Thursday, 23 October 2014

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 spent quite a bit of time looking at it, but couldn’t make up my mind what I felt.   There’s something robotic about the figure, but there is definitely something that conjures up Mansfield - though rather as an avatar in a computer game.  The figure is eye-catching, as Mansfield was herself, and the words are wonderful - they shout ‘Katherine Mansfield’ very loudly to everyone who passes by.  So it does the job.

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.
One of the neighbouring houses has been bulldozed and others are empty,

For one awful moment, I thought that this was Katherine's Cottage
but I was glad to discover that they hope to restore ‘Katherine’s Cottage’, though it’s still boarded up and I couldn’t get near it to have a proper look. The little house is so near to the sea you can’t help wondering if rising sea levels will make attempts to preserve it futile.

The Birthplace Trust on Tinakori Road
Then I went, as I always do, up to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Trust to spend some precious moments in the house where Katherine was born, where NZ writer Kirsty Gunn recently spent time sitting on the stairs imagining her presence, just as I like to do.  ‘All it took was for me to sit on the first-floor landing of the house in Tinakori Road, looking up at the high window and be completely alone, it seemed, on a stormy winter’s afternoon, the house hushed around me but for the fierceness of the southerly wind outside rattling at its beams and chimney, beating the flax and pohutukawa trees and manuka bushes with incessant rain . . . And I was there entirely, in a story of my own’.*   Stairs, Katherine wrote, were wonderful places to exercise the imagination.

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.
The dolls’ house also represented for Katherine the home she never had - the home she yearned for.

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

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