The Life of Katherine Mansfield
Chapter VI: The Terrace School
Chapter VI: The Terrace School
“When does one really begin a journey—or a friendship —or a love affair? It is those beginnings which are so fascinating and so misunderstood. There comes a moment when we realize we are already well on our way—déjà.” —K. M. (Letters.)
When the three Beauchamps entered the School in Fitzherbert Terrace, in June, 1900, their Wellington High School friends felt that “the girls looked down on them.” Miss Swainson's Terrace School was a step up the social ladder. Also, it was an advance to a new terror.
“Ole Underwood” would come singing from Wadestown, hide behind the wind-blown evergreens that lined the centre of Fitzherbert Terrace, and jump out at the children, chasing them shrieking into school. He was a prospector—a gold-hunter from early settlement days—no one knew just what. Swarthy—more like an Italian than an Englishman —he always wore a postman's cap; and gleaming out from his long black hair was a pair of little gold earrings. While he was let alone he paid scant attention to other people—just drifted down from the hills, through the town to the Chinaman's Shop, where he sat among cases of fruit and argued in a page 148 loud voice with the quiet, discreet Chinamen. He had one sensitive point: he couldn't endure a whistle. Yet he seemed magnetised back and back again to the Terrace where the small brothers of the Terrace School girls: Leslie Beauchamp, Cheviot Bell (who were in the Primary School) strolled along nonchalantly, whistling to themselves. Then with a howl of rage he would tear bark, twigs, anything, from the trees that concealed him, and rush after them. In consequence the girls arrived at this “exclusive” school flushed and panting and dishevelled, until Mr. Beauchamp— who was a visiting Justice of Peace—had him “charged as a rogue and a vagabond to serve some time in jail.”
The school had been built at 20 Fitzherbert Terrace in 1878 by Mrs. Swainson. Three years before the Beauchamp girls entered, Miss Mary Swainson had taken charge of it, but she was not the stuff of which Head Mistresses are made; and the following year she engaged Mrs. Henry Smith as Head Mistress. Mr. Robert Parker taught music— though Miss Swainson, herself, led the singing— and Eva Butts taught elocution, arithmetic and geography.
Two of these served Katherine Mansfield as characters later. All four were distinctive individuals; and—as afterward at Queen's College in London—Kathleen Beauchamp was more interested in their individuality than she was in the instruction they dispensed. She easily pierced through to their “secret” as she sat in the Form, gazing up at them while they taught.page 149
Eva Butts was a young school-mistress at the age when she would be “just one of the girls” —a trifle out of their ken, of course—a leader, glamourous, radiating light. She was one of those who must hold court, must have an entourage.
Often she arrived a trifle late in the morning— late to prayers and to class. She made an entrance, sweeping her train behind her. Her purple tweed was flecked with white, giving it a dusty look; it fitted close, showing her figure.“Figures” were in style then; and though she was thin, her tweed was cut to rise and fall in the proper places. Her long strands of hair were wound round and round and round about her head; and very light eyelashes gave her blue eyes a wide child-like candour in surprising contrast to the studied sophistication. She was one of the few people to whom light eyelashes can add distinctiveness.
A certain Mary—who was “the model pupil” while Kass was “the rebel” —looked discreetly down at her paper as she sat at “attention.” Though her expression would never have betrayed her, she was thinking privately that she didn't believe Eva Butts knew much, or that her mind was on her teaching; she went out to dances in the evening; her mind must be on them—not her work.
Kass was leaning on her elbows, chin in her hand, looking up through her lashes at Miss Butts. She didn't trouble to veil her slightly ironic smile; she scorned “attention” as humiliating.
Yet she tolerated—even sometimes liked—Miss Butts, who didn't attempt to make her conform, like Mrs. Henry Smith. Miss Butts “tried to correct page 150 her comps” and told her “they never are on the subject assigned”; yet she was sometimes amused by them, though she thought Kass untidy and careless and lacking concentration. Kass was one of her “circle” —rebellious spirits, six or eight— rebelling against what they considered narrowness and provincialism.
