100 Years Ago — Katherine Mansfield and the Wish to be Real

On January 9,1923, Katherine Mansfield died in Fontainebleau, just outside Paris, at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. In October 1922, she had set out for Fontainebleau in the company of Ida Baker, for an interview with Gurdjieff. Deep depression and a spiritual crisis had led her to this decision, as she wrote in a letter that winter:

It seems to me that in life as it is lived today the catastrophe is imminent; I feel this catastrophe in me [. . . ] This world to me is a dream and the people in it are sleepers. I have known just instances of waking but that is all. I want to find a world in which these instances are united.

To her husband John Middleton Murry, she had written in December 1922 “I want to be real.”

She hoped to be admitted as a pupil of Gurdjieff’s teachings, but instead was welcomed as a guest with a very special regime which she describes in her letters. She rose at seven-thirty and lit a small fire in her room. The crumpled pages of the Literary Supplement were just the thing to get the blaze going. She washed in icy water, dressed before the fire and then went down to an abundant breakfast: eggs, toast, gorgonzola, quince jam. After breakfast she tidied her room and if weather permitted, she took a stroll around the grounds, observing the pupils busy with construction and yard work or visiting the farm animals kept as livestock. After lunch, some days she had a Russian lesson. On other days, bundled in her fur coat, she would help out in the kitchen at small task — like scraping carrots or peeling potatoes. Or she might be assigned the task of arranging flowers.

The culmination of each day at the Prieuré was the sacred dance class held after dinner. Though she had never cared for dancing, this dancing, she explained to Murry, was something different: it appeared to her as ‘the key to a new world within one’.  ‘I have no words with which to describe it. To see it seems to change one’s whole being for the time’. 

Despite what might seem a regimented schedule, there was also time for Katherine to nurture friendships with the other pupils — many of whom were artists, musicians, dancers, and this is one aspect of her life at the Prieuré that she underlined often in her letters. Her writing mentor, Richard Orage, who had become a transmitter of Gurdjieff’s teachings, has collected his conversations with her at the Prieuré in his book, “Talks with Katherine Mansfield.” Although Gurdjieff had advised Mansfield to use her time there for complete rest, to “live in her body again,” and not to use her energies writing –she did think deeply about her work at this time, and about the changes she wished to make in her life and in her writing.

Reflecting on her past work, she confessed to Orage: “I’ve been a camera.  But that’s just the point.  I’ve been a selective camera, and it has been my attitude that has determined the selection; with the result that my slices of life (thank you, Mr. Phillpotts!) have been partial, misleading, and a little malicious.  Further, they have had no other purpose than to record my attitude, which in itself stood in need of change if it was to become active instead of passive.  Altogether, I’ve been not only a mere camera, but I’ve been a selective camera, and a selective camera without a creative principle. ”

According to Orage, she believed she had found that new creative principle but still had to put it into practice.

Her death in January 1923 at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau is an enigma to many – how did she end up there and why? Reading the last stories, the last journals and letters, one finds many glimpses of her hunger for a more “permanent core” of self which attracted her to the teachings of Gurdjieff. Perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf alluded to when, writing of Katherine’s diary, she remarked, “ But writing, the mere expression of things adequately and sensitively, is not enough. It is founded upon something unexpressed; and this something must be solid and entire.” It was this something “solid and entire” that Katherine was searching for, within herself.

In my novel, Katherine’s Wish, I follow the last five years of Mansfield’s life, the events, the musing, and the quest which led her to Fontainebleau.

Resources: Letters of KM, Orage: Talks with Katherine Mansfield, Lappin: Ghosts of Fontainebleau, Lappin: Katherine Mansfield and DHL A Spiritual Quest

Listen to a reading from Katherine’s Wish here


LIBRARIES: Available on Ingram Content

A radio play adaptation of a part of the book dealing with the friendship of Mansfield and Virginia Woolf is available on YORICK RADIO PODCASTS. Click here to listen


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