The scent of Lilac and Katherine Mansfield

The lilac tree in my garden is suddenly blooming - up here in the north spring comes late with frequent frosts, even in May.  But lilac is very resilient - it grows with the determination of a weed. There's hardly a farm or cottage in the Lake District that doesn't have its lilac bush at the gate.
My lilac in a jug
 Lilac has a strong scent - you either love it or hate it.  I love it because it means spring has really arrived.  And it has other associations too. First, it reminds me of Katherine Mansfield.  She also loved lilac, but it represented a tragic and (for her) deeply shameful period of her life.  Katherine, only a teenager at the time, was pregnant with her lover's child.  It was 1909 and having a baby out of wedlock was one of the worst crimes a nicely brought up girl could commit.
Katherine when she was in love with Garnet Trowell
Katherine was on her own in London, trying to pursue a career as a writer. Becoming pregnant threw her into panic.  She married her singing teacher, a man she didn't love, and left him on their wedding night because she couldn't bear to share a bed with him.  Her mother arrived from New Zealand and immediately bundled Katherine onto a train for Bad Worishofen - a small spa in Germany where inconvenient health problems could be dealt with out of the public eye.

The Pension Muller, where her baby was stillborn.
Katherine's lover, the 19 year old Garnet Trowell, had been separated from her by his family. Grieving, distraught, she wrote him a despairing letter from the train. 'Dearest, there is so much to tell you of . . .'  It would never be posted. Everywhere on the journey there was lilac growing in back gardens. 'At the German frontier where all the baggage was examined . . I went out of the station and ran down a little path and looked over a fence.  Lilac filled the air - it seemed almost smudged with lilac, washed in it .' For the rest of her life lilac had a special significance - its colour 'like half-mourning', and its perfume which was tainted by the loss of her lover and the death of the child she was carrying, stillborn after a premature labour. It was an experience she was never able to talk about, even to the man she eventually married.

My lilac loving father.
For me, lilac is all about my father.  It was one of his favourite plants, and when he died my uncle bought me a lilac bush to plant in the garden to remember him by.  So, now I remember two people - my father and my uncle, both dead, when the lilac comes into bloom.

It's been a dry winter here and a very dry spring.  We have had long days in April and May with sun and cool easterly winds.  The garden is parched and the River Eden as low as I have ever seen it.  The weir is high and dry, with only a thread of water going over it in the middle.  The winter's driftwood is still piled up on the weir waiting for a decent flood to carry it downstream.  But after the terrible floods of  Storm Desmond in 1915 I'm quite happy to have a little drought. Apparently the wind is changing direction tomorrow to the more usual westerly breeze from the warmer Atlantic, so I guess that means rain!  It will ruin the lilac, so I've picked as much of it as I can.

Low water at the Mill.

Katherine Mansfield:  The Story-teller by Kathleen Jones, published by Edinburgh University Press and Penguin NZ


  1. Beautiful post, Kathleen. We planted lilacs in memory of my mother too - one specially sited so that her dear friend Cath could see it through her window, from her wheelchair, the other on a terrace close to french windows so the perfume could waft in. Thank you.


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