Kathleen and her friend “Diddy” (Hilda) Nathan tried to “reform” the girls at the Terrace School. Diddy had entered from the Convent on the rise above Hill Street, and Kass came up from the Girls' High School. They felt there were too many “barbarians” in Miss Swainson's. Diddy was a sweet-looking girl, rather chunky, like Kass. Unlike Kass, however, she took many things for granted. She had a fund of sympathetic and romantic feeling, and this drew the two together; though Kass sometimes hurt her by unexpected changes in attitude which she was unable to understand.
Diddy hadn't noticed what Miss Butts did when the last bell rang at school; but Kass threw a little sidelong glance at Mary. Mary looked away; she was thinking privately that Kass wasn't bright— that she never could spell. She must be difficult to teach, just sitting, wondering whether to agree, or not; it was disconcerting to the teachers.
Kass was watching Miss Butts who had changed into a riding habit. A horse was waiting at the door. She mounted, and rode grandly up and down Fitzherbert Terrace before everyone.
Mrs. Henry Smith expected to stay at school until late, even though she had her home as well as the school to manage. She had married beneath her socially, and “had a hard life.” It made her abnormally strict, though she was really a kind and a just woman. In some matters she was in advance of her day: she introduced school-journalism, and encouraged a group of girls to form their own club, and to write and edit their magazine. But she believed in rules and in implicit, unquestioning obedience. The girls had to march like soldiers, to rise in a body when she, the Head Mistress, entered the room—irrespective of what they might be working upon at the moment. She was a straight, tiny, determined-looking woman with a sense of humour rigidly concealed beneath a sense of duty. She built her schools so firmly upon discipline that one which she had owned went to pieces when her successor tried “to rule by love.” She believed in personal discipline, too. One girl who mumbled was kept standing on the platform for hours, reading slowly and distinctly: yet the “discipline” never improved her enunciation.
Mrs. Henry Smith remembered Kathleen Beauchamp because she began and edited the first magazine at Miss Swainson's. It was called The School, and was to remain as a permanent institution, though the name was later translated into Maori. Kathleen was the leader of a group that met upstairs, under the eaves (rather influenced by Little Women perhaps) and keeping the “literary page 152 club” and its activities secret. The School was composed of jokes collected from grown-up papers and “original” stories. Kathleen's was a story about a dog:“The door opened and in-flu-Enza.” The first issue (for club members only) was copied in Kathleen's irregular, rather distinctive hand, on large double sheets of foolscap. Several of the girls kept their copies for nearly thirty years because of one contributor who they believed would “do something” in the future; but as she never was heard of again, the copies of The School were gradually destroyed. There may be one in existence, somewhere, but it seems doubtful.
Mrs. Henry Smith thought Kathleen was “a thundercloud” among the other girls of the family. Vera was pretty and affectionate. Several times she showed affection for Mrs. Smith; but there never was a sign of it from Kathleen. Jeanne looked like Alice-in-Wonderland—quaint and dainty. The Beauchamps were affectionate among themselves:“an affectionate family.” But Kathleen seemed to her “a very unpolished diamond, while the others were too polished.” She was “plain,” “a surly sort of a girl” —“imaginative to the point of untruth.” Even the other girls used to say of her stories:“Oh, wait till to-morrow and it will be different!”
Kathleen didn't conceal her dislike when Mrs. Henry Smith returned her compositions with severe criticism. Like Miss Butts, she told her they were poorly written, poorly spelled, and careless. Then she added a few points of her own: they were “too prolific” —she wrote so much that she spoiled page 153 her writing—“though it had something original about it.” Kathleen had been given two subjects for compositions.“One,” said Mrs. Henry Smith, ‘was good. The other wasn't because it was about school life, and no girl should write about school girls: she put herself in too much.”
Long afterward, the Head Mistress explained:“The family was very conventional; Kass was the outlaw. No one here saw that the unconventionality and rebellion had something behind it. Nobody, I think, understood that or her. They just tried to make her conform: reprimanded her for errors in spelling, carelessness, and poor writing. But that was ‘the method’ in those days.”
