Russell’s first impression of the young New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was not favourable. She had been living in England for a number of years and had become a friend of D.H. Lawrence, who introduced Russell to her in July 1915. Of that meeting, which also included Mansfield’s future husband, John Middleton Murry, Russell recounted in a letter to his lover, Ottoline Morell: “they were all sitting together in a bare office … with the windows shut, smoking Russian cigarettes without a moment’s intermission, idle and cynical. I thought … the whole atmosphere ... dead and putrefying.”
Over the course of the next year and a half, Russell would come to change his mind about Mansfield. Their paths would begin to cross more frequently as Mansfield became entwined with the Bloomsbury group and was invited to visit Garsington, Ottoline’s country estate. Russell would tell Ottoline in December 1916: “I want to get to know Katherine Mansfield really well. She interests me mentally very much indeed—I think she has a very good mind, and I like her boundless curiosity.” Russell and Mansfield’s intense late-night conversations at Garsington, their meetings in London, and their exchange of letters led Ottoline to feel jealous and suspicious, and some of the Bloomsberries to suspect they were having an affair.
Russell was, indeed, having an affair that he was keeping secret from Ottoline for the time being, but it was not with Mansfield. Rather, Russell had become involved with another young, passionate woman, Lady Constance Malleson, the actress who went by the stage name Colette O’Niel (see Letter 14). For a while, Russell had been feeling that Ottoline was losing interest in him, and while in the United States in the spring of 1914, he had begun a disastrous affair with Helen Dudley of Chicago. The relationship with Colette, on the other hand, would become one of the most significant of Russell’s life. In the fall of 1916, however, he wondered if the much younger Colette—she was just turning 21, he was 44—might not be serious enough for him. Perhaps Russell viewed Mansfield’s “good mind” as a balance of sorts. She loved discussing ideas with him, especially about her writing, and also admired and looked up to Russell, at least initially.
Unfortunately, Russell’s letters to Mansfield have not survived, but a dozen letters from Mansfield to Russell are available in the Russell archives. They reveal her admiration for him and sometimes, as in this letter, a concern for how he perceives her: “you'll cry me very vague & dismiss me perhaps as a woman with an ill regulated mind.” The letters are also full of intellectual curiosity and are frequently passionate and intimate. As Russell himself noted when coming across the letters again in 1949: “They read as if we were having an affair, or about to have one, but it was not so. My feelings for her were ambivalent; I admired her passionately, but was repelled by her dark hatreds.” As he said further in his Autobiography: “Her talk was marvellous, much better than her writing, especially when she was telling of things that she was going to write, but when she spoke about people she was envious, dark, and full of alarming penetration in discovering what they least wished known and whatever was bad in their characteristics.”
The initial allure wore off for both Russell and Mansfield by 1917. Six years later, Mansfield died of tuberculosis at the age of 34.
Sources: (1) Bertrand Russell. The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1914-1944 (Volume II). London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1968; includes Russell’s July 1915 letter to Ottoline Morrell. (2) Nicholas Griffin, ed. The Selected Letters of Bertrand Russell: The Public Years, 1914-1970. London and New York: Routledge, 2002; includes Russell’s December 1916 letter to Ottoline Morrell, and Russell’s 1949 comment about Mansfield. (3) Antony Alpers. The Life of Katherine Mansfield, New York: The Viking Press, 1980. (4) Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott, eds. The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Volume 1. Oxford University Press, 1984.
I meant to write to you immediately after you left me on Friday night to say how sorry I was to have been such cold comfort and so useless to lift even ever so little the cloud of your fatigue. For a long time I sat before the fire after you had gone feeling that your goodbye had been quite final – was it? And I did not explain myself as I wished to – I left unsaid so much that perhaps you were misled. Its true that my desire is to bring all that I see and feel into harmony with that rare ‘vision’ of life of which we spoke, and that if I do not achieve this I shall
feel that my life has been a fault at last, and its my God terribly true that I don’t see the means yet – I dont in the least know definitely how to live. But its equally true that life never bores me. It is such strange delight to observe people and to try to understand them, to walk over the mountains and into the valleys of the world, and fields and road and to move on rivers and seas, to arrive late at night in strange cities or to come into little harbours just at pink dawn when its cold with a high wind blowing somewhere up in the air, to push through the heavy door into little cafés and to watch the pattern people make among tables & bottles and glasses, to watch women when they are off their guard, and to get them to talk then, to smell flowers and leaves and fruit and grass – all this – and all this is nothing – for there is so much more. When I am overcome by one of the fits of despair all this is ashes – and so intolerably
bitter that I feel it never can be sweet again – But it is – To air oneself among these things, to seek them, to explore them and then to go apart and detach oneself from them – and to write – after the ferment has quite subsided -------
After all you'll cry me very vague & dismiss me perhaps as a woman with an ill regulated mind. But –
 Dated as 17 December 1916 in The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, Volume 1, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott, Oxford University Press, 1984.