A Strange, Beautiful Excitement, by Redmer Yska

Being back in New Zealand always brings me face to face with Katherine Mansfield.  I'm haunted by her, both as a writer and as a person and anything new that is published about her I read avidly.  I've known about Redmer Yska's research for this book from the beginning and I've waited with great excitement for its publication.

The book itself is a thing of beauty, with the inside cover lined with James M. Nairn’s painting of Wellington harbour in full colour c.1894.

Redmer Yska’s narrative is an evocative account of Katherine Mansfield’s childhood and the history of her family in New Zealand. The characters are drawn vividly from their letters and journals, from family anecdotes and a meticulous trawl through New Zealand’s archival records.

Shameful family secrets, such as the two bankruptcies of Katherine’s grandfather are revealed, and possible motives for her mother’s marriage to a man she often tolerated rather than passionately loved.   By marrying Harold Beauchamp, Annie Dyer secured a home for herself, her sisters and widowed mother.

But at the heart of the book is Katherine’s relationship with Karori – a place she would idealise and recreate in stories like The Aloe and The Doll’s House.  Redmer Yska shows us the real people who appeared in Katherine’s New Zealand stories – often under their own names, like Pat Sheehan the handyman, and Lily and little Else Kelvie (McElvy) or ole Underwood. Being a native of Karori himself, Redmer can supply the kind of details of their lives that only someone who knows their descendants can give.

Redmer Yska at a book signing in NZ

Redmer uncovers bitter family rivalry between Katherine and her older sister Vera over school prizes (2 writing prizes coveted by KM were won by Vera).  He also gives a detailed, and original, account of the cholera epidemic that broke out in Wellington, thought to have killed Katherine’s baby sister Gwen and  Redmer provides evidence that this event caused Harold Beauchamp to move the family out of town into the country. The move to Karori is the setting for Mansfield's most famous story ‘Prelude’. This is original research by Redmer Yska, and in the course of it he uncovered a new, previously unknown story by Katherine Mansfield, published in a local paper before she left New Zealand.  It's called 'His Little Friend', and it's about a 'lonely, elderly man and an impoverished child'.

Most of Katherine Mansfield's biographers (including myself) have been British and this has undoubtedly influenced their approach to her life.  Redmer Yska is a New Zealander.  He  points out that Katherine spent half her life living in New Zealand and the other half writing about it.  He says; "I have tried to bring her back home, underline her physical presence. I show her as a vigorous youngster striding through the gale, long curly hair flying. I’ve tried to find the ‘human story’ of her adolescence, her living footsteps. I’ve tried to catch a glimpse of her in the open air, to make her live, move, talk.” That he succeeded is shown in the glowing reviews from other New Zealand authors.  Fiona Kidman wrote that it is 'a ravishing, immersive read'.  For Kirsty Gunn it is  'a literary study of riveting depth and focus'. 

This is a beautifully illustrated and very readable book that provides a vivid context for Katherine Mansfield’s early life and the settings of her stories.  You can breathe New Zealand as you read it.

A Strange Beautiful Excitement
Redmer Yska
Otago University Press 

If you're interested in Katherine Mansfield's childhood in New Zealand then you might also like to read Gerri Kimber's  'Katherine Mansfield:  The Early Years', published by Edinburgh University Press. And then there is my own biography, 'Katherine Mansfield:  The Storyteller', also published by EUP.  


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