Katherine Mansfield was born as Kathleen Beauchamp on 14th October 1888, in a socially prominent family in Wellington, New Zealand. Her father, Harold Beauchamp, was a very successful businessman and in 1893 he bought a country house at Karori, where Mansfield attended a primary school. Later, she was admitted to Wellington High School and in 1903, Beauchamp shifted his three elder daughters to the Queen’s College. Katherine began writing short stories from her days in the high school and encouraged by her teachers in the college, she began to explore the famous works of Leo Tolstoy, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wild. During those days, she also edited the college magazine. Most reluctantly she had to come back home in 1906 and stayed till 1908. However, she continued to write and had some stories published in ‘The Native Companion’.
As a young girl, Katherine was highly talented, but she was different. She felt herself superior to the boys and disliked the traditional role played by women. She was passionate and full of sexual impulses. During her early life, she had two passionate relationships, with artist Edith Kathleen Bendall and with her schoolmate Maata Mahupuku, also known as Martha Grace.
Edith Bendall was nine years older than Katherine, and she had a studio a few doors away from the Beauchamp house. To start with, Kathleen made the first move, when she invited Edith to stay alone with her at their family beach house at Days Bay. She confessed in her journal on 1st June 1907 that, she enjoyed the night as she spent it in the arms of Edith and she felt more powerfully all those so-termed sexual impulses with her than with any man. Much later, Edith Bendall married a Wellington schoolmaster and died in 1986, at the age of 107. All through her life, she preserved most of the letters she received from Katherine.
Maata Mahupuku was the daughter of Richard (Tiki) William Mahupuku and her wife Emily Sexton, who later married to a Nathaniel Grace. Maata Mahupuku met Katherine in 1900 at Miss Swainson’s primary school, when both of them were in early adolescence. Their relationship probably began before Katherine left for England for the first time. They met again in London in 1906, when Katherine was involved with Ida Baker. But, their affair continued on their return to Wellington, which is evident from Katherine’s journal in June 1907.
Katherine’s relationship with Edith Bendall upset her parents, but she rebelled against her colonial background and in July 1908, at the age of 19, sailed for London. In London Mansfield quickly fell into a bohemian way of life and took an assortment of lovers, including several women, a blackmailing Pole and possibly Bertrand Russell. At first, she sought out the Trowell family for companionship and embarked on a passionate affair with the young musician Garnet Trowell. However, Garnet betrayed and abandoned her while she was pregnant. She then married the music teacher George Bowden, but left him on the same day in the evening, going back to Garnet Trowell. But, as Garnet came to know about her marriage, he threw her out again and Katherine started to live with Ida Baker, one of her old friends from the days of the Queen’s College.
Katherine had an unfathomable and bizarre relationship with Ida Baker, whom she called ‘Lesley Moore’ or simply ‘LM’ (after her uncle), and also named her as the Faithful one, the albatross and ‘wife’. Mansfield alternately depended on and despised the long-suffering Baker, who was the sometime housekeeper, nurse, lover and bane of Mansfield's life for nearly 20 years.Their relationship lasted till the death of Katherine in 1923 and Ida Baker published a memoir about it in 1971.
Probably on hearing the news of Katherine’s marriage, her mother, Annie Beaucham soon arrived in London. She blamed the lesbian relationship between Katherine and Ida Baker for the breakdown of the marriage, warned the Ida's family about lesbianism and immediately took her daughter to the Bavarian spa town of Bad Wörishofen. Shortly after arriving in Germany, the mother returned to Wellington and disinherited the daughter, little knowing that her daughter miscarried after attempting to lift a suitcase on top of a cupboard.
Those days in Bavaria had an important and significant impact on the literary life and outlook of Mansfield. She returned to London in January 1910 and then published more than a dozen articles in the socialist magazine, the ‘New Age’. During that time, she became a friend and a lover of Beatrice Hastings (the pen name of Emily Alice Haigh), an English writer, poet and critic), who lived with the editor A.R.Orage. Her first published collection, ‘In a German Pension’ (1911), was based on her experience in Germany.
Since her late teens, Katherine had been known to be highly promiscuous, frequently using men for her own pleasure and vanity and leave them, once her initial thrill had faded. She used to fall in love quickly, till the arrival of John Middleton Murry in her life. In 1911 Mansfield began a relationship with Murry, editor of a magazine and after Mansfield's divorce from Bowden had been finalized, they were married in 1918. However, Katherine left him twice, in 1911 and 1913, during which she wrote the poignant letters which record, her swings from ecstasy to despair as tuberculosis ran its course.
Mansfield and Murry became close friends with D. H. Lawrence and Frieda Weekley and were witnesses for their wedding in 1914. The two couples established themselves in two cottages near Chesham in Buckinghamshire and they even lived communally for some time. However, finally the arrangement did not work. But, Mansfield's recollections of the events in New Zealand inspired Lawrence with the lesbian episode in his ‘The Rainbow’ and she was certainly the model for Gudrun in his ‘Women in Love’.
Mansfield crossed paths with most of the young literary lions of her day -- Rupert Brooke, James Joyce, T.S.Eliot, Lytton Strachey (homosexual author and husband of painter Dora Carrington), to mention just a few of that talented and viciously competitive group. Mansfield and Murry were on hand for some of Lady Ottoline Morrell's house parties at Garsington, where the flirtations and feuds were many and complicated. British painter Mark Gertler once claimed that at one of the parties at Garsington Manor he made violent love to a drunken Katherine Mansfield, who reciprocated it spiritedly. It is said that, later Mansfield admitted the incident to Frieda Lawrence and confessed that she was in love with Gertler and Frieda in her turn accused Mansfield of seducing the younger men.
Mansfield made a conquest of Lady Ottoline Morrell and friends of two women painters she met there, Dorothy Brett and Dora Carrington. Later in the year she shared a house with them in London at 3 Gower Street. There was a flirtation with Bertrand Russell, and Lytton Strachey was impressed by her. During that period she left Murry and went to live with Ida Baker in Kensington.
In 1916 Mansfield was introduced to Virginia Woolf through Lytton Strachey and the two women had dinner together in Hogarth House in Richmond. It was followed by a weekend get together at Woolf's rented home, Asheham House, at Beddingham, near Lewes. Much later, after Mansfield's death, Virginia admitted that she was jealous of only one person's writing and she was Katherine Mansfield.
It may seem ironic, but as Katherine began to blossom as a writer and receive serious recognition for her work, her health began to slip away. She became very ill in December 1917, firstly with a recurrence of gonorrhoea and then with the onset of the tuberculosis that would kill her. To avoid the dangers of wintering in cold England, she was advised to go to a warmer place, preferably to the south of France. She settled in Bandol on the south coast of France and in January 1918, suffered her first haemorrhage. In October 1922 Mansfield was moved to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau. There, in the evening of 9th January 1923, as she went up the stairs, she began to cough and suffered a fatal pulmonary haemorrhage. According to Murry, she was dead within a few minutes. On 12th January Katherine Mansfield was buried in the nearby cemetery at Avon in France. This was a woman who made the most of her short life, even as she trailed like a gypsy from health resort to health resort, frantic to find a cure.