Katherine Mansfield: The Polish Connection

By Magda Heydel, Gerri KimberDecember 25, 2019

Katherine Mansfield: The Polish Connection
OVER THE PAST CENTURY, Katherine Mansfield’s reputation as one of the most exciting and cutting-edge exponents of the modernist short story has grown steadily, and her short career has been the subject of many literary and biographical studies. There is, however, a stretch of her life that remains stubbornly obscure — namely, her sojourn in Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, from late May to December 1909. She seems to have systematically destroyed all papers relating to this difficult period which gave rise to her brilliantly satirical short story cycle In a German Pension (1911). Only recently have scholars begun to piece together fragments of biographical evidence relating to that half-year in the celebrated spa town, where Mansfield immersed herself in the culture of the locals and in the society of foreign visitors undertaking its Wasserkur.

Mansfield had been taken to Bad Wörishofen by her mother, who, outraged by the news of her daughter’s apparent sexual misdemeanors (with hints of a lesbian affair), traveled all the way from New Zealand to London and carted her wayward daughter off to Bavaria, a water cure being deemed a suitable treatment in such cases. In late June 1909, Mansfield lost the baby she was carrying, the result of a failed relationship in London, but stayed on at the Pension Müller. She soon found herself socially entangled with a group of central European — mostly Polish — émigrés, which included Floryan Sobieniowski, a man who advertised himself as (though he most probably was not) a close friend of the Polish artist and author Stanisław Wyspiański (1869–1907). The prematurely deceased Wyspiański, arguably one of the greatest artists of his time in Europe, was revered in his native Kraków for his stirring, symbolic plays, his paintings, and the monumental stained-glass windows he designed for Kraków churches. He was also popularly seen as one of the figureheads of Polish nationalism, at a time when Poland did not officially exist as a political entity. His funeral on December 2, 1907, became a huge patriotic manifestation that took over Kraków’s main streets.

Mansfield and Sobieniowski must have spent a good deal of time together discussing art and literature and soon began a love affair. He introduced her to an eclectic, bohemian community of émigré writers that was to leave a lasting impression on her creative imagination, long after the romance itself had soured. Although to date no proof has been uncovered, it is nevertheless entirely possible that the pair traveled to Poland together in the late autumn of 1909, that they visited Kraków, and that Mansfield saw the evidence of Wyspiański’s artistic achievements in his hometown, resulting in her poem “To God the Father,” which offers a vivid description of the stained-glass window “God the Father — Let it Be,” designed by Wyspiański for the Franciscan Church and portraying a monumental figure in the act of creation. The window had been installed in the church in 1904, three years before Wyspiański’s death; Mansfield could only have heard of it through Sobieniowski, and if the pair did not travel to Kraków, then she must have seen a photographic reproduction.

One of Mansfield’s rare letters still in existence from this period was written to her youngest sister Jeanne in New Zealand on November 10:

Your birthday gift, little Sister is here beside me on the table — it is a fat Polish dictionary with a green leather binding, and an air, already, of great weariness with life — in fact it goes about with me every day […] Last night, sitting working here, the great jug of scarlet blackberry vine threw a twisted shadow on the wall — rather, my lamplight, more than a little fascinated, stencilled for me the trailing garlands with a wizard finger, and so I thought of you. Did you get the thought. Did you find it hanging on to the edge of your skirt (‘Good gracious, is that a cotton … Where can I have picked it up’ …) ‘My dear, allow me to present you with a Bavarian mind wave!’

What would young Jeanne, 17, safely and respectably at home in Wellington, have made of the exoticism of Polish dictionaries, weariness with life, twisted shadows, trailing garlands, and wizard fingers, sent via a Bavarian mind wave? There is certainly an air of bohemian defiance in the daring, exuberant prose. Mansfield’s lifelong friend Ida Baker recalled that the author had “‘made plans with the Pole’ to go with him to his homeland, and then to go perhaps to Russia,” but this was only what she was told by Mansfield, who may have chosen to conceal her visit to Poland with Sobieniowski.

