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An unconventional love story

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Over on our sister site guest blogger Sue Casson is writing a series of regular blogs musing on different aspects of Katherine Mansfield's life and work, as she re-imagines her first musical, Two Tigers, for the stage next year. In this Mansfield Musing she explains the inspiration behind the show - a meeting of minds in mutual creativity.

Two Tigers is my kind of love story. Complicated. Human. Short on chocolates and flowers and grand gestures, long on purple prose. On the surface at least it seems almost buttoned-up - tortured, artistic - natural human impulses to create a home and a family clouded by professional ambition.

And yet - it has all the ingredients of a passionate romance. The playboy abandoning his colourful past to reinvent himself as a ‘true’ lover – except in this case the roles are reversed, and it is Murry who has only one previous lover and Mansfield who has been the sexual adventuress. The intensity of a life lived at pace - time running out on them as Katherine succumbs to TB, making the moments that are left more meaningful, the dreams they share more poignant, as it becomes less likely they will ever be realised.

It's also a very modern love affair, of intellectual equals at a time when many women were fighting for emancipation and endeavouring to define themselves beyond home and hearth. If Mansfield’s first brief marriage to George Bowden was modelled on an idea, as he described it, of ‘three bachelors together’ – she, him and the manservant, the relationship with her second husband, in both their minds, has the heightened simplicity of a childhood friendship.

‘How I love you. We are two little boys walking with our arms (which won’t quite reach) round each other’s shoulders and telling each other secrets and stopping to look at things.’

Katherine wrote this letter to Murry in December 1915, but the idea of an idealised love story – two children untainted by life, or previous love is one that lasted throughout KM’s life, and for Jack, well beyond. Literary scholars following after see glaring sins of omission in Murry's perpetuation of this myth, but in a purely romantic sense – a relationship with no before or after – just a perfectly formed present, is overwhelming.

Is it even surprising that two tiger writers built a protective lair around themselves that was partly a fiction? They can’t be the first set of lovers for whom this was the case.

Falling for the fiction?

If I sound a bit defensive about my line of thinking, I am. I’ve written of how history has not been kind to Middleton Murry even as his wife’s reputation has soared. Contemporaries and commentators alike have criticized him for falling short - emotionally repressed, self-centred, weak, lacking in consideration of her sensitivity, or just impractical about her needs (this particularly levelled at him once Katherine was an invalid). These are not qualities that sit easily with a classic portrait of a lover.

Of course he caused her pain. When life intruded on fantasy, and KM was less able to buccaneer because of her illness it was particularly hard for them both to bear. She was tortured by the idea of his unfaithfulness when he wasn’t with her. In turn his letters describe a half-life in monochrome when she isn’t there, forced to live their lives together in his mind.

For the enduring nature of their relationship was in the head rather than the bed. It endures still because so much is written down. For Two Tigers I’ve draw heavily on both letters they exchanged, KM’s journal entries and letters to others, and Murry’s own fictionalised account of their love in Between Two Worlds.

A Meeting of Minds

At its’ centre was an understanding, a way of communicating directly with one another, whether spoken, or as intellectuals often find easier, written.

You have written me such a wonderful letter’ Katherine writes to Jack in December 1915, when she is in Bandol coming to terms with the death of her brother, which has caused an emotional rift between them, ‘It is strange. I feel that I only really know you since you went back to England.

If those in the relationship are struggling with intimacy how much more is the chemistry of it impenetrable to those outside it. KM was aware of this, writing to her husband in December 1920:-

'I have of you what I want - a relationship which is unique but it is not what the world understands by marriage'

If marriage is purely physical ‘togetherness till death us do part’ the world might have a point. But mentally, despite illness driving a geographical wedge between them for long periods, they remained as close as ever.

'Essentially you and I are together. I love you and feel you are my man.'

KM writes this to JMM just months before her death and if I forgive Middleton Murry in my dramatic portrayal, it’s because I believe Katherine did, for all he did bring to her life, regardless finally of what he didn’t. She not only leaves her manuscripts to him at the end, but attributes to him her wellspring of inspiration whilst she is writing in this letter written in March 1915.

‘I do write in my own way through you. After all it is love of you now that makes me write and absolutely deep down when I write well it is love of you that makes me see and feel.’

This post was first published as 'Two Tigers - An Unconventional love story' on Explore more Mansfield Musings posts and subscribe at her website as she continues her re-imagining of Two Tigers, for the centenary of Mansfield's death next year.

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