February 19, 2011
The first thing you notice in Wellington is the wind. A full southerly buster was blowing as I drove in around the bays of the harbour, hurling the waves onto the rocks. At the hotel on Tinakori Road, shutters slapped and banged in a crazy percussion, just as Katherine described in one of her earliest stories, ‘The Wind Blows’. I recognised the way it blew the stinging dust in waves, in clouds, in big round whirls, heard the ‘loud roaring sound’ from the tree ferns and the pohutukawa trees in the botanic garden, the clanking of the overhead cables for the trolley buses. Clinging to the car door to steady myself, the street map levitating from my grasp, I experienced the exactness of Katherine’s images – ‘a newspaper wagged in the air like a lost kite’ before spiking itself onto a pine tree; sentences blew away ‘like little narrow ribbons’.
Tinakori Road, where Katherine was born and where her father occupied progressively larger houses as his status rose, runs along a steep hillside with spectacular views of the city. Above it, a tree- clad slope climbs upwards towards the ridge and below it, houses stagger downhill towards the brief fringe of level ground that edges the circular bay, enclosed by hills. The street follows a major fault line in an area that remains seismically active, and tremors were part of Katherine’s childhood experience.
Katherine loved the view from Tinakori Road, writing in her youthful notebook how ‘all in a fever myself I rushed out of the stifling house . . . on to the gorse golden hills. A white road round the hills – there I walked. And below me, like a beautiful Pre- Raphaelite picture, lay the sea and the violet mountains. The sky all a riot of rose and yellow – amethyst and purple. At the foot of the hill – the city – but all curtained by a blue mist that hung over it in pale wreaths of Beauty. Though engulfed by the expanding capital, the old houses renumbered to accommodate the new, Tinakori Road has changed little in a hundred and twenty years. It is still lined by brightly painted wooden houses, and you can have a drink in the local working men’s pub, where Katherine’s inscrutable face looks down from the wall.
The prime minister now occupies the residence where Katherine was given a farewell garden party before leaving for England in 1908 and which she used as material for one of her best- known stories.
The fabric of her narratives is laid out in front of me as I look from the motel window. The curve of the bay where Katherine spent her summers, the quays where she and her brother watched the steamers depart and dreamed of one day leaving themselves; the botanic garden where she wandered with her sisters, conscious always of the untamed wilderness just on the other side of the garden fence. ‘Here is laughter and movement and bright sunlight – but behind me – is it near, or miles and miles away? the bush lies hidden in the shadow.’
Katherine’s childhood was spent on the insecure margin between a recent immigrant civilisation and the encroaching wilderness, inhabited by an older, more primitive culture that was being dispossessed. As a visitor to Wellington you can walk along the road Katherine took each day to school, visit the cemetery where her family were buried, see ‘the gully’ where their servants lived in relative poverty, and visit the house where she was born, now meticulously restored. A square, white, plain, two- storey weatherboard house behind a picket fence, it has four bedrooms, two reception rooms, a kitchen, scullery and ‘other offices’.
In the space of a decade Harold Beauchamp would be able to move his family to a sprawling mansion further up the street – opposite, and similar in size, to the prime minister’s house. The increasing opulence of Harold Beauchamp’s houses signified his changing position in the city as he rose from a mere finance clerk to become chairman and director of the Bank of New Zealand and a member of the Wellington Harbour Board, and of a dozen other public companies. Eventually he was given a knighthood. In the New World, where the infrastructure was still unformed and flexible, ambition was worthy, ability was rewarded and anything was possible. It was an optimistic country where women would become the first in the world to win the right to vote in 1893, and where they worked alongside men to develop frontier land and commercial enterprises. This was the atmosphere that formed Katherine, and shaped her own dreams and ambitions. Katherine’s grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp, was a self- made extrovert who came to New Zealand from England by way of the Australian goldfields, settled at Picton at the upper end of the South Island and became active in local politics, being elected briefly to the New Zealand parliament.
His son Harold, Katherine’s father, started out working for Arthur at the family store. Lively and enterprising, Harold realised that the future lay in the capital rather than the provinces and a family story tells how he and a friend made plans to move there, raffling their horse and boat – the only things they possessed – in order to finance the trip. Raffling was a novel notion to raise more money and they sold a lot of tickets. But the two young men also bought a couple of tickets themselves and were suspected of foul play when they won both the boat and the horse. They got the money and kept the goods, but had to leave town quickly. In Wellington, Harold found a job as a finance clerk in the import- export business of W. M. Bannatyne & Co., and prospered. Marriage to Annie Dyer, the beautiful daughter of another Australian immigrant, in 1884 established him socially and, when his employer died, he was made a partner.
In New Zealand terms, the Beauchamps were not part of the colonial aristocracy, but of the vigorous, commercial class that underpinned and would eventually overtake it. Harold traced his origins back to a London silversmith at the time of Samuel Pepys, and several Beauchamp relatives in England were upper middle class professionals – doctors, lawyers and businessmen. Katherine’s cousin Mary Beauchamp, known as Elizabeth, made a very advantageous marriage in 1891 to the German Count Henning August von Arnim, which gives some indication of the social classes on whose fringes the family moved. Respectable, solid, but not above taking a gamble occasionally, they were the backbone of the Victorian commercial empire – the class so authentically portrayed by John Galsworthy in his Forsyte Saga. The girl who would eventually become known internationally as Katherine Mansfield was born on 14 October 1888. She was christened Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in the wooden cathedral church of St Paul’s in the centre of Wellington, though her siblings called her Kass. She was the third daughter and her entrance into the world was something of a (never publicly acknowledged) disappointment to parents who wanted a son to be heir to the growing Beauchamp estate. Katherine’s two elder sisters, Vera and Charlotte (known as Chaddie), were already attractive, intelligent, unexceptionable young girls who would grow up to do everything expected of them by their parents and social peers. A younger sister, Jeanne, and a brother, Leslie, were equally conventional. Katherine, with all the privilege of the middle child, always believed herself to be different and this conviction was reinforced by her parents’ response to a girl who refused to conform or to be pleasing in order to please. Her resistance showed itself in the stubborn, direct gaze scowling at the observer from family photographs, the penetrating point- blank questions that disconcerted both her family and their social circle.
There were physical differences too. Katherine wore glasses and was plumper than her sisters. She did not smile as often. She could be awkward and was regarded as the most demanding of the five children. She
felt herself to be loved less than her siblings and as a result became more difficult to love. The feelings of rejection grew. When her parents went off to Europe, leaving Katherine with her grandmother, her mother’s first returning words to the eager little girl waiting on the quayside were ‘Well, Kathleen, I see you’re still as fat as ever!’ Katherine’s answer was to cultivate her difference and develop a keen inner life that divided her ever more sharply from her family.
She was always imaginative. A school friend remembered playing with Katherine in the garden at Tinakori Road and hearing ‘a noise which to ordinary people would have sounded like a lawn mower’. To Katherine it was ‘Bronzo the dragon gnashing his teeth’. The spiral of smoke from a bonfire became the dragon spitting fire. Katherine armed herself and her friend with spears and shields cut from aloe and flax plants and stealthily crept through the mysterious, forbidden, green door that led to the neighbour’s garden. The dragon was quickly revealed as ‘an irate gardener’ who chased the two girls with a rake. They ran out of the gate and in a panic turned the wrong way, rushing up the drive instead of into the street. They were trapped. ‘It was tea time, but to go up past the dragon and his rake was unthinkable.’ But Katherine had the answer and approached a ‘kindly looking man’ walking past. They were, she told him, two princesses who had been chased by a gardener, who was ‘really a dragon in disguise’. The man, who knew Katherine’s family, entered into the spirit of the occasion and escorted the girls home ‘as though we really were fairy princesses’.
Katherine received yet another scolding and would always be labelled an actress and a liar. But the adventures that took place in her head were as real as anything that happened outside it. She published her first story at the age of nine. ‘Enna Blake’ – printed in the Wellington Girls’ High School magazine – is an imaginary trip to Torquay, relocated to rural New Zealand, where girls go on walks to collect ferns and mosses. It opens in Enna’s voice with a directness that already presages Mansfield’s mature style: ‘“Oh mother, it is still raining, and you say I can’t go out.” It was a girl who spoke; she looked about ten. She was standing in a well- furnished room, and was looking out of a large bay window.’ The editor comments: ‘This story, written by one of the girls who have lately entered the school, shows promise of great merit’.
The house at 25 Tinakori Road is a shrine to Katherine’s memory, its fussy Victorian colonial interior carefully matched to the period. The rooms seem crowded now with even two or three visitors. How they contained the expansive personality of Harold Beauchamp, his languid wife Annie, her two unmarried sisters, her mother, Margaret Dyer, three children and a live- in servant, is difficult to imagine. It perhaps gives an insight into the adult Katherine’s love of Japanese minimalism, her hatred of clutter, and her obsession with order.
The Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society, founded by Oroya Day, has several treasures that belonged to Katherine. In pride of place are her typewriter, locked away in a glass case, and an exquisite black, embroidered jacket – narrow- waisted and buttoned Chinese fashion. These items found their way back to New Zealand after Katherine’s death, gifted by Ida Baker, her lifelong companion, through the scholar Margaret Scott, who has dedicated her life to the transcription of Katherine’s letters and notebooks. While Oroya painstakingly restored the house, Margaret decoded the work and, through her friendship with Ida, returned a number of surviving artefacts to New Zealand – some to the Birthplace Society and some to the Alexander Turnbull Library, where the memory of New Zealand’s most famous writer is preserved.
Although the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society thrives on visitors, Harold’s own memorial to his daughter, erected in 1933, is run down and neglected. When I went to see it, graffiti had been scrawled on the pergola, and the filthy water of the concrete pool contained the body of a dead bird. There were no flowers and the paint was peeling. Katherine’s portrait, a triumphant statement of personality by the American Colourist Anne Estelle Rice, is hidden away in the vaults of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, along with much of the art collection Harold Beauchamp gave as an endowment to the capital city he helped to build.
Katherine’s literary fortunes have fluctuated since she died in 1923. For many years her work was undervalued in her birth country, as her first biographer Ruth Mantz discovered, and there were those who considered her to be more European than authentically a New Zealander. In the Oral History Centre of the Alexander Turnbull Library, listening to the cultured Kensington accents of her sisters on tape, one can well imagine how this might happen – after all, Katherine spent a large part of her life in Europe. But there are other voices there too, reassuringly New Zealand voices. Edie Bendall, the object of Katherine’s eighteen- year- old passion, talks of the stifling atmosphere of Katherine’s family, the social calendars of fashionable young women, the corseting of young minds along with their bodies, and how she and Katherine walked every evening to talk of literature and art and the world beyond their limited horizons. ‘I am ashamed of young New Zealand,’ Katherine wrote in a letter. ‘All the firm, fat framework of their brains must be demolished before they can begin to learn. They want a purifying influence – a mad wave of Pre- Raphaelitism, of Superaestheticism, should intoxicate the country.’ Katherine and Edie’s views were in direct conflict with the prevailing mores, expressed by one of Annie Beauchamp’s contemporaries. ‘After all that is said of the advantages of art & high civilisation & the way some girls consider home ties, duties and affection mere dust in the balance when weighed against European culture & advantages, I had far rather my children & grandchildren grew up loving dunces than have them value intellectual gains as the supreme objects to be striven for in life.’