It is clear that Sobieniowski’s devotion to Wyspiański was soon shared by Mansfield, resulting in another poem, “To Stanislaw Wyspiański.” The poem was published only after Mansfield’s death, in 1938, but its Polish translation — a free and inaccurate one — by Sobieniowski appeared in a Warsaw weekly in December 1910, within a year of her departure from Bavaria, and with a commentary by the translator himself. In her poem, speaking in her own voice as the colonial subject from New Zealand, Mansfield clearly unites the cause of her own small, occupied country with that of another, Poland. Although the translation betrays Sobieniowski’s imperfect knowledge of English, it nevertheless testifies to his almost missionary zeal in presenting Wyspiański to Mansfield as a great artist and great man — from what other source could she possibly have derived such a deeply emotional and highly romantic image of the artist’s work? Mansfield’s immediate enthusiasm was thus harnessed by Sobieniowski in his campaign for the “Polish cause.” Indeed, the intensity of the poem’s admiration for Wyspiański himself, turned up even higher on the poetic scale by Sobieniowski’s free translation, once more points to Mansfield’s physical knowledge and understanding of the artist’s achievements in Kraków. And Mansfield’s infatuation with Sobieniowski is on display in yet another poem from the period, “Floryan Nachdenklich” (“Floryan Pensive”), which reflects an intimacy that had vanished by the end of 1909, when Mansfield made the decision to abandon him and return to London and “normal” life.

Until recently, it was believed these three were the only poems Mansfield wrote in Bavaria in 1909. A recently discovered manuscript, however, reveals that she had in fact been a prolific writer of poetry during 1909. She sent a compilation of poems, many of which had clearly been written during 1909, to the London publisher Elkin Mathews in the second half of 1910. The unpublished book manuscript was eventually bequeathed to the Newberry Library in Chicago in 1999, where it remained unnoticed until May 2015. [1]

Of the 35 poems in the manuscript, only nine had been previously published; the first 28 form a complete poem-cycle, with the poems numbered rather than titled. They arguably represent some of the finest poems Mansfield ever wrote, and also contain information for which almost no other biographical evidence is available. Some of these poems seem to have been written for or about Sobieniowski, as the following excerpts imply:


Through the dark forest we walked apart and silently
Only the dead leaves beneath our feet kept up a ghostly conversation.


Sometimes when my room is flooded with blue light
— The blue light that you love —
And I look out over the snow —
I wonder: ‘Shall I call to him?’
But my wise heart answers: ‘No,
Perhaps he is sleeping’.


There are days — O, they are many — when I am possessed by you.
Their shape and colour and sound — above all sound
(The voice of rain and wind
Leaves in a tree — the lapping of water,
The noise of cart wheels on a wet road


In the swiftly moving sleigh
We sat curled up under the bear skin rugs
And talked of the dangers of life.
You told me all your adventures
And though they were very terrible and violent
I could not help laughing, sometimes you ceased speaking
Turned to me with a funny gravity
‘I just escaped being killed’.
Then our laughter rang over the snow

The proliferation of descriptions of snow, forests, and water, together with references to an unnamed lover, all point to the influence of Mansfield’s time in Bavaria with Sobieniowski.

Yet another poem from 1909 was discovered just last year, in the British Library. [2] A strange little collection of half a dozen photocopied pages from an old autograph book included Mansfield’s handwritten verse “To You,” signed and dated “09.” As the date indicates, it was written in Bad Wörishofen. The “You” is an unspecified female acquaintance, which is intriguing, since we have no record of any female friendships during her time in Bavaria.

In her poem, Mansfield flicks back though the autograph album to see how others have commemorated its owner, seizing on two phrases — “Lady as tigress” and “Lady with flower” — and conflating them in a single line: “A Tigress with a Flower in your Hair.” It is a bold, colorful touch here, which testifies to Mansfield’s visual imagination and, perhaps, to her growing fascination with modern art:

There are two portraits, sketched in this your Book;
The first has something of a Tigress air
But fascinating! And the second, look,
Profile, with just a flower in your hair

And, looking at these portraits, I can see
Your Modern Soul, the greatness of your Part.
Indeed, indeed, they both reveal to me
You are an Artist, with the Artist’s heart.