Yet it was not all suppression. When Kathleen arranged and directed “Mrs. Jarley's Wax Works,” a school benefit for the Polynesian Missions, some of her newly awakening life was allowed wings. She was influenced by her reading, of course: but she added her own inventions. Excitement was added to the performance by a visitor from England (the Rev. Charles Prodgers) who didn't conceal his amusement and delight in Kathleen Beauchamp's unique exhibition. He was perhaps the first to realise something of the promise in her individuality. Before he returned to England, he wrote in her album:
“With every good wish for ‘Mrs. Jarley's’ future success.”
Mr. Robert Parker taught Kathleen pianoforte for two years. Vera was the better musician, the page 154 better student of music; but even thirty years later he remembered Kass—“Well … very well. I can see her sitting there at the piano … her very attitude. It is remarkable how she noticed details at her age. The pale picture of Rubinstein (there it is) did hang above the mantelpiece, though there was no inscription; and the picture of Solitude was over the piano. She has the room down exactly in that—what shall I call it?—that very sentimental little piece about me in The Wind Blows.”
But Mr. Parker was renowned for sentiment. He leaned over a little as he talked, rubbing together those pale, slim, well-groomed hands. His slightly stooped shoulders seemed bent rather from hovering above his guests—so courteously, so solicitously— than from any stoop of age. His beautiful long hair was brushed smoothly back. It gleaned with its own light. His features, aquiline; his mouth, full and a trifle loose; but it was his eyes—the meaning glance in them. In the “quiet cave” of his studio, a music lesson with Mr. Parker could be a sedative, it could be a cocktail. Unimportant the composition:
” ‘Nellie Bly
Caught a fly
Put it in her tea!”
“This exquisite morceau was in my pianoforte Tutor, words and all. Who could have composed it?”
He had the rare power of transmitting his own delight in music; and music was his life—taught at Miss Swainson's School. He was on the staff until he was nearly eighty years old; even then he was as courtly as ever; and even after that his own page 155 students still felt that his look had some special meaning, some significance for them, alone.
Miss Mary Swainson herself took music lessons from him for years; and she sang to his accompaniment at St. Paul's. The girls even told how the sexton had overlooked them when they were rehearsing one evening and locked them in the Cathedral.
If her singing class dragged, the girls wished Mr. Parker would look in, for then all lessons stopped; and they could have a little chat while the Mistress swept forward with her best outside-of-school smile. Kass glanced sideways at Diddy, when she saw the door open; but Diddy looked back at her, smiling pleasantly and raising her brows in a question:“What do you mean?” Mary looked discreetly down her nose.
There was one other at the Terrace School who claimed Kathleen's special notice. Martha-Grace,“Princess Maata” among her own people, was a half-caste Maori girl a form or two above Kass at school.
The Maoris, from the first, had been accepted in New Zealand on an equal social basis with the English, and were absorbed into the white population. They became a kindly, a courteous and an amiable people, with a leaning toward beauty, a flair for fantasy, a greater receptivity. They took on most of the physical characteristics of the English —a fair skin, blue eyes, often—but their eyes were page 156 limpid; they had a softer, warmer look—a look of kindliness and sympathy and humour. It was by this that the Maori blood might be detected as well as by deep kindness, gentleness and sweetness of nature and instinctive courtesy.
Maata was not typical, either of the Maoris or the blending of Maori and English blood; partly, perhaps, because her social position was unique. Maata was said to be a Maori princess in her own right, as well as heiress to Maori holding, and very wealthy. She had lived in the city, and had been educated as an English girl; yet there was little of the English in Maata's assured presence; and none of the English in her hot, glowing eyes.
They were wide-set, amazing in their dark fiery beauty. She knew how to use them, too. Something in the way her lips curved upward when she smiled was very telling. She appeared rather Spanish with her warm skin, and nose a trifle spatulate, yet fine; and the rich, bright colours she wore. A glowing, passionate stream coursed through her veins; her skin looked warm; it was hot to the touch from the secret fire that flashed so beautifully in her eