Katherine Mansfield and the Parliamentary Library

Published date: 14 Oct 2013
People standing in a room with tables and books scattered around it.

General Assembly Library reading room, c. 1901. Photo: Parliamentary Collection.

During October 2013 a display relating to the 125th anniversary of Katherine Mansfield’s birth can be viewed at Parliament’s Visitor Centre. Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp (pen-name ‘Katherine Mansfield’) was born in Wellington on 14 October 1888. As a modernist writer of short fiction, she achieved fame as New Zealand’s pre-eminent writer.

Born into a family belonging to Wellington’s social élite, Kathleen was brought up to become a cultured young lady fit for society. In 1903 the family sailed for England so that the three eldest Beauchamp girls, including 14-year-old Kathleen, could attend Queen’s College in London to complete their education. Three years later she returned unwillingly to New Zealand, arriving in December 1906.

The Parliamentary Library became a welcome retreat from what she regarded as the crass colonial life of Wellington. She was able to gain access to the library because of the political connections of her father, Harold Beauchamp, who was a personal friend of Premier Richard John Seddon and also had connections with the Chief Librarian, Charles Wilson.

Mansfield had her own corner there in the afternoons. ‘You know I go to the Technical School every day – Library until five in the afternoon – then a walk – and in the evenings I read & write,’ she wrote to her sister. In one of her notebook entries she noted: ‘A wet afternoon in the Library – in March [1908]. I have read most strange books here – one on the Path to Rome, one of Maori art’. And in a letter a few months later she wrote: ‘I have been spending days at the Library reading and writing a novel – entitled The Youth of Rewa – it is very much in embryo just at present’.

She made extensive use of the library’s collections, reading ‘the lives of innumerable artists and poets’, a great deal of poetry such as Browning and Yeats, and the writings of dramatists such as Ibsen and Shaw and of literary critics. A biographer suggests her favourite authors in the library were ‘Morris and Meredith, Ruskin and Shaw, Whitman and Carpenter, D’Annunzio and the Brontёs’. Her story ‘Taking the Veil’, written in 1922, tells of a young girl who ‘had made going to the Library an excuse for getting out of the house to think, to realise what had happened, to decide somehow what was to be done now’.

G.H. Scholefield, later the Chief Librarian, and a personal friend of her father, wrote of Kathleen’s time in the library:

‘Obviously she had a mind mature far beyond her age. Living in the borderland of that artistic world of London into which she had merely been able to peep, she steeped herself in literary and artistic criticism, and adventured with complete confidence in the philosophy of the dawning twentieth century.’

Kathleen left New Zealand in July 1908, never to return. By then she had managed to get some of her stories published and persuaded her father to let her return to England.

Parliament’s Visitor Centre has a display relating to her time in the library, including books she would have read and her signature as ‘K. Beauchamp’ in a Day Book of the period. The display can be viewed independently or combined with a public tour of Parliament. For further details on visiting and tours see the related link on this page.