A brief look at the life and loves of Katherine Mansfield.
After discussing female companionship, it would be difficult not to talk about the famous New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, who had several female lovers and a long-term female companion. Katherine Mansfield born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in Wellington in 1888 came from an upper-class family who were very important people in Wellington. Mansfield wrote lovingly of her romantic trysts, and unlike other examples of female companionship around the same time Mansfield makes it quite clear in her writing where her passions lie.
At 12 years old Mansfield started attending what is now Samuel Marsden Collegiate School for Girls. At this school Mansfield became very close friends with a girl called Maata Mahupuku. Maata is believed by many to be Mansfield’s first lover as their friendship was very intense, even to the point where their teachers began to grow concerned over the connection between the two girls. Many wealthy New Zealand families at the time would send their children overseas to complete their education and Mansfield’s family did just that. In January of 1903 Mansfield and two of her sisters were placed at Queen’s College in London. This time in her life is significant because it was at this school where Mansfield would first meet her long-term companion Ida Constance Baker who Mansfield also called Lesley Moore, or LM. Mansfield returned to New Zealand in 1906 and became romantically involved with Edith Kathleen Bendall whom she calls Edie or E.K.B. It appears that at this time she was also having an intense relationship with Maata who had returned to New Zealand after being at a finishing school in Paris.
In June of 1907 Mansfield wrote about Maata saying "I want Maata - I want her as I have had her - terribly. This is unclean I know but true...”. Around this same time Maata also wrote in her own journal talking of being teased by Mansfield’s beauty. New Zealand journalist Pat Lawlor interviewed Maata later in life. In this interview Maata apparently revealed information and details previously unknown about Mansfield’s life, some of the information was so sensational that Lawlor said he did not wish to publish it. Another school friend of Mansfield’s by the name of Vere Bartrick-Baker or Mimi, who was also suspected of being romantically involved with Mansfield, was often sent stories and letters. One story entitled "Leves Amores," was published from a copy sent to Mimi by Mansfield. The story discusses lacing up another woman’s evening bodice and ends with the woman slipping out of her dress and flinging her arms around the female main character in a passionate and youthful manner. Around this time Mansfield also wrote about E.K.B and a romantic tryst between the two of them at her family’s holiday cottage. The journal entry is from June 1907 and details being lovingly embraced while kissing, and the joy Mansfield experienced both during and after this experience. Mansfield also states that she feels more powerful sexual impulses with E.K.B than she ever has with a man.
Image: Katherine Mansfield. Photo obtained from The Charlotte Museum Trust collection
Between February and May 1908 some concerning entries appear in Mansfield’s journal showing signs of obvious struggle with her sexuality. Now back in London, Mansfield remains in contact with both Maata and E.K.B for several years. Meanwhile, along with these two intense relationships, Mansfield also resumes her friendship and relationship with Ida Baker. Mansfield then became involved with New Zealand musician Garnet Trowell, moved into his family home and lived there as a paying guest. It is unclear why she suddenly started seeing Trowell, whether it was a way to try and have a heterosexual relationship due to her struggles with her sexuality, or whether she was romantically interested in him. Either way his parents would not allow them to be married and the relationship came to an end. In March 1909 after only having known him for a fortnight, Mansfield married a man by the name of George Bowden. For the wedding Mansfield dressed in all black attire as if attending a funeral, and later that night refused to consummate her marriage leaving her groom alone in a hotel and fleeing back to her companion Ida Baker. Mansfield’s mother in response to this behaviour came to London and took Mansfield to a Bavarian spa in Germany for “treatment”. Mansfield’s mother then returned to New Zealand and disinherited her from the will. Some speculate that the quick marriage to George Bowden was due to being pregnant with New Zealand composer Arnold Trowell’s baby, Arnold, of course, being the brother of Garnet Trowell who she had apparently intended to marry. It is believed that she lost the baby while at the German spa, however whether she was pregnant or not remains uncertain. Mansfield remained in Germany for the rest of 1909.
When Mansfield returned to London, she began performing at a club often patronized by gays and lesbians called the Cave of the Golden Calf. She also began friendships with several well-known figures in history including the famous Virginia Woolf. In 1911 Mansfield became involved with English writer John Middleton Murry. She later married Murry in 1918 and not long after was diagnosed with Tuberculosis. She continued to be married to Murry until her death in 1923 at the young age of 34. Ida Baker also remained Mansfield’s companion until her death often being referred to as her wife by Mansfield herself.
On the official Katherine Mansfield House and Garden website for the old family home in Wellington, there is a brief summary on her personal life. This includes her birthplace, family, travel, and famous friends but nothing about her love life or long-term companion Ida Baker are mentioned at all. Her two marriages are also not discussed. While a person’s sexuality of course doesn’t always need to be mentioned when discussing their occupation, as the two often remain relatively unconnected, Mansfield’s female lovers and long-term companion were a very important part of her life and were often inspirations for her writing. To write about her personal life and not mention this very important aspect isn’t talking about who Katherine Mansfield really was but who she, when edited, is what the general public wanted her to be. Denying such an important part of her life and work while celebrating every other aspect doesn’t feel right or true to Mansfield as a person. Her writings about women, especially at a time when many dared not speak of their true romantic feelings, make them a significant part of lesbian history.
In the famous words of Katherine Mansfield taken from her own journal and written in October 1922 "Risk - risk anything. Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the thing hardest on earth for you to do. Act for yourself. Face the truth."
Image: Photograph of Katherine Mansfield. Obtained from Britannica.com
Elizabeth Simpson is a student at the University of Auckland and is currently working at the Charlotte Museum as part of our internship programme through the Museum and Cultural Heritage course.