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A Matter of Identity

Ground-breaking writer Katherine Mansfield is at the heart of musical Two Tigers which English Cabaret are producing this summer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the centenary year of her death. Whilst re-imagining her show, writer Sue Casson has been exploring new facts about her life that have emerged 'a lifetime on' from its' first production (for the centenary of her birth) in a series of Mansfield Musings, which we are re-publishing from the beginning.

In this one, she explores the theatrical possibilities of Katherine Mansfield as a chameleon. Under the guise of name or costume KM strove to experiment with living 'all sorts of lives.'

'Whilst others found one way of life suffice to hold them thrall / She couldn’t be content with one, until – she’d tried them all’

For Oscar Wilde / from Two Tigers

What’s in a name? A definition? An expectation? An aspiration?

For Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp, it was an opportunity. A chance to choose how she wished to appear, to take control of her life, and in doing so play a series of different roles under changing guises in search of the perfect fit.

Actors and authors often have reason to tinker with their birth names – to evoke the right ‘sound’ in public, so the name is memorable or trips off the tongue, at the same time conjuring the person they wish to present. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Kathleen’s ambition to have her writing published was an early opportunity to play with the label for her identity. Like successful female writers before her, she experimented with asexual names – Julian Mark was one, so her femininity might not prejudice her success. But she also tried male names or replaced the Christian name with initials so the issue wouldn’t arise.

Even before she began to formalise these choices Kathleen found intimacies with different friends defined by the names they used to address her. Sometimes these went beyond pet names Kath or Katie to suggest a more exotic lineage – Yekaterina, Katya, Kissienka. And there’s no doubt she had a lot of fun, trying on different names for size, involving close friends in the game. Was she playing a series of roles, as Dorothy Brett suggested,

‘her great delight was a game she played of being someone else…’

Or merely finding the person she wished to be? She tried puns - Katherine Schönfeld, a German play on Beauchamp (this for Tom Trowell the cellist studying in Germany, who himself changed his name to Arnold. KM addressed him as Caesar, at least in her letter drafts.) Her lifelong friend Ida Baker became LM to her KM – L for Leslie (Katherine's beloved brother’s name) Moore.

Arriving in Bad Worishofen she signed herself as Käthe Beauchamp Bowden – respectfully (or playfully) adopting German roots, acknowledging her estranged husband, yet unable to relinquish her birth identity. However, within the year the ‘shriftstellerin’ who signed into the Pension in this way had become ‘Katherine Mansfield.’

The Beauchamp birth name was now entirely gone. A reaction to the abandonment she must have felt at the speed her mother left her in Germany to return to New Zealand? Perhaps revealingly she held on to her middle name inherited from the maternal grandmother who played a large part in her upbringing. Or a choice to empower herself post miscarriage to go forward as a distinct and different person from the conventional colonial background she had left behind? Whichever it was LM informs Garnet Trowell in a letter the following year, that Katherine Mansfield is the name by which his former lover now wishes to be known.

Despite the apparent finality of this public choice Katherine continued to self-style herself with the power of names - and clothes, (as I explored in Keeping up Appearances). 'Isn't looking - being? Or being - looking?' Raoul Duquette observes in Je ne Parle pas Francais. With the right name, and the right dress anything was possible as she writes to her friend ‘Kot’ in 1915.

'wonderful adventures might happen if one is only dressed and ready’

So adept was Katherine at disappearing into the persona she was creating with costume, it was less a donning of the motley than the art of becoming. Her first husband George Bowden notes this at a party in the early days of their friendship.

‘Mansfield was dressed more or less Maori fashion… and there was something eerie about it, as though it were a psychic transformation, rather than a mere Impersonation.’

Like an actor, names and clothes defined the role she chose to play, and each different ‘transformation’ extended the opportunity to be someone outside herself, vicariously living all kinds of lives.

‘Would you not like to try all sorts of lives - one is so very small’

Katherine wrote this to her cousin Sylvia Payne in 1906, even before she left Queen’s College, London. If, as she notes in a letter to Dorothy Brett written near the end of her life, ‘one can't write anything worth the name unless one lives - really lives,' impersonating people, as KM calls it, is an essential springboard to her writing.

William Orton a friend who knew Katherine before she met 'Tiger' Murry, observed that her thirst for experience indicated ‘a genuine need’. She believed she had to play out different lives for copy. The variety of narrators in Mansfield’s short stories bear this out, their voices as accomplished as an actor playing a role, improvising the script.

But this facility came at a personal cost – knowing who she truly was. This truth at the core of any performance of 'Katherine Mansfield' - is essential to seeing onstage the writer behind the actor.

This blog was first published in a series of Mansfield Musings on

Two Tigers is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe from 2nd - 27th August this year at C Venues. BOOK NOW!

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