“Promise of great merit”—the Juvenilia of Katherine Mansfield

Stream: Session E
Date: Thursday, 21 July 2022
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.30 pm


In 1898 young Kathleen Beauchamp submitted a little story called 'Enna Blake' to her Wellington High School magazine. The sixth form editor was impressed and wrote a little introduction: “This story, written by one of the girls who have lately entered the school, shows promise of great merit.” A perceptive student editor! The author of 'Enna Blake' went on to become renowned as Katherine Mansfield, her stories attracting international acclaim. In 1903 Kathleen sailed for England to study at Queen’s College, London for three years. In 1905 she co-edited the college magazine, and during her time there wrote five short stories for the publication, including 'Die Einsam' about a distracted virgin longing for a Romantic death. She then had to sail for home, but from that time was obsessed with returning to London – she left New Zealand for good in 1908. While at Queen’s, she tried her hand at a novel – only fragments of 'Juliet' survive - and continued writing short stories. 'His Ideal', 'My Potplants', 'Misunderstood', 'Les Deux Étrangères' and 'What You Please' all date from this time. Throughout her writing life, Mansfield set some of her finest stories in New Zealand. 'About Pat', written when she was seventeen, is set in her family’s Karori home and describes Patrick Sheehan, Irish cowman and gardener who was employed by her father. It’s the first of her stories that clearly shows her distinctive style, with its precision of detail, its episodic nature and vivid characterisation achieved in very few words. Her time in London had left Mansfield with a need to prove herself beyond New Zealand shores. In 1907 she earned £2 for 'Vignettes', published in the Australian periodical 'Native Companion', and slightly more than that for'In a Café' and 'In the Botanical Gardens'. These stories were fin de siècle in style and tone, showing the influence of Oscar Wilde whose works had enthralled her as a London student. They also demonstrate her resolve to distance herself from her colonial home, her father’s position as governor of the Bank of New Zealand, and the limitations of life in Wellington. 'In the Botanical Garden' innovatively uses symbolist techniques to show the emotions of the young female protagonist. The colours and smells of the garden contribute to her mood, yet also represent it, and we sense the feelings of “savagery” as she moves from the formal paths into the wilder bush. The tale’s strong sexual impulse worried Sir Harold Beauchamp, her father, and helped persuade him that paying her an allowance and sending his daughter back to London might be less harmful than keeping her in Wellington. And so Kathleen sailed away, changed her name to Katherine Mansfield, and lived out her short life on the other side of the world. This talk examines a selection of Mansfield’s extraordinary juvenilia, to see what the teenage author was capable of writing as she learned to pen the stories of which Virginia Woolf exclaimed: “the only writing I have even been jealous of!”

SUSANNAH FULLERTON, literary lecturer and tour leader, has been President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia for the past 24 years, and is Patron of the Rudyard Kipling Society of Australia. Her publications include Jane Austen and Crime, Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia, A Dance with Jane Austen, Happily Ever After: Celebrating Pride and Prejudice, and Jane & I: A Tale of Austen Addiction. She has written and presented the CD Finding Katherine Mansfield. Susannah writes the popular monthly blog, Notes from a Book Addict, and leads booked-out literary tours to the UK, Europe, USA and New Zealand.