Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life

by Claire Tomalin. Knopf, $22.95. After Mansfield’s death, her husband, John Middleton Murry, tried to represent her as an ethereal and almost saintly creature. In reaction to this sentimental implausibility Ms. Tomalin, with access to material ignored or suppressed by Murry, has written one of those odd biographies in which the author displays a mixture of respect and distaste for the subject. Katherine Mansfield, a fine and original writer, undoubtedly was mercurial, difficult, and a liar whenever whimsy or circumstances indicated that invention was preferable to fact. Her secret life, however, is no great revelation. In her time (1888-1923) even a determined “new woman” was not likely to advertise an illegitimate child, a blackmailing ex-lover, and venereal disease. The child was still-born, the lover was paid off, and the venereal infection was incompetently treated. Mansfield kept quiet about all of them and can reasonably be considered more sensible than secretive.