I have not seen you play, but yet I know
How well you play, with what a grace — an air!
Till I am tempted to describe you so —
A Tigress with a Flower in your Hair.

One tantalizing lead as to a possible identity for the addressee is to be found in lines five and six: “And, looking at these portraits, I can see / Your Modern Soul, the greatness of your Part.” Mansfield reinforces the theme of theatricality and performance, both directly and indirectly, pointing us toward perhaps the most accomplished of her German Pension stories, itself titled “The Modern Soul.” It stands apart in the collection by targeting its satire at the medley of hotel guests, rather than on the local Bavarian citizens who populate most of the rest of the collection.

The “modern soul” in Mansfield’s story is Sonia Godowska from Vienna, a stage-struck, hypersensitive actress whom a trombone-playing professor claims once to have “described in her autograph album as a tigress with a flower in the hair.” Sonia teeters on the brink of modernity — she recites Ibsen, entreats her audiences to go with her “as lightly draped as possible” to the pine woods “and bed with her among the pine needles.” Her character has been read by some critics as an ironical self-portrait of Mansfield herself, a writer noted for playing with literary masks and deflected identification; she would doubtless join Sonia in finding “in all the work of all the greatest writers […] some touch, some sign of myself.” Now, however, with an autograph book and an evocation of “a tigress” in hand, things become more complicated. Could the character of Sonia Godowska possibly have been inspired by someone at the Pension Müller? Might her name even suggest the presence in Bad Wörishofen of another “modern soul,” the Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, renowned for her heightened sense of dramatic performance and often hailed as the “high priestess of the harpsichord”? Recall the first two lines of the last stanza: “I have not seen you play, but yet I know / How well you play, with what a grace — an air!” Indeed, Landowska, who was based in Paris from 1900 to 1912, might well have been a “cure” guest in Bad Wörishofen at the same time as Mansfield and would undoubtedly have caused a stir. Further research needs to be undertaken on this period of Landowska’s life to ascertain whether she and Mansfield could have met in Bavaria, but such a supposition has much to recommend it.

After Mansfield abandoned Sobieniowski at the end of 1909 and returned to London, he spent a year in Paris and Munich before returning to Poland in 1911. There he made a name for himself as the translator of Walt Whitman’s poetry — a fascination he almost certainly inherited from Mansfield, whose admiration for the American poet is reflected in her own poetic endeavors and can be seen in the Whitmanesque style of “To Stanisław Wyspiański.” In 1912, Sobieniowski moved to London and renewed contact with Mansfield, so that by the sixth issue (July 1912) of Rhythm, the little magazine she was now co-editing with her new partner John Middleton Murry, Sobieniowski was listed as the magazine’s “Polish correspondent.” Murry noted his own reaction to this new name on the masthead:

Suddenly a Slavonic friend of Mansfield’s came to England, and being penniless, came to us, with two big black trunks full of books and manuscripts, for he was a writer. Once again, we resented this intrusion upon us, not personally, but as an unkind stroke of fortune, that would not suffer us to be alone. We made him welcome, though he was a burden to our purse as well as our spirit. In the solemn autumn evenings the house would echo to his forlorn Slav songs, and once more we would be spell-bound by a sense of the precariousness of all things human and lovely.

Alexander Janta, a Polish poet and translator, once recorded the fact that Mansfield and Murry had planned to devote an entire issue of Rhythm to the work of Wyspiański. This would have been a considerable achievement and done much to raise awareness of Wyspiański’s genius outside his native land. Unfortunately, the project was never realized: it was first threatened by complications in the relationship between Mansfield, Murry, and Sobieniowski, and was finally destroyed by the editors’ bankruptcy and the demise of the magazine in March 1913. Nevertheless, Sobieniowski remained the “Polish correspondent” until the very last issue.

