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In defence of JMM

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

Ground-breaking writer Katherine Mansfield is at the heart of musical Two Tigers which English Cabaret are producing later in the year. Whilst re-imagining her show, writer Sue Casson has been exploring new facts about her life that have emerged 'a lifetime on' in a series of Mansfield Musings, which we are re-publishing from the beginning.

For Casson, the story of Two Tigers is one of love, but history, and scholarship, has not been kind to Tiger Two John Middleton Murry.

All my manuscripts I leave entirely to you to do what you like with. Go through them one day, dear love, and destroy all you do not use. Please destroy all letters you do not wish to keep and all papers. You know my love of tidiness. Have a clean sweep Bogey, and leave all fair – will you?’

Controversy has arisen from this simple letter to John Middleton Murry from his wife Katherine Mansfield outlining her last wishes to 'leave all fair' - for what is fair? The dictionary defines fairness as freedom from favouritism, deception or self-interest but these are difficult qualities to quantify. The formal will, dated a week later, 14th August is perhaps less equivocal. (My italics)

‘All manuscripts notebook papers letters I leave to John M Murry likewise I should like him to publish as little as possible and to tear up and burn as much as possible he will understand that I desire to leave as few traces of my camping ground as possible.’

Mansfield herself was a great burner of her past, work that didn’t pass muster, letters or diary entries too incriminating or too sad to be kept. She once wrote that every place she left (and KM moved about a lot) was like a death in that she tidily edited before packing up and moving on.

So, if she understood the scale of Murry’s posthumous publishing of ‘her traces’ would she have felt he was being deceitful or ‘unfair’, wilfully misinterpreting her instructions to raid her ‘waste-paper basket’ as DH Lawrence put it? Her 1921 comment to Ottoline Morrell about a book of Chekhov that had recently been published seems to support this.

‘It’s not fair to glean a man’s buttons and pins and hawk them after his death.’

But – the final stages of her TB made KM prey to black and extreme moods. She writes in her notebooks in 1922 of one of her ‘terrible fits of temper over a pencil.’ The tone of the letter she wrote to her husband a week before the will is so different – so different in fact to one she had written to him 3 years previously when she began to fear for her life.

‘Any money I have is yours of course… All my manuscripts I simply leave to you’

This letter from September 1919 makes no qualifications – and at the same time seems to breeze away later criticisms of Murry that he 'self-interestedly' profited from her writing. Others might dislike him – some for good reason, but Mansfield loved and trusted him. Having worked alongside JMM for a decade, she would not only believe in his professional instinct, but as the man closest to her, that he would have her interests at heart.

Seeing the success of Katherine Mansfield’s Journal outstripping the sale of her stories in some parts of the world, perhaps the modern reader can acknowledge that the editor in Murry was more far-seeing than contemporaries allowed. KM herself might be glad that her ‘fabulous autobiography of the soul’ as Angela Carter described it, is regarded as a worthy successor to the diary of Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff, whose writing she had sought to emulate in her youth.

What is fair?

Defenders of Mansfield’s honour have for years ignored any positive contribution to her legacy Murry might have made. Leave All Fair, a 1985 film with Jane Birkin and John Gielgud taking their roles offers this unequivocal view as its' Imdb summary.

‘Mansfield's dying wishes regarding her writings have been ignored by the manipulative, and less-than-honest, Middleton Murry.’

If Murry was not ‘fair’ to Mansfield, in turn History has been far from ‘fair’ to him. A prolific writer himself, it was a shared passion for expression, and a desire to get their voices heard that drew he and Katherine together from the start. Rhythm, the ground-breaking arts magazine that he founded whilst still an Oxford undergraduate, set the template for a life divided by the responsibilities of editorship – identifying and offering other artistic talents a platform, whilst at the same time wishing to take his place amongst them.

Ultimately the editor in him triumphed – and if we are talking about 'favouritism' Murry went far further than any other would have dreamed of going in his unapologetic promotion of his wife - journeying all over Europe to collect her papers after her death, poring over the difficult handwriting to extract a fair copy, trying, with very little help from the source material, to understand the chronology. Admitting to himself (not easy for a vocational writer) that Mansfield’s skill far exceeded his own he single-mindedly did everything he could to ensure her talent was recognised. It turned into the quest of his life. He wrote in a letter to Prudence Maufe:

‘Katherine’s work is sacred – a bad word but the best I have to me’

No writer could ask for more. All her life Katherine had worked towards making a literary name for herself, ‘a writer first and a woman after’ - Murry posthumously fulfilled her desire to become a household name at considerable personal sacrifice. His writings put aside, his motives questioned. As a woman writer myself I salute his achievement. Greater love hath no man than this.

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

Picture of a shelf of Mansfield books from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings (Word Press)

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