Prue Hyman’s Column

Prue Hyman marks 130 years since Katherine Mansfield’s birth with news of two amazing radio programmes featuring those who knew her well.

Prue says: “I wasn’t born in New Zealand and it’s only since living here that I have become involved in the respect for writer Katherine Mansfield.

We’ve just celebrated 130 years since her birth and she sadly only lived 35 years – and only just over half of them in New Zealand.

Yet her short stories, many of them so evocative of Wellington and her youthful years here, and her fame for them particularly in New Zealand and her adopted home of London (and also in France) makes her uniquely loved as a writer and a woman. And all this has kept me away from current politics for a month!

Nga Taonga treasures

Fortunately, we have extensive resources about KM.

Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

In addition to her writing, Nga Taonga, as part of the birthday celebrations, has reminded us of two wonderful radio programmes made in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as preparing a tour through a great range of items in their audiovisual collections.

At you can find impressions of KM which span her work, family, friends and memories, and her legacy. The two radio programmes are available in full and contain splendid interviews with a range of people who knew her. They make her come to life in full colour. And they’ve even imagined what her Spotify playlist might look like, based on recollections by her brother-in-law Richard Murry, of her favourite singers.

Her sister’s recollections

In 1962, KM’s 82-year-old sister Jeanne Renshaw sparkled with enthusiasm: “If she opened the door and came in now, something so arresting would be produced that you would be waiting to hear what she had to say… She made you feel that you were the one person in the world that she wanted to meet and wanted to speak to.

“When she went into a garden, everything that she showed you seemed to become alive and vital – you see, everything was vital to her, nothing was mundane. Everything, the moon and the stars and the sea and the smell – you see, she created an atmosphere.”

In 1903 Katherine and the two older sisters Vera and Chaddie left for further education at Queen’s College, London. Here she met Ida Baker, her long-time companion and confidante, (referred to as L.M. in Mansfield’s diaries and correspondence). The second radio programme included interviews with Baker and with Richard Murry.

Then 86 and living in a thatched cottage in the New Forest, Ida described being drawn to Katherine because of a mutual interest in poetry. The programme includes an extract from Mansfield’s journal worrying about LM’s dependence on her – but also LM herself explaining her own selfless position. She called it a spiritual relationship, saying one can have only a few real friendships in life. “KM gave me the whole of my life.” Of course there has been speculation that the relationship was also sexual.

Ida Baker and John Middleton Murry

Ida Baker and husband John Middleton Murry alternated through the rest of Mansfield’s life.

Katherine Mansfield, John Middleton Murry, and his brother Richard
(Photo: Turnbull Library)

His brother Richard spoke about his role in originating the ‘tragic Mansfield myth” a criticism by one of Mansfield’s biographers. He recalls her lively personality, even though ill.

They had visited London theatres and art galleries together, Degas being one of her favourites. She was also a fan of music hall performers including Marie Lloyd, Vesta Victoria and especially Spanish singer Raquel Meller.

Murry described her unusual style of dress and read a description he wrote about her being a ‘head-turner’ who dressed in Parisian style with coloured stockings, high heels, make-up and a short skirt for the era.

The radio programmes are still well worth listening to in addition to reading her work and biographies. They are evocative. There is rightly no danger of Mansfield adulation and discussion disappearing!

Very interesting Prue. As well as the writings of contemporaries and the broadcasts, KM is also the subject of an impressive graphic novel: “Mansfield and Me” by Sarah Laing. This is an excellent story about a woman who idealised the great New Zealand author from school days. It is superbly written and illustrated, with interposed stories of Mansfield (usually in black and white) and Laing (in colour), through their various stages of life. This is not a superficial study and is over 200 pages long. Parapararumu Library has got it.

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