The After-Life of Katherine Mansfield - Kathleen Jones

On the 9th of January it will be the 90th anniversary of the death of Katherine Mansfield - one of the icons of 20th century literature.  She died from tuberculosis, a couple of months after her 34th birthday, leaving behind 4 collections of short stories and a huge mass of unpublished journals, letters and fragments of fiction.

Strange things happen after the death of an author.  They either sink gracefully from view, or their work develops a life of its own, marching forward into a future the author could never have imagined, read by people in bizarrely different circumstances, finding meanings they never consciously intended.  In Katherine Mansfield’s case, her husband, the editor and critic John Middleton Murry, was so full of guilt at the way he’d treated her when she was alive, he made it his life’s work to preserve and publish everything she’d ever written.

His obsession with her ruined his three subsequent marriages and created a poisonous legacy for his children and grandchildren. Katherine became a kind of 'Rebecca' figure, haunting their lives.  His second wife, Violet, was so desperate for his attention that she turned herself into a replica of Katherine Mansfield in order to please him.
Violet Murry

Murry really believed that their daughter was in some way ‘Katherine’s daughter’ and that’s what he insisted she be called. The damage percolated through three generations.  But Murry’s obsession did mean that Katherine’s work was preserved for the future and her genius, both as a writer of fiction and a memoirist, were recognised.

It was Katherine’s private journals that I fell in love with when I was 16 - the personal journey of the young woman from New Zealand, adrift in London, lost in a quagmire of love and ambition, and negotiating those treacherous gate-keepers of literature - the Bloomsbury lions.   Her courage in facing her own personal tragedies - giving birth to a still-born baby on her own in Germany as a disgraced teenager, the diagnosis of TB, her belief in love as a healing force - still moves me.  Then there was her turbulent marriage, and her intense relationships with DH and Frieda Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and the American painter Anne Estelle Rice.  She went to parties in Paris where Modigliani and Beatrice Hastings threw each other out of windows and set alight to the apartment; attended seances with Aleister Crowley; spent evenings with Bertrand Russell and Lytton Strachey.  

This was a woman who made the most of her short life, even as she trailed like a gypsy from health resort to health resort, frantic to find a cure.  She died at Fontainebleau, at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man run by the ‘Levantine Psychic Shark’ - George Ivanovich Gurdjieff.  It was, she wrote in a letter, probably ‘the soul’s desperate choice’.
Since then she has walked like a ghost through other people’s novels; Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, her husband John Middleton Murry, her lovers Francis Carco and William Orton, all in the 1920s and 30s.   More recently there has been another spate of novels about her life - many of them self-published.   The most recent biographies were published back in the 1980s - one of them by Claire Tomalin - all spawned by the death of John Middleton Murry’s fourth wife, who had inherited control of the estate and kept a strict hand on the files.

But many, many papers remained unavailable, and some of the people concerned were still alive. All could not be told.  I was lucky enough to be researching Mansfield just at the time when a whole new source of material came into the public domain - Murry’s own letters and diaries and some previously undisclosed papers belonging to Katherine and covering some of the most difficult and mysterious periods of her life.  Her indecipherable handwriting meant that it took until the last decade to decipher her notebooks and letters completely and render a clean transcription (someone else’s life’s work) - and the final volumes appeared at about the same time as my own biography.  I have been the lucky benefactor of all this information.

My biography was published initially by Penguin New Zealand, after the publisher who had commissioned it went bankrupt and was taken over by someone else.  The paperback was taken up by a small university press in Edinburgh.  But, with the cooperation of my agent, I kept back my e-rights - something I’d urge all authors to do unless they are offered a very advantageous contract.  Neither Penguin nor Edinburgh UP were interested in anything other than a paper edition - which, because it’s a big book, is expensive (hardback £25.00,  paperback £13.99 discounted) and there are also territorial restrictions on where they can sell it.

With an e-edition, these problems don’t exist.  I’ve updated the biography to include new information that has come to light in the last few weeks (exciting new discoveries!) And included lots more photographs from my own archives.  This is easy to do with an electronic file and there’s no additional expense involved.  Neil designed the original cover for the book, so we’ve been able to keep that, and he’s re-designed the book with a suitable font and little Modernist chapter headings that look really good on Kindles and Kobos - especially the new touch-screen versions.

