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 blog post she takes a closer look at the childlike relationship of the Two Tigers ...
Once upon a time
A man and a woman
And all matters literary
Meeting in their prime
This man and this woman
Devoted all their time
To the furtherance of Art
And despite the hours of toil
The money that they spent
Amidst their love and art
They found themselves content
In their cockleshell review
Founded on a fervent heart
Cockleshell Review, Two Tigers
It was Eddie Marsh, editor of the Georgian poets and patron of the arts who coined this idea of Rhythm magazine as a cockleshell review, placing its’ tiger editors firmly in a fairy story. And there was something of the dreamchild about the relationship of Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry, certainly in the way they saw themselves. Whether it was Tig’s unshakable belief in his partner’s purity or Wig’s determination to live up to it, despite the often cold realities of their situation, in letters they are forever seekers of the ‘happy ever after’.
Fairy tales were popular as Katherine grew up; Hans Christian Anderson died a little more than a decade before she was born, and Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince and other stories was published in the year of her birth. It was a style that KM experimented with as a developing writer, and continues in her later work in the dreamlike quality of Sun and Moon, or Something Childish but Very Natural.
Katherine was perfectly capable of carrying her fiction into her life, adopting the persona to suit the situation. They were both young when they first met, and Murry as a slightly younger undergraduate with minimal sexual experience may have appealed to KM as a way of beginning again at 24, putting her tempestuous years of miscarriage, marriage and affairs behind her.
In one way, the ‘childlike’ behaviour she adopted with Jack in those early days was tipping a thumb at the conventions of the time. DH Lawrence was struck the first time he met the couple at the Rhythm office by KM sitting on the floor, with her legs akimbo and no regard for who saw them, like an oblivious child, and during another encounter he and Frieda noticed she and Murry sticking their tongues out at each other when they thought they weren’t looking.
At other times Katherine couldn’t fully escape her fur coat clad, lipstick wearing woman of the world appearance, of which Murry’s parents so heartily disapproved. But the childlike relationship they adopted when alone was the oldest romantic ideal - essential, separate from the world with no pretensions, the essence of truth as only children have.
Contemporaries and biographers alike found this distasteful, and given KM’s racy existence prior to meeting JMM ‘untruthful’, but the couple both revelled in this, as Katherine remarked in a letter in 1916,
‘You and I don’t live like grown-up people you know’
And for both of them this was a liberation - which extended to the house they kept and the food they ate, as Claire Tomalin noted – like two students whose primary focus was their study, which of course, it was.
If Tomalin is disappointed to find ‘The two tigers turned out to be kittens’, biographer Kathleen Jones observes that later, when Katherine’s illness forces them apart for long periods, the relationship becomes idealised. Unable to live together, their letters become the safe intimate space and lifeline, as they write to one another of The Heron, a cottage where they can tend the land and live the good life together that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Katherine’s stories.
Jones suggests there is a closeness in the letters that may not be there when Murry comes to visit his wife convalescing abroad, and the insistence of living in a future perfect world finally takes its’ toll on them both. Katherine feels she has to keep bad news from her husband, almost as if protecting a son, and as she comes to recognise that a life together with a child of their own is unlikely to happen, she finds Murry clinging to the dream opens a chasm between them. JMM acknowledges this in his preface to the collected letters.
‘Our love became a dream of happiness to be in some unattainable future.’
Katherine realizes the hard way the flaw with a childlike existence, living a life free of responsibility, means there is no ‘Pa man’ to take charge noting in her journal the care she needs but Murry is unable to give
‘Nurse me, love me, comfort me’
Life remains a financial struggle for KM, and biographers have observed that although Murry was latterly earning well as an editor the constraints of the relationship they had established meant he either didn’t expect to support his wife or she wouldn’t let him.
Perhaps the final irony of this childlike relationship, is having rejected the woman’s role in society embraced by her sisters, as she grows older Katherine ends up wanting what it promises – a secure home life, where she and her children are well provided for.
Someone who’s there to adore you
Who will share dreams
Partners in all that’s before you
Trio, Two Tigers
But the stark truth is that a regular home life doesn’t sit easily with devoting yourself to your art. Katherine chose to be a creator of dreamworlds - ‘A writer first’ - and perhaps the consequence is that you never truly grow up.
This blog was first published in a series of Mansfield Musings on www.SueCasson.co.uk
Two Tigers is playing at the Edinburgh Fringe from 2nd - 27th August this year at C Venues. BOOK NOW!