Happy Birthday, Katherine Mansfield!

By | October 14, 2020

Guest post by Gerri Kimber

I first discovered the stories of Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) when I was sixteen. Always a book addict, I used to go into my local town – Stroud, in Gloucestershire – every Saturday morning to browse the second-hand and charity book stalls, looking for new volumes to satiate my reading habit. One day, quite randomly, I picked up a wartime edition of The Garden Party and Other Stories from 1942, printed on cheap, thin paper, but with a beguiling, strange photograph of Mansfield herself staring out from the front cover. I’d never heard of the author or the collection, but the photo spoke to me, and so the volume went into my carrier bag along with a dozen other bargains. A few days later, I got the book down from a bookshelf in my bedroom and started reading. I was instantly captivated, and over forty years later that sense of captivation has only increased. 

Photo of Katherine Mansfield

I later undertook a PhD on Mansfield, and to date have written or edited over 30 volumes on her. Twelve years ago I helped to set up the international Katherine Mansfield Society, and was its Chair for ten of those years. All this because of a chance encounter with an old second-hand book in my teens. 

Mansfield is buried in the little town of Avon, very close to Fontainebleau, south-east of Paris. She had gone to Avon in October 1922, in order to follow the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic who, together with his followers, had recently set up the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in the ancient Prieuré des Basses Loges. Mansfield’s tuberculosis, from which she had been suffering for a number of years, had become so physically debilitating that in sheer desperation she now turned to a spiritual cure. It was clear she did not have long to live, but Gurdjieff nevertheless let her join his newly-founded community. She died there barely three months later on 9 January 1923, aged just 34.

​I first visited her grave in 1984 whilst writing my PhD on the subject of Mansfield’s reputation and reception in France. For me, it was most definitely a ‘pilgrimage’ – no other word quite explains my reasons for going. It didn’t particularly further my research, but I was desperate to visit her last resting place, and also to see the Prieuré for myself (there being no such thing as Google images in those days to satisfy my curiosity).

The municipal graveyard in Avon is quite large, and on the day I visited was completely deserted. It took ages to find Mansfield’s gravestone, and I do remember quite distinctly that moment when I realised it was right in front of me! I also remember feeling vaguely disappointed. The grave was quite modest, and the area around it a little unkempt. In addition, just a few metres behind the grave, beyond the back wall of the cemetery, were decrepit old farm buildings, and behind them, in a strange twist of fate, the main railway line heading to the south of France; how many times, unwittingly, Mansfield had sped past the place where she would ultimately be buried. 

All in all, it was hardly the romantic, grandiose spot I had envisaged. But what surprised me the most, and something which I had not expected, was how close she is buried to Gurdjieff’s own large plot (he died in October 1949, in Paris), just a couple of metres away, composed of two largeand rough-hewn menhirs, next to a tall cyprus tree.

In 1984, before I made that first visit to Mansfield’s grave, I had been awarded a small grant from the Soroptimists in Cirencester, a town near to my family’s home in England. It was in fact this money that permitted me to make that first journey to Avon. When I went to the ceremony to receive my award, a lady asked me if I would like to meet Katherine Mansfield’s youngest sister, Jeanne Renshaw. As you can imagine, I was completely overcome, having assumed her three sisters were all long dead.

And so, the following week, in the greatest possible state of nervous excitement, I was taken to a very smart residential home for the elderly in Cirencester, where I met Jeanne. She was immaculately turned out, as befitted the daughter of the once-Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand, raised in the top echelons of New Zealand society: nails manicured, hair perfectly coiffured with a little net on top, and beautifully tailored clothes. We had tea, and she talked animatedly and lucidly about her celebrated sister. I was entranced. She had nothing new to tell me, and of course her anecdotes were all exceedingly flattering and full of praise, when we know that the Beauchamp family struggled to come to terms with the actions of Mansfield, the archetypal black sheep of the family, both during her lifetime and even after her death. Nevertheless, I left her presence feeling myself touched by some elusive sort of Beauchamp stardust; I effervesced all the way home. 

I met Jeanne a few more times and we corresponded quite regularly – she was a diligent and prolific letter writer. When I told her I was going to visit Mansfield’s grave, she asked me to take a photo and send it to her, as she had not seen it since the day of Mansfield’s funeral all those years ago in 1923. I duly sent her a photograph, for which she thanked me profusely. Jeanne died in 1989, at the age of 97. 

Fast forward twenty-five years from that first meeting to 2009, and I had the very good fortune to meet Jeanne’s granddaughter, Janine Renshaw-Beauchamp, the daughter of her son, Richard. Janine’s parents had separated before she was born, and she had been officially adopted and raised by her grandmother, Jeanne. Amongst several Beauchamp artefacts inherited from her grandmother was a copy of her father Sir Harold Beauchamp’s privately printed Reminiscences and Recollections from 1937, a copy of which had been given to each member of his family. I’d never actually seen the book before, and so rather than look at it hurriedly, Janine kindly let me keep it for a few days. I took it home, carefully wrapped up.

That evening, I sat at my desk and opened the book. I noticed there was something stuck to the inside back cover – an envelope – which had my handwriting on it! Scarcely believing what my eyes were seeing, I peeked inside the envelope, and there was the photo of Mansfield’s grave that I had sent Jeanne in 1984. I rang Janine immediately to tell her – she of course had no idea that it was me who had sent Jeanne that photo, or that her grandmother had kept it safe, in the precious copy of her father’s book.

Mere synchronicity – or something a touch more supernatural – the persona of Mansfield still has the power to surprise and to move me in equal measure.

Gerri Kimber is Visiting Professor at the University of Northampton, UK. She is co-editor of Katherine Mansfield Studies and Katherine Mansfield: New Directions, Chair of the Katherine Mansfield Society and Series Editor of the four-volume Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield.



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