Katherine Mansfield, centenary of ‘a wounded bird’

This 2023 marks one hundred years since the death of the writer Katherine Mansfield, a woman who lived and loved fast and who wrote some of the best stories of the 20th century.

A New Zealander with an English soul

Born as Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp on October 14, 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, Katherine was the third of six children born to Harold Beauchamp and Annie Beauchamp. Of English descent and coming from the New Zealand high bourgeoisie, they instill in her a rigid upbringing in keeping with the strict Victorian morality of the time.

Mansfield enters the Karori primary school in 1895. There, at just twelve years old, he has his first love experience with his partner Mahata Mahupuku, granddaughter of a Maori chief.

After passing through prestigious educational institutions in Wellington, her parents decide to send her to study at Queen’s College London with her sisters Vera and Charlotte, between 1903 and 1906. She returns to Wellington in 1906 with her soul carried away by the glamor of the literary life of England, and manages to return to London in 1908, with the firm decision to become a writer at just nineteen years old.

tumultuous london

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield, 1914, from the Adelphi Studio, The Strand, WC.
Alexander Turnbull Library / Wikimedia Commons

On October 1, 1908, he published in Native Companion his first story, “Vignettes”, for which he receives two pounds. The piece has been very well received by critics and already exhibits the talent of a young writer destined to be one of the masters of the English-language short story of the 20th century.

After barely a year in London, Mansfield becomes pregnant by the young violinist Garnet Trowell. In February 1909, she met 34-year-old singing teacher George Bowden, whom she married the following month.

But 1909 will be a harbinger of the turbulent and passionate life of the author: Mansfield leaves Bowden on the same wedding night, she is definitively sent away by her lover Garnet Trowell in April and in June she loses the son she was expecting from him.

Meanwhile, between 1908 and 1910 he wrote and published poems and stories in different literary magazines. In 1911, Mansfield meets John Middleton Murry, founder and editor of the magazine rhythm, where many of his stories also began to be published. Both began a sentimental relationship at the beginning of 1911 and married in 1918, after divorcing her first husband.

Lesley Moore

During this time she is also in constant contact with her close friend Ida Baker, whom she has known since her time at Queen’s College. In time, Baker will adopt the literary name “Lesley Moore” at Mansfield’s request, becoming her confidant and lover.

Baker and Murry will be the pillars on which Mansfield will stand emotionally and intellectually. Knowing the relationship that the writer maintains with the two, both consent to a polyamorous sentimental model at a time when the concept itself is unpopular and the term does not even exist.

According to Murry, Baker is “by far and away the most important woman in Katherine Mansfield’s life: servant, friend, partner, confidante, wife…”.

In December 1920, at the age of thirty-two, Mansfield achieved unanimous critical acclaim after the publication of his collection of short stories. Bliss and Other Stories at the Constable publishing house in London, considered a masterpiece of modernist literature in the English language of the last century.

In fragile health, plagued by tuberculosis and a systemic gonorrhea contracted in 1909 by the Don Juan and Polish translator Floryan Sobieniowski, whom she had met in Bavaria in the summer of 1909 and with whom she had a torrid and brief love affair, the writer feels the end of her life.

After various desperate attempts to recover his health, even with therapies far from any scientific basis, he died in Fontainebleau (France) on January 9, 1923.

mansfield and the bird

Cover of the book The wounded bird and other poems.
cover of The wounded bird and other poems Editorial Verbum, bilingual edition commemorating the centenary of Katherine Mansfield.
Editorial Verbum

A year before his death, during his stay at the palatial Château Belle Vue hotel in Sierre (Switzerland), Mansfield composed, as a zoomorphic metaphor, the poem “The Wounded Bird” (“The Wounded Bird” in the original English ). According to Ida Baker, it will be the “dark sun in Mansfield’s room at Château Belle Vue that will be the source of inspiration for the poem.”

The image of “an injured bird”, as the title and central theme of the poem, reflects the state of mind of a Katherine Mansfield who begins to compare the calm, the dim light and the peace of the place with the final journey of her days:

“In the wide bed

under the green embroidered bedspread

with flowers and leaves always in soft movement

she is like a wounded bird resting in a pond.”

Katherine Mansfield, The wounded bird and other poems

But his rest in that “pond” that is his hotel room will not give him back the necessary strength to take flight, despite the insistence of a lyrical voice that refuses to die until the last breath:

“Oh, waters – do not cover me!

I would like to gaze long and hard at those beautiful stars!

Oh, these are my wings, lift me up, lift me up,

that I am not mortally wounded…”

Two reputable scholars of the life and work of the author, Kimber and Davison, find a simile between the flooded “wings” that are repeated in the first and last stanzas and “the lungs” also flooded, with mucus and blood, of Mansfield.

This poem is the definitive literary memory of the New Zealander, written days after her last story, The Canary, and in the same room. In this scenario, he also writes his will, at just thirty-three years old, in the presence of his lover and friend Ida Baker, a faithful witness to his unfortunate end:

“I think the idea of ​​death was already beginning to torment her: not death itself, but the idea that she still had a lot to write, to tell the world, to clarify, although she lacked time to express it in words.”

Although Mansfield lives the love for all his lovers with the same intensity, John Murry is relegated to the background during the last two years of his life, because finally Mansfield’s intention is to merge with Baker into a single being, as manifested in the last letter that he wrote to you, on December 22, 1922:

“You know you shouldn’t worry about me. It is exactly as if you took some of my meat and gnawed on it. It doesn’t help you or me. Worry is a waste of energy. It is therefore a sin. And if you waste your energy, the energy that is in me is destroyed, so you sin in two ways.

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