On the Mansfield Trail
When I come to Wellington there are certain places I always visit - places connected with Katherine Mansfield whose life will always be part of mine now. Not just because I wrote her biography, but that because of Mansfield I have good friends in New Zealand; because of Mansfield I have a daughter and two grandchildren in New Zealand.
This time I wanted to see the new Mansfield sculpture on Lambton Quay created by NZ sculptor Virginia King and unveiled last year. Called ‘Woman of Words’, it’s made of welded metal with sentences from Katherine’s stories and journals incised into it.
|'I'm afraid you do not count - you are just a little savage from New Zealand'.|
|'In the evening the cicada shakes his tiny tambourine'.|
I took the ferry over the harbour to Days Bay to look at the little holiday ‘bach’ where Katherine spent so much of her holiday time as a child and then as a young woman and which features in her diaries and stories, particularly ‘At the Bay’. There were terrible storms last year and the property was so badly damaged it was feared that it might have to be demolished.
|The house is now boarded up.|
|For one awful moment, I thought that this was Katherine's Cottage|
|The Birthplace Trust on Tinakori Road|
In one of the downstairs rooms is a dolls’ house, placed there to replicate the dolls’ house of Katherine’s childhood - one of her most famous stories and one that came from the deepest, Freudian, recesses of her psyche. You can see the dolls’ house clearly in this photograph of Katherine’s grandmother holding her baby sister, Gwen, recently deceased from Cholera - a baby she coupled in her mind with her own dead baby.
|Granny Dyer, holding Gwen, deceased.|
Like the child in Katherine's story, after being allowed to view the dolls’ house illicitly, I too have ‘seen the little lamp’, though the photograph came out rather blurry.
In the garden there’s a new memorial to Katherine, donated to the Birthplace Trust. It’s a little static, like a ship’s figurehead, but Helen - who showed me round this time - took my photo beside it and (after several attempts) managed to get one of me without my eyes closed or pulling a face. Anyone who knows me will realise what an achievement that was!
I had a browse through the bookshops and bought Kirsty Gunn’s new book ‘Thorndon’ - a journal of her time at the Randall Cottage Trust exploring her own Wellington roots and her relationship with Katherine Mansfield. I value Kirsty Gunn's writing a lot and have her new book 'Infidelities' on my reading list.
I’ve been reading Thorndon in bed and found a lot of parallels between Kirsty’s experience and my own. There are a great many writers, myself included, who owe a debt to Mansfield’s magic. Wellington is a city that is haunted by her - there is hardly a location that doesn’t have an association with either the writer or her stories. I’m drawn back to it, again and again, always trying to make that elusive connection with a girl who’s been dead for a hundred years.
*Kirsty Gunn ‘Thorndon’ p.85, pub. Bridget Williams Books