The teenage Katherine was on the side of intellectual gain and European culture, but against the Victorian straitjacket its social conventions imposed. It was a dichotomy she struggled with. ‘On one hand lay the mode bohème – alluring, knowledge- bringing, full of work and sensation, full of impulse, pulsating with the cry of Youth Youth Youth . . . On the other hand lay the Suitable Appropriate Existence. The days full of perpetual Society functions, the hours full of clothes discussions – the waste of life. The stifling atmosphere would kill me . . .’
Part of her would always be rooted in an older, more primitive heritage. In Wellington Katherine had a passionate adolescent love affair with a Maori girl, Maata Mahupuku. Even after the affair was over, they remained friends. Maata’s nephew talks on tape of her funeral, and asserts that draft chapters of an early autobiographical novel called ‘Maata’, which Katherine sent to her from England, as well as their personal letters, were put into the coffin when Maata was buried.
In the novel, fragments of which exist elsewhere in manuscript, Katherine herself takes on the Maori persona of the heroine. Her fictional and actual relationships with Maata illustrate her fascination with the double heritage of her birth country – the balance between Maori and Pakeha.
As early as 1906, in a piece called ‘Summer Idylle’, Katherine assumes a Maori identity, but with a Pakeha name – Marina. She imagines the ‘slow, tranquil surrender of the Night Spirits’ and dreams of eating ‘eggs and bread and honey and peaches’ with her female Pakeha counterpart, who bears the Maori name Hinemoa. The whole of Katherine’s sexual and racial ambivalence is there – the crossover of names, Marina and Hinemoa’s erotic exchange in a room redolent of tea tree blossom, and Hinemoa saying ‘it is because you are so utterly the foreign element . . .’
Leaving Wellington on the ferry as Katherine did, I crossed Cook Strait to the South Island, the vessel edging its way through narrow fjords of impossibly turquoise water to the small port of Picton, where Arthur Beauchamp, Katherine’s entrepreneurial grandfather, ran a store and tried to farm. She remembered visiting him, ‘lying to one side of an immense bed . . . like a very old wide- awake bird’. Further south, the city of Christchurch was the last place in New Zealand Katherine saw before she left for England. She arrived by ferry from Wellington and transferred to the liner anchored in the deep- water terminal at Lyttelton, over the hill from Christchurch, which now takes container ships and oil tankers. I went there to visit Margaret Scott, whose home nearby Diamond Harbour is a focus for scholars and writers from all over the world who want to share a bottle of wine and talk Mansfield.
Margaret describes the almost impossible task of learning to read Katherine’s handwriting as like translating a foreign language, and the specimens on show in the Alexander Turnbull Library support this description. Margaret once spent an entire week deciphering one word, the blown- up photocopy propped in front of her at breakfast, lunch and dinner in the hope that some blinding fl ash of insight would eventually occur. And it did. Katherine’s habit of choosing the unusual, the least expected, word – as in the phrase ‘the swooning sun’ – added to the difficulty of the task. Margaret is one of the few people still alive to have known Katherine’s surviving family and friends. She visited Katherine’s sister, Vera, in the United States, stayed with John Middleton Murry’s fourth wife in Norfolk and became a trusted friend of Ida Baker – the famous ‘L.M.’ of Katherine’s diaries and letters. Margaret tells wry stories of Ida’s haphazard housekeeping. On one occasion Ida, her eyesight very poor, cooked some rather elderly mushrooms she had kept for too long in a paper bag. ‘Lesley, dear, they’re crawling with maggots!’ Margaret said, as they sizzled and seethed in the pan. Ida was mortified, throwing them out into the garden with profuse apologies to the maggots she had almost cremated. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘they had eaten so much mushroom they would have been more mushroom than maggot. So it wouldn’t have been too bad if we had eaten them.’ Margaret glimpsed the infuriatingly irrational logic that had so enraged Katherine, as well as the naivety and honesty that kept Ida loyal.
On subsequent visits to New Zealand, I spent weeks in the archives of the Alexander Turnbull Library, reading Katherine’s letters and original notebooks, which reveal much more than their printed transcriptions. They are human documents that show their author’s method of working and her fluctuating moods. Katherine liked to write in ‘cahiers’ – French school exercise books – but she also used Strakers’ diaries and pocketsized notebooks with board covers. She wrote on the right- hand side of the page, leaving the left- hand side free for annotations. The notebooks are well used: there are pages torn out, corners folded down and sometimes pressed flowers between the pages. In the margins, she scribbled comments and doodles, shopping lists and occasionally, in a fit of boredom, snatches of music hall songs and jokes. You can tell by her handwriting when she is angry or exhausted.
John Middleton Murry’s diaries and letters are there too. For the first time it is possible to put them side by side with Katherine’s to provide a complete narrative of their years together. John’s diaries, which he kept
until his death in 1957, and his fragments of autobiography, are a harrowing record of emotional inadequacy and how his obsession with Katherine destroyed two of his three subsequent marriages and adversely affected the lives of his four children. He is often accused of being ‘the man who made Mansfield miserable’ and, before I went to New Zealand, my background reading had reinforced that view. I began my research prepared to be critical. But, after reading his diaries, I found myself much more compassionate and better able to understand why he had behaved as he did, and why Katherine went on loving him ‘in spite of all’. Mansfield scholar and author Vincent O’Sullivan, who co- edited The Letters of Katherine Mansfield with Margaret Scott, was a sane and objective adviser in my quest to understand their complex relationship and to unravel the ‘Mansfield myth’ that John Murry’s editing of her work created.
To go to New Zealand in search of Katherine Mansfield is to be aware of the heart of her duality. This remains one of the least urbanised places on earth. Small oases of human habitation exist in a vast wild landscape still largely unshaped by humans, full of dramatic contrasts and contradictions. Snow- covered alps, volcanoes, glaciers, craters and geysers, glacial torrents in wide flood plains, impenetrable rain forests and tropical beaches give place to each other just as they did in Katherine’s time. She experienced this landscape with a passionate physicality. It became a metaphor for the disordered adolescent landscape within her that resisted ‘European cultivation’ as forcefully as the Maori had resisted appropriation of their
traditions and their land by the white immigrants – the Pakeha. The hinterland of Maori culture, ancient and powerful, exerted a strong influence on Katherine. Harold Beauchamp learned their language in order to do business with Maori. His cousin married a Maori and had five children. Katherine’s Maori relatives and friends showed her a different view from the European perspective, a new way of living and experiencing the world around her, and a way of resisting colonisation. Katherine knew she had ‘the taint of the Pioneer’ in her blood. She was aware of the role of Pakeha as usurpers, insensitive to any kind of right that was not expressed in a legal document. Katherine could see, when she looked out into the bush, ‘vague forms lurking in the shadow, staring at me malevolently, wildly, the thief of their birthright’. She imagined a shadowy host of dispossessed, ‘passing, passing’. And the sound of water, the wind swaying in the trees suddenly became ‘the sound of weeping’. Yet the bush was a source of strength and creativity as she fed on its erotic power. ‘There is bush, silent and splendid . . . and everywhere that strange indefinable scent. As I breathe it, it seems to absorb, to become part of me – and I am old with the age of centuries, strong with the strength of savagery.’
Born across two cultures, educated in yet another, Katherine would always struggle for one definitive identity. And her work, edited for a European audience, reflected the divisions, though it remained always recognisably antipodean. As one of Katherine’s compatriots remarked, It touches neither fiord nor geyser certainly but it has the feel of the land. – If she mentioned neither street nor tree that New Zealand knows, if her work were set before us unknown and unplaced I think we would lift our noses like dogs to the wind and smell our country. I think we would know the Picton boat and morning At the Bay . . . I cannot pass a certain house in Tinakori Road without a stir of pain for the girl who they say lived there as Cassie Beauchamp. It is a far cry from Tinakori to Fontainebleau where from the nettle, danger, she plucked the flower, safety.