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Mortally ill, poverty-stricken and sexually unconventional though she might be, Katherine still valued her status as a respectable married woman. Hence when Katherine, during one of her brief periods of cohabitation with her husband, discovered that Elizabeth had been besieging Murry — and giving him tokens of her admiration, such as her father’s book — she reacted very sharply indeed. Katherine Mansfield’s letter to Elizabeth Bibesco, dated March 24, 1921, is perhaps the most famous she ever wrote: one of the most crushing put-downs in literary history.

Dear Princess Bibesco,
I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world.
You are very young. Won’t you ask your husband to explain to you the impossibility of such a situation.
Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and I simply hate having to teach them manners.
Yours sincerely,
Katherine Mansfield

This letter, often anthologised, requires interpretation. Its delicious irony and colossal condescension mask a deep insecurity about matrimonial and class status. “While he and I live together” is carefully worded, for Elizabeth knew, and Katherine knew that she knew, that they were very seldom under one roof. Nor was it the case that such liaisons were “not done in our world”: Murry’s world overlapped with those of Lady Ottoline Morrell and the Bloomsbury set, for whom not only adultery and homosexuality but even incest were scarcely taboos. Katherine’s hypocrisy was breathtaking: she appealed to marital fidelity to put an end to her husband’s infatuation while herself carrying on her own, more or less open, lesbian relationship. Even more unavoidable was their unequal social status: Katherine was poor and from a colonial background, while Elizabeth was rich and from one of the most distinguished families in the land. Hence Katherine turns the tables, by affecting to hate the idea of teaching the younger woman a lesson in etiquette, while actually drawing attention to her bad manners — a perfect example of the rhetorical device of apophasis.

In the eyes of both women, however, it was intellectual rather than class status that mattered. In Elizabeth Bibesco, Katherine saw not a serious rival but a frivolous flapper, unworthy of her husband’s attentions. The Princess’s vocation as a writer was not yet established — her first collection of short stories only appeared that year — while Katherine already had a reputation as one of the most talented authors of her generation. Lovely as she was, Elizabeth must have struck Katherine as a mere dilettante, a rich socialite whose obsession with Murry was as hollow as her intellectual pretensions. Politics may have come into the equation, too: the Murrys were serious about the post-war prospect of a socialist utopia, while for them the liberal Asquiths represented the Edwardian era. All these factors made up a combustible combination in the form of a letter that must have taken even the most self-confident Princess aback. It must also have put John Middleton Murry firmly in his place. No more was heard of “little love letters”.

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