: “I can’t imagine how after the war these men can pick up the old thread as tho’ it had never been… Id say we have died and lived again.”

She was equally critical of herself. While dying, she described her bitterness at having written “only short stories; just short stories”. Compared with some of her contemporaries, Mansfield’s writing has been largely overlooked in the 100 years since her death. But Harman’s book looks to correct that, in part by highlighting her great skill in capturing the small details of life—as Mansfield wrote in her journal, “I shall tell everything, even of how the laundry basket squeaked.”