Dealing with Kindle Fire means a very different process of construction to make sure it comes out perfect - a basic Word file put through Calibre or Sigil into Mobi simply isn’t good enough any more.  You have to start with plain text and create what’s called a ‘cascading style sheet’ - basically a list of html tags that create special effects such as indents, italics, headings, quotes etc.  Then these tags have to be inserted throughout the document - the only secure way to ensure that the book does what its supposed to do on any kind of machine.  Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller has also got interactive end notes - click on a number and it takes you straight to the reference - click on the back button and you go back to your place in the text.  These all had to be put in manually - over a thousand of them - and Neil burned a lot of midnight oil.  But the result is worth it. 

I’ve priced it fairly at around £5.00 - it’s not just the amount of work that went into it, I’ve also had to pay for new permissions for the e-book.   There was also the proof-reading.  I was horrified by how many errors there were in the print edition that hadn’t been picked up by the publisher’s readers, including corrections I’d made to the text which the printer had failed to include.  It’s not just self-published e-books that aren’t being stringently edited these days!

So, now Katherine Mansfield: The Story-teller is out in cyber-space at a reasonable price.   Her life and the story of what happened after she died available to the most impoverished Mansfield addicts, or simply anyone who loves a good story.

More details of Kathleen Jones' books can be found on her website at
Kathleen blogs at 'A Writer's Life' -


Sheridan Winn said…
Fascinating story, Kathleen - and well done to you and Neil for all the hard work.
What an amazing life Mansfield had, albeit short - and such reach. I love her stories.
I have several friends who are Mansfield fans and who would be interested in the book. I will get the e-book and spread the word!
Good luck - you deserve big success with this!
Pauline Fisk said…
Kathleen, this is an absolutely riveting post, and I've no doubt that the book is riveting too. I know almost nothing about Katherine Mansfield and look forward to reading the book.
Lydia Bennet said…
amazing story! what an achievement Kathleen. The whole post is fascinating, I didn't know kindle fire required a whole new kind of formatting, nobody's mentioned that! does anyone else know about this? does that formatting work on all the other kindles? just when i thought I'd learned how to do it... your price of a fiver is very reasonable. It shocks me tbh, that so many well known writers, or their publishers, charge more for a kindle version than many paperbacks. some best selling crime novelists for example charge £9 or thereabouts. I think it's a lot especially as we're not buying the book but leasing it. congratulations anyway and I look forward to seeing the book.
Kathleen Jones said…
Hi Lydia - Don't panic! yes, ordinary Kindle files still work on Kindle Fire, but it alters certain things and some functions don't function well. It seems that if you want a book to work at its best on all the different Kindles you have to do it in html.
Pauline and Sheridan - glad you liked the post. Her life was fascinating - but the most interesting thing for me was what happened after she died. It just shows that, as a writer, you need to be careful with your rights even after your death. The irony is that if her husband had carried out her wishes to the letter, all that material we love so much would have gone up in flames!
Gerri Kimber said…
Fantastic news, Kathy. I hope it does really well after all your hard work! Am off to Amazon to buy a copy! Cheers, Gerri
Dennis Hamley said…
Wonderful post, Kathleen. I've just finished reading the book, appropriately here in New Zealand, and I'm going to say, here and now, that it's the best literary biography I've ever read, even better that Claire Tomalin on Hardy and Richard Holmes on Coleridge. Yes, what an amazing, extraordinary,tragic woman and peerless short fiction writer she was, and what a tortured, completely self-absorbed man Murry was. I admire much of his writing, especially his Shakespeare criticism, but he cuts a pathetic, forlorn,sometimes hateful figure here. Thanks so much for a great reading experience
Kathleen Jones said…
Dennis they're some of the nicest comments I've ever had. Thank you for that. It puts salve on the wounds inflicted by Hermione Lee! Hope you're enjoying New Zealand. I'm off there in two weeks, so will just miss you.
Unknown said…
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