Sobieniowski’s 1913 translation of Irish playwright J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, a project apparently suggested by Mansfield, was praised by Polish scholar A. Bruce Boswell, enabling Sobieniowski to make contact with George Bernard Shaw. He was soon granted exclusive Polish translation rights to Shaw’s output, becoming the first to translate him from the original English, rather than from German; Pygmalion was staged in Warsaw as early as 1913. The quality of Sobieniowski’s translations was contested by critics, but nevertheless they became his entry ticket into British literary circles. He also translated a number of Polish plays into English, including Wyspiański’s most famous drama, The Wedding, in collaboration with E. H. G. Pearson.

Sobieniowski continued to make London his home until 1931. He then moved to Warsaw, where he spent the war, before returning to London in 1945 for two years as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassy; there he renewed his acquaintance with Shaw and continued his translation work. In 1959, five years before his death in Warsaw, Sobieniowski again turned his attention to the literary remains of his intense relationship with Mansfield from 50 years earlier, probably inspired by the publication of a new translation of “To Stanisław Wyspiański” by the poet Beata Obertyńska and a critical essay on Mansfield by Polish literary scholar Wiktor Weintraub. He published a translation of the short story “The Baron” from German Pension and then revisited his own translation of “To Stanisław Wyspiański,” adding a new commentary to the poem in which he shed more light on his role as Mansfield’s guiding spirit at that time.

It was clearly a brief but nevertheless intense love affair that Mansfield fled at the end of 1909. For several years afterward, perhaps as a result of guilt at her own shoddy behavior and unease over the information Sobieniowski possessed about her personal life, she could not deny her former Polish lover favors. In 1920, Mansfield paid Sobieniowski the equivalent of £40 — around £1800 in today’s money — to retrieve all the letters she had written to him, which were then apparently burned.

For his part, Sobieniowski remained faithful to his memories of Mansfield till the end of his life. As for Mansfield, her affection for Sobieniowski shines through in the poem “Floryan Nachdenklich,” written at the height of their love affair, before tenderness gave way to annoyance. Perhaps this is the best and most fitting epitaph for a relationship that fed Mansfield's creativity in a remarkable, as yet not fully appreciated way:

Floryan sits in the black chintz chair,
An Indian curtain behind his head
Blue and brown and white and red.
Floryan sits quite still — quite still.
There is a noise like a rising tide
Of wind and rain in the black outside.
But the firelight leaps on Floryan’s wall
And the Indian curtain suddenly seems
To stir and shake like a thousand dreams.
The Indian flowers drink the fire
As though it were sun, and the Indian leaves
Patter and sway to an echo breeze.
On the great brown boughs of the Indian tree
Little birds sing and preen their wings.
They flash through the sun like jewel rings.
And the great tree grows and moves and spreads
Through the silent room, and the rising tide
Of wind and rain on the black outside
Fades — and Floryan suddenly stirs
And lifts his eyes, and weeps to see
The dreaming flowers of the Indian tree.


Grateful thanks to the Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Katherine Mansfield for permission to quote from her works.


Gerri Kimber is a visiting professor at the University of Northampton, UK, and is the author/editor of 30 books on Katherine Mansfield. She is a reviewer for the TLS.

Magda Heydel is a translator of literature and a professor of Translation Studies at Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. She translated into Polish works by Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Seamus Heaney, and Alice Oswald. She is currently working on a selection of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. 


[1] The discovery was made by Gerri Kimber, the primary author of this essay.

[2] The discovery was made by the primary author, Gerri Kimber, and her colleague Claire Davison, in the course of their research for a new four-volume edition of Mansfield’s letters forthcoming from Edinburgh University Press.

LARB Contributors

Magda Heydel is a translator of literature and a professor of Translation Studies at Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland. She translated into Polish works by Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, Seamus Heaney, and Alice Oswald. She is currently working on a selection of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories. 
Gerri Kimber is a visiting professor at the University of Northampton, UK, and is the author/editor of 30 books on Katherine Mansfield. She is a reviewer for the TLS, has recently written her first YA fantasy novel, and is determined to secure a literary agent against all the odds. 


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