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Behind the Mask

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.

The New Zealand writer was so adept at immersing herself in different roles, in this blog Sue Casson asks which was the real Katherine Mansfield?

John Middleton Murry knew who his beloved Katherine was – the most perfectly pure being.

'A princess manifest, a child without stain'

This was how he remembered her in a poem published in his magazine The Adelphi in January 1924. After her death he protected her memory, editing her journal and letters to reinforce this ideal figure, controlling, with her first biographers Ruth Mantz and Antony Alpers, the way her growing audience would see her.

For nearly her lifetime over again, (Murry died in 1957) as sole executor, after her death, he held the rights to all her manuscripts and had the final word over the way that they were published. Though you can’t blame a man for idealising his wife in death, this approach to her literary legacy earned Murry a controversial reputation with his contemporaries. When their friend Koteliansky read his expurgated editions he complained that he had left out all the jokes and to this day, academics feel he contained Mansfield's free spirit, denying her readers the vibrant, mischievous and worldly-wise personality that we’ve encountered in these blogs.

The problem lay with the personal nature of their professional relationship. As a lover he wanted to respect her privacy, hiding details of her life that might cause either him or her embarrassment. As sole editor he had a duty to her writing legacy. Although he was industrious in his pursuit of her success as editor, as husband he perhaps fell short of his marital duty.

It could be said that when Katherine first met the ambitious young editor at a dinner hosted by their mutual friend W L George, she actively sought to present herself as a blank canvas, with no visual hint of the scandalous reputation that might have preceded her. For their very first meeting, she dressed and talked with the sophistication of the newly published author that she was.

‘She wore a simple dove-grey evening frock, with a single red flower and a grey gauze scarf.’

JMM remembers in his biographical novel Between Two Worlds their conversation about the superiority of German translation to Russian, over English translation. Knowing Mansfield’s constant awareness of how to present herself, on this occasion she chose to be seen – simply, seriously, elegantly intellectual. His observation that ‘she was not, somehow, primarily a woman’ was not a reflection of her lack of allure, but an indication that from the start he saw her as an equal – and within months she was assisting him in editing his literary magazine.

His respect for her talent and intelligence only grew as their relationship developed, and it's perhaps not surprising that Katherine kept details of her former scandalous life secret so this was not endangered. The attraction of the affair in her mind was that it was a fresh start, turning the page after a period of her life she preferred to move on from.

We cannot doubt that her skill in keeping secrets was a well-developed part of her role-playing. Contemporaries describe ‘the mask’ of KM, which descended particularly as Lady Ottoline observed when she was feeling insecure. Dorothy Brett captures it perfectly.

‘The dark eyes glance about much like a bird’s, the pale face is a quiet mask, full of hidden laughter, wit, gaiety. But she is cautious, a bit suspicious, on her guard.’

It is certainly protective. The mask can conceal – what the wearer feels, or thinks, and it can control or dictate how she is seen. Professionally it enabled Katherine to disappear behind a blank canvas so she could observe unfolding scenes impassively unseen – an invaluable tool for a writer. Personally it provided a carapace, so she never gave away more than she wanted to. She described this in a letter to Murry.

Don't lower your mask - until you have another mask prepared beneath - as terrible as you like - but a mask.'

The symbolist ideal of the artist's ability to become his mask would be one Mansfield would recognise. But what was beneath this mask, or series of masks?

Katherine’s letters are so full of the question ‘Who am I? Is there a me?’ it seems possible as Brett suggests that ‘the acting became so real to her that she didn’t always know which was her real self.’ This ability to immerse herself deeply into the roles she adopts make her a wonderful writer, and one not afraid to experiment with different styles and tones, but it could lead to confusion as KM herself expresses in her notebooks.

‘Which self?’ Which of many – well, really that’s what it looks like coming to, hundreds of selves?... there are moments when I feel I am nothing but the small clerk of some hotel without a proprietor, who has all his work cut out to enter the names and hand the keys to the wilful guests’

As we’ve seen the chosen identity or mask enabled her to compartmentalise her life, keeping relationships separate. This was something I explored in For Oscar Wilde in Two Tigers.

‘Katerina still with Caesar, but with Maata she was Kass…’

But what may have begun as a fun experiment, trying on different personas for size to see which fitted the best, as time went on it became a survival mechanism, a way to compose her life – by composing herself. As illness took hold, Katherine began to feel increasingly vulnerable, anxious to discard what she saw as the falsity of keeping up appearances and keen to discover a true sense of self – the kernel at her heart.

During the final months of her life, this was one of the attractions of Gurdjieff’s teaching and institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. She no longer had to play a role. Life was stripped to its essentials, and she was hoping if his ‘Cure’ worked it would lead her to a more grounded life and a different kind of writing. Despite all the pain she had felt at estrangement from her husband as she lived abroad hoping to recover, her romantic ideal remained a life shared with Murry.

Strangely her room-mate at the institute in Fontainebleau, Olgivanna (later Mrs Frank Lloyd Wright) echoes the impression Murry had of his future wife.

‘She always dressed simply, beautifully, with some little touch of colour…”

Naturally - an elegant canvas - as she had first presented herself to him. As a writer of a musical about their lives I'm inclined to be romantic. But - perhaps he knew more about the private woman beneath the many masks than scholarship sometimes allows.

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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