Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

The Past

Jan 09, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



“Never relight a dead cigarette or an old passion.”

–Katherine Mansfield


Katherine Mansfield House & Garden (opened 1988)

Wellington, New Zealand


The possessors of sphinxlike personalities prove challenging subjects for their biographers who must strip off various masks. Katherine Mansfield, in her journal, paraphrased Polonius’ words from Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, “True to oneself Which self?” To best understand the New Zealand enigma, journey to the landscape of her childhood: the Katherine Mansfield House & Garden.


The woman who put the land down under on the international literary map was born Kathleen, (Katherine), Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888, in Wellington, New Zealand. She had four sisters–Charlotte, Vera, Jeanne, and, till she passed away at age four months, Gwendoline. Leslie was the youngest and the only boy. Her mother, Annie, worshipped at the altar of propriety; her father, Harold, was the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand. Annie and Harold were conscientious but cold; fortunately, Margaret Dyer, the children’s maternal grandmother, proved nurturing. In tribute, Katherine used her middle name–her grandmother’s maiden name, as her pseudonym. 


Katherine was the black sheep of the family; as future frenemy Virginia Woolf described her in Bloomsbury-lingo, she had “gone every sort of hog since she was 17.” In her teens, Katherine had simultaneous affairs with a Māori woman, Maata Mahupuku, and the artist, Edith Kathleen Bendall. Katherine reveled in sensuality. “O Oscar!” she wrote in her diary, invoking her muse, Oscar Wilde, “Am I peculiarly susceptible to sexual impulse? I must be I suppose, but I rejoice.”


Along with two of her sisters, Katherine attended Queen’s College boarding school in Britain where she met Ida Baker who would be her on again off again Alice B. Toklas. Her time abroad left her dissatisfied with provincial Wellington, especially when her parents squashed her dream of becoming a professional cellist. Three years later, with a £100 annual stipend from her father, Katherine set sail for England. A few months later, Katherine was pregnant; her relationship with musician Garnet Trowell ended over his parents’ disapproval. A panicked Katherine married the older George Bowden, a singer she had known for three weeks. On their wedding night, she bolted. She found herself alone in “cheap and horrible digs.”

News of her pregnant, run-away bride daughter brought her mother to England. She took Katherine to Bad Wörishofen Spa in Bavaria where its water was purported to cure sexual deviancy. Annie returned to Wellington and cut Katherine out of the Beauchamp will. In Bavaria, Katherine miscarried and embarked on an affair with the Polish writer Floryan Sobieniowski. He gave her gonorrhea that plagued her for the reminder of her life and left her infertile. When she made money from her books, her east European lover resorted to blackmail.


Katherine led a nomadic existence and in eight years had twenty-nine postal addresses. She moved in with John Middleton Murry, the editor of the magazines, Rhythm and Athenaeum. He was an aspiring writer without the requisite talent. They began as roommates and each evening, before retiring to their respective rooms, they would shake hands and say, “Good night, Middleton. Goodnight, Murry.” Katherine changed their platonic relationship when she asked, “Why don’t you make me your mistress?” He hesitated, voicing his concern, “I feel it would spoil everything.” John did become her lover, (an inept one). He nicknamed her Tig, and in a letter to her, he wrote, “Oh, Tiggle, we are the lovers of the world. We are the lovers that were dreamed by God.”  Their landlord, discovering they were living together in sin, evicted them. They moved one squalid flat to another, even leaving for Paris to escape their creditors.


Secretiveness was Katherine’s trademark; Virginia Woolf described her as “inscrutable.” Over the years, Katherine tried on various names: Kass, Katiuska, Kissuenka. When she achieved acclaim as an author, she lunched with James Joyce and crossed paths with literary lions such as T. S. Eliot and Rupert Brooke. In awe of Virginia Woolf, the Bloomsbury bluestocking, Katherine was part of her charmed circle though its members treated her as “the little Colonial walking in the London garden patch-allowed to look, perhaps, but not to linger.” Rupert Brooke mocked her accent. Virginia and her husband, Leonard, published Katherine’s second collection of short stories at their Hogarth Press. Later, Virginia confided to her diary, “I was jealous of her writing–the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”


Another relationship was with D. H. Lawrence and his girlfriend, later his wife, the German-born Frieda. In a letter to John and Katherine, Lawrence wrote, “We count on you as our only two tried friends, real and permanent and truly blood kin.” Mansfield and Murry were witnesses at the Lawrences’ 1914 wedding. The two couples rented neighboring homes in a remote part of Cornwall; Katherine suggested that Lawrence call his cottage The Phallus. Lawrence used Katherine as a model for Gudrun in his novel Women in Love; his comment on his neighbor was she possessed “a desire to run away from herself.” Lawrence later turned on Katherine, and in a letter wrote, “You are a loathsome reptile–I hope you will die.”


In 1915, Katherine took a break from John to join a new lover, her husband’s friend, Francis Carco, a Corsican poet fighting on the Western Front.  John accompanied her to the station. World War I claimed her brother’s Leslie’s life when a grenade exploded in his hand. Fellow soldiers said his dying words were, “Lift my head, I can’t breathe.” When recounting his death, Katherine presented his final words as, “Lift my head, Katie, I can’t breathe.”


Shortly after Katherine married John, signs of tuberculosis, likely caught from contact with Lawrence, appeared. On the chance a spiritual change would prompt a physical one, she dabbled in Roman Catholicism. Of her treatment at the hands of physicians, her serrated tongue pronounced, “Saw two of the doctors–an ass and an ass.” Accompanied by her ever-faithful Ida, she embarked to Italy in the belief the sunshine would stave off her illness. John’s letters enraged her by their utter self-absorption. When she wrote of spitting blood, he wrote of his constipation. To emphasize his narcissism, she underlined all his letter’s “I’s.”  When she left for France, in the final stages of her disease, John remained in England to flirt with the former prime minister’s daughter.


 Increasingly desperate, Katherine turned to the Armenian-Russian cult leader, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who ran the Prieure Institute, located in an old chateau in Fontainebleau, France. Her husband was aghast at her choice of cures, and almost all communication between husband and wife ceased. Treatments practiced in Fontainebleau included dancing to any of the 5,000 tunes that Gurdjieff had composed. The guru’s prescription for Katherine was to stay in a barn to inhale the air the cows exhaled. Months later, Katherine broke their silence, imploring that he join her, and he arrived four days later. That evening, while they were climbing the stairs to her room, the thirty-four-year-old Katherine suffered from a massive hemorrhage and died. Proving himself far more of a devoted husband after her death, John had his Tig’s tombstone inscribed with one of her favorite quotations from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, “But I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck. This flower, safety.”


After Katherine’s passing, John published every scrap of his late wife’s writing–partially to enshrine her in a literary stained-glass window, partially for financial reasons. A critic claimed he was “boiling Katherine’s bones to make soup.” For his perceived exploitation of his wife, her fans bared their teeth. Bertrand Russell pronounced him “beastly.” D. H. Lawrence, seemingly oblivious of his earlier attacks on Katherine, called Murry a coward, an obscene bug, and a mud-worm. Virginia Woolf’s take, he was a “posturing Byronic little man.” 


The writer’s life proved that you could take the girl out of Wellington, but you could not take Wellington out of the girl. In “The Garden Party” and “The Doll’s House,” Katherine skewered the pretensions and cruelty of New Zealand’s gentry. The author recalled the house as “that awful cubbyhole,” “that horrid little piggy house which was really dreadful.”


In 1888, Harold Beauchamp built the house that included his family, his mother-in-law, Margaret, and his sisters-in-law, Kitty and Belle. The Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society arranged for a restoration of the property on Tinakori Road. The organization acquired original furnishings and possessions and retained authentic features such as the bamboo-style staircase banister. Based on fragments of wallpaper, reproductions cover the walls. The chinoiserie-patterned wallpaper in the stairwell features an ancient symbol for good luck. The Society purchased furniture to replicate the Beauchamp’s nineteenth-century décor.


Docents lead visitors to the scullery that has steel pots, a meat grinder, and a wood shelf that holds a chalkboard, preserved fruit in jars, white canisters, and teacups. The more formal kitchen has floral plates displayed on a sideboard and a replica of the dollhouse from Katherine’s famous story. The dollhouse is spinach green with yellow windowpanes, red roof, and a tiny amber lamp. The dining room has blue walls, a wooden table, and a cabinet that displays the good china. A jarring note is a photograph of Granny Dyer holding the deceased baby Gwendoline, dressed as if she were alive. The green-painted drawing room has a brown piano on which rests a display case with a bird inside–an apt metaphor for the home’s famous daughter. The residents of a child’s bedroom are four antique dolls and an old-fashioned lamp. One can peer into Katherine’s roped off bedroom; on a dresser is a hairbrush and hand mirror. On the second floor is the Laurel Harris Room devoted to an extensive timeline of Katherine’s life with accompanying photographs. The subtitle of the exhibit, in red letters read: “A Voyage Through Life, Loves, Literature…” On the next wall, under an oval portrait of the author as a young woman, is a quotation from a 1906 letter Katherine wrote to her cousin, Sylvia Payne, “Would you not like to try all sorts of lives–one is so very small–but that is the satisfaction of writing-one can impersonate so many people.”


The front garden features the flowers Katherine mentioned in her stories: pot marigolds, cinerarias, and roses. The back garden holds indigenous shrubs and trees.


A quotation from Southern writer, William Faulkner, pertains to the life of the New Zealand author, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


The View from Her Window: In her final days, Katherine wrote of what she desired when she gazed from her window,  “I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books…”