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Keeping up Appearances

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, as she recreates Katherine Mansfield on stage, she reflects on why Mansfield is the perfect (literary) leading lady.

Umbrellas by Dorothy Brett, Manchester Art Gallery. The three figures in the foreground were inspired by (L to R) Aldous Huxley, Lady Ottoline Morrell and Lytton Strachey. The artist is looking on from behind, beneath the blue umbrella.

Despite being ‘altogether concentrated on her art’, as Virginia Woolf observed, Katherine Mansfield doesn’t sit easily beside many of the ‘blue stockings’ that were her contemporaries. Her unconventional spirit and delight in her outrageous past startled not only Woolf but many of her circle who weren’t quite sure what to make of her. She was unexpected, lively and playfully provocative, she entertained people, made them laugh.

Away from the printed page this makes her a complex candidate for literary study. But it is just this propensity to cut a dash that makes her perfect for the stage. Dorothy Brett the artist who painted the header to this blog, and a friend of Katherine, described her appearance as

‘small, her sleek dark hair brushed close to her head, her fringe slicked down over her white forehead…’

Already ahead of her time in style, this is just the beginning.


Were she here to have a view, Katherine Mansfield would take a keen interest in the clothing of the actress who played her. She had a lifelong love of fashion but was also ahead of her time in being a woman writer with the soul of an actor, willing, or possibly even keen to perform what she wrote. Like that great theatrical novelist Charles Dickens, she could always make her classmates cry when she read his books aloud during sewing lessons, and when she returned to London at the age of 19, would write monologues to entertain the girls in her hostel, rehearsing in front of a mirror before performing at society gatherings. For a short time over the winter of 1916, she even worked as a film extra. Marion Ruddick her friend at Queen’s College described her friend’s vivacity.

Mimicry was her strong suit and her sense of drama was faultless – she could think herself into any part.

Just like an actor Katherine was highly aware of the effect she could create when entering a room. She loved dressing up and enjoyed the whole business of considering how she would appear - taking trouble with her accessories and make-up and having what seemed an instinctive knowledge of how to be noticed. She matched her confidence in her ability to charm with striking outfits that reinforced her personal individualism.

This is perhaps more remarkable as she was not a natural born beauty. Regarded by her mother as the goose in a family of swans, chubby, bespectacled and awkward, what she lacked in native looks she made up for in intelligence and sheer effort of will. She wished to appear beautiful – and she did. She learned how by watching those who were, and as an instinctive performer successfully imitating them.

But she will have picked up the art of dressing well at her mother's knee. In an early scene in the original Two Tigers we include her mother's remarks about wishing to be an explorer when young.

'I can feel the kind of hat I should wear.'

Keeping up appearances was considered important, and with the resources to be able to do so, young Kathleen learnt to appreciate fine fabrics and stylish tailoring early in her life. When she first arrived in London as she adjusted to living on an allowance from her father, this meant spending beyond her means. As she became cannier, she found herself a clever but cheap dressmaker who appreciated her regular business.

The House and Garden Museum of Katherine Mansfield in Wellington call her a 'fashionista' describing how in 1910 she assembled what we would now call a capsule wardrobe of long skirts and blouses in black and white, set off with accessories in the rich colours she loved - red and plum waistcoats and jackets in lush fabrics, with brightly coloured French stockings. Such outfits were made for the stage and would not be out of place in Cecil Beaton’s famous Ascot scene in My Fair Lady. What's more the opportunities to mix and match gave the impression of a much wider selection of clothes than was really the case. Even in difficult times, when chronically short of money, through sheer ingenuity Katherine managed to maintain an eye-catching sense of personal style.

A real head-turner

Katherine’s dress sense won her many admirers. John Middleton Murry’s brother Richard sees his brother’s partner as ‘a real head-turner’, an impression reinforced by DH Lawrence in his pen portrait of KM as Gudrun in Women in Love. He describes the impression she makes in her colourful, boldly individual clothes and stockings, as ‘a bird of paradise.’

Certainly she never seemed short of willing suitors, and never forgot the way her looks could be used to get what she wanted. When, towards the end of the First World War, she needed a medical certificate to return to England from the south of France where she had been convalescing, she uses all the wiles she has at her disposal to achieve the certification from a disreputable doctor. Afterwards she writes to Jack of her success.

‘How hideous human beings are - how loathsome it was to catch this toad as I did... I kept hearing him say, very thick "any trouble is a pleasure for a lovely woman”'

It may not have made her comfortable, and no doubt cheapened her formidable intelligence, but it reveals her confidence in her own allure.

Frustratingly few surviving photos bear this out. Instead they capture her intensity and intellectual brilliance, the stuff of her writing. At Garsington Lady Ottoline might see KM ‘constantly playing different parts’ as evidence of superficiality, surely the enemy to a sincere writer, but the camera doesn’t lie. The truth is far more nuanced. There is another Katherine below the surface of captivating leading lady – which is ultimately what will make her a complicated character to play.

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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