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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



The Wellington Girls' College was a ten- or fifteen-minute walk down from Tinakori Road toward the Quay. It was a huge grey frame building, built about a year before Kathleen was born— the second girls' school to be established in Wellington. The first (built on Fitzherbert Terrace nearly ten years previous) was the more “exclusive” Terrace School to which the girls were sent three years later.

When Kathleen Beauchamp registered for the Second Form on May 25th, 1898, at nine years and seven months, the Wellington Girls' College was still a private school. The Prep. School was at the page 133 front of the building, on the top floor, at the left of the high wooden tower. Seven girls sat in that small square room on the hard wooden benches of the Second Form. A large fireplace at the south end warmed them when the winds whipped across Lambton Harbour and whirled about the barn-like, unprotected school. Kathleen, from where she sat, could watch the waves lifting—lifting as far as she could see; and the white line of foam running up to the scalloped bays. She loved a choppy sea; it was her favourite sea—brilliant blue with an edge of white. But she hated the Southerly Buster in winter, when newspapers flew like kites down Thorndon Esplanade. The phutukawas (which in Auckland flaunted crimson plumage so proudly) were bowed abjectly on the Esplanade, too twisted and bent to bloom. In spring she could watch the leaves shaking in the tree tops about St. Paul's. There was “a kind of whiteness in the sky over the sea,” then. She loved such days.

Marie, with her sandy hair dragged back by a comb she abominated, was in the same form. She and Kass were dressed alike. Vera was threatened with a disease which kept her away from school for the second and third terms. The five other girls were Alice, dark with Irish eyes (her father was Governor of the Fiji Islands); Esma Dean, her cousin, a fair, self-centred girl who lived with her; Zoe (Kass liked Zoe for some reason), slight and sweet, with wavy brown hair and a fringe; Irene, swarthy, straight-haired, appearing even darker in her short purple frock as she stood before the others reciting The Revenge in a deep voice with a great page 134 deal of gusto; and Marion Ruddick, Kathleen's special friend. How excited she had been on the day she exclaimed to Marion:“I'm so glad you're just the kind of a girl you are!” and Marion had said the same to her.

Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp had returned from their last trip to Canada on the same ship with the Ruddicks; Mr. Ruddick was in the Government service in Wellington. When the mother introduced Marion to the children, they greeted her politely in the way they had been taught; but Kass stared solemnly at the new girl. She was so prettily dressed. Little girls of New Zealand wore clumsilycut, home-made frocks which made them appear even fatter than they were from the good butter and jams and cream buns of their six-times-tea.

Marion was a slim Canadian child in a well-cut sailor suit and pretty shoes. She had a style, a way of wearing her clothes, unknown among Wellington children. Her hair was in a fringe and loose dark curls. She had the glamour of a girl who had come across the South Sea from a country which had snow at Christmas. So Kass decided to like her and to speak to her.“Do you have parrots in Canada?” she said.

Marion shared many things with her in playtime and at school. The best was the Green Gate. The worst was Miss Wilson—the strictest Mistress at the Prep. School—a stern-looking woman with crinkly black hair and a bright purple blouse. She never was satisfied with Marion's light, spiderish handwriting; and when in sewing class, Kathleen's plump, inky fingers damply infused the stain into the page 135 white fabric, the results were tragic. Both girls stood in awe of Miss Wilson, but they quickly saw through the defences of another Mistress who came to them for one class; and all that they suffered at Miss Wilson's hands, they gave back (with the interest of a few added inventions of their own) to her. She found—not seven well-bred little girls with a lesson learned—but a rooster, a bee, a donkey, a laughing jackass, a “more pork,” a kitten, a cuckoo. And—after rapping a row of little dents in the desk with her ruler—after mildly protesting that “this wasn't a Zoo” —she left at the end of the hour reduced to despair, almost in tears.

At play-time, though the Prep. School had no real right in the Gym., Marion and Kass usually were first down. A rope, knotted at both ends, hung suspended from the ceiling. Each clinging to an end, they took turns in leaping from the mantelpiece and swinging out wildly the length of the long room and back again. One day they got into an argument as to who should swing first. Marion leaped into space with her end. Kass, not waiting for her to swing back, plunged furiously after her, and they met in mid-air with a terrific impact. Marion, the light child, was hurled to the floor, where she lay stunned, until Irene ran to revive her with water.

After the Karori Primary School the girls found even this elementary Prep. School difficult, for their preparation was uneven. They had to take some of their classes with Form I. Kass had been so clever in arithmetic at Karori; but here she descended to page 136 the First Form, though she was top of it at the end of her third term.

That was a proud prize-giving day for Kathleen Beauchamp—December, 1899. It was a summer evening. Her father, mother, grandmother, Marie, and Vera went with her to the big school hall, decorated with flags and foliage from the bush. While the College girls sang Christmas carols and two-part songs, Kass and Marie sat with their father and mother on the long form benches, twisting the corners of their starched Sunday pinafores, until their names were called out by Dr. John Innes for the awards. The visitors applauded dutifully, while the girls went up to receive, from the Chief Justice, the prizes they had won. Kass went up for three: one in Form II. for English (which meant literature, composition, history and geography); and two for Form I.—arithmetic and French. Marie had a prize for needlework for Form II. Even though some other girl had won the special recitation prize, it was a famous time. The winners were named in The Dominion that evening; and they were listed in The Reporter, the school magazine, which included Kathleen's second printed “story.”

Mr. Beauchamp had been Justice of the Peace in Karori. He was visiting Justice in Wellington. In view of his later almost unprecedented move: sending his daughters “home” to college—the speech which followed the prize-giving was perhaps one of the most important which Kathleen Beauchamp ever sat through:

Sir Robert Stout congratulated the students; page 137 he said reports showed parents that the children obtained the best possible education at the school; that it was now recognized they must have not only higher education, but also higher education for women. Men and women were on the same platform now in almost everything and it would be a disgrace to the community if it did not make as ample provision for the higher education of girls and women as it did for that of boys and men. They were still far behind other countries in that respect. If they examined statistics of the United States they would find that relative to population, N.Z. did not have at her high schools and colleges half the number of boys and girls or lads and lasses that she ought to have receiving higher education. He knew the great struggle there had been in Wellington even to maintain the Girls' H.S. He said the G.H.S. was praised for the high place students had gained in Wellington College. In conclusion, after some words of counsel to the students, he urged the claims of the school to the support of the citizens, who, he hoped, would strain every nerve to give their children higher education. Parents who gave their children higher education gave them better dowry than money.”

Even after thirty years, Vera remembered Kathleen's excitement that night over her printed “story.” The first printed criticism of her work had appeared the year before (1898) when she was nine. It was written by the Sixth Form Editor of The Reporter as a footnote to her first published sketch:

“This story, written by one of the girls who have lately entered the school, shows promise of great page 138 merit. We shall always be pleased to receive contributions from members of the lower forms.—Ed.”