Monday, 1 August 2016

Climate Change and Katherine Mansfield

In 1907, more than a hundred years ago, Katherine Mansfield's father, Harold Beauchamp, bought what is called in New Zealand a 'bach' (pronounced batch) beside the sea.  It was a plain, wooden building without any creature comforts, described as having a 'small poverty stricken sitting room . . . A cabin-like bedroom fitted with bunks, and an outhouse with a bath, and wood cellar, coal cellar, complete.'  Behind it, oddly at the back of the original house, the sea lapped over the rocks, and at the front wild bush grew down to the narrow track that served as a road.

The bach is in a beautiful hamlet called Days Bay.  It's one of the inlets across the water from Wellington and you can visit it using the ferry that takes commuters and school children from village to city every day.  In 1907 it was more a summer retreat for weekends and the children's holidays. Katherine loved being there, and her story 'At The Bay' conveys the atmosphere of holiday, of being close to the wilderness, ocean and sky, and the influence of that release from the usual disciplines of polite behaviour on her characters. The opening of the story describes the place and the atmosphere, perfectly.

         ‘Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea mist. The big, bush-covered hills at the back were smothered.  You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began. The sandy road was gone and the paddocks and bungalows the other side of it; there were no white dunes covered with reddish grass beyond them; there was nothing to mark which was beach and where was the sea.’


It was at Day's Bay, in the little chalet, that Katherine had what was possibly her first experience of female sexuality. She was staying there with an older woman, an artist, Edith Bendall, and Katherine was in love with her and hoped that it would be reciprocated.  'I cannot lie in my bed and not feel the magic of her body . . . She enthrals, enslaves me.'  Katherine suffered from night terrors and terrible dreams.  Outside the darkness and the bush beyond set her imagination racing 'until the very fence became terrible.'  The fence posts became 'hideous forms' gesticulating and taking on human appearance. Edith takes her into her bed to comfort her and then, Katherine writes, 'a thousand things which had been obscure' become plain.   It was her 'Oscar Wilde' moment. But Edith was unresponsive, perhaps aware that Katherine's parents were relying on her to look after the younger girl. Katherine was attracted by both men and women for the rest of her short life.


Wellington, despite being in a sheltered harbour, is famous for its storms, but Days Bay and the beach-side houses have always been safe. The worst storm in 117 years had only broken a window. But in 2013 a mega-storm wreaked unprecedented destruction. The little cottage, now altered for modern use, but still a site of pilgrimage for Mansfield readers, was almost completely destroyed.  The current owners described a night of terror. "My dad got up at about 12.45am after he heard a window smash. He went to the front door to get a piece of plywood and saw there was a lot of water building up around the house. He went back inside to get Mum, and a huge wave took out the dining room window, so they grabbed the dogs and made a run for it to the neighbours."  When they came back next morning, “pretty much everything had been washed out by the sea.” This is what it looked like.

For a long time it was thought that the cottage would just be bulldozed.  I visited in 2014 and it looked too damaged to be viable.  But there was a big campaign to raise money for one of Wellington's historic buildings to be rebuilt, and it has now been restored, though with an altered beach-front to help it withstand more big storms.



Despite that, there are a lot of people in Wellington who feel that, with the increasing frequency of mega-storms, the cottage remains vulnerable.  Climate change, and projected sea-level increase, could make such properties uninhabitable.

Katherine Mansfield's story 'At the Bay' (pdf)


If you like Katherine Mansfield you might also be interested in 'Katherine Mansfield - The Storyteller' by Kathleen Jones

The Katherine Mansfield Society has a wonderful website, full of photographs and information, well worth a visit.

My friend Gerri Kimber has a biography of Katherine Mansfield's early years in New Zealand coming out in October 2016.

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