Gurdjieff and Katherine Mansfield Redux: Alma de Groen’s ‘The Rivers of China’


  • Carole M. Cusack University of Sydney



G. I. Gurdjieff, Katherine Mansfield, Alma de Groen, The Rivers of China, esotericism, biography


The brief residence of the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) at G.I. Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at the Prieuré des Basses Loges, Fontainebleau-Avon, ended with her death on 9 January 1923. She had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1918 (the year of her marriage to John Middleton Murry), and her illness was in an advanced state when she arrived at the Prieuré on 17 October 1922, having joined the circle of Gurdjieffians around A.R. Orage in London in August of that year and heard P.D. Ouspensky lecture on a few occasions. Gurdjieff was reviled as a charlatan and held responsible for her death by hostile critics, but there is substantial evidence that his teachings, and the solicitation of certain of his pupils, eased her last months. This article examines the historical record of Mansfield and Gurdjieff’s interactions and compares this to a fictional rendition of Mansfield’s time at the Prieuré, the play The Rivers of China by Alma de Groen (b. 1941), herself a female writer from New Zealand, for whom Mansfield’s life and death are primarily to be interpreted through the lens of feminism. The Rivers of China (1987) won the Premier’s Literary Award for Drama in both New South Wales and Victoria, Australia, and is a demanding, yet rewarding, drama. It is interesting as one of the play’s parallel narratives (both of which focus on Mansfield) offers a rare fictional portrait of Gurdjieff. The play therefore functions as a conduit for transmission of the Gurdjieff–Mansfield relationship to audiences that may know little of these enigmatic and challenging figures, despite its particular interpretation of the factual record.

Author Biography

Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

Carole M. Cusack is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Sydney. She trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). She now researches contemporary religious trends (pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, NRMs, and religion and popular culture). Her books include Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010) and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011). She has published widely in edited volumes and journals, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010) and (with Alex Norman) of Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (Brill, 2012). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she was founding editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox) from 2010–2013.



How to Cite

Cusack, C. M. (2015). Gurdjieff and Katherine Mansfield Redux: Alma de Groen’s ‘The Rivers of China’. Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, 27(3), 325–345.

Most read articles by the same author(s)

1 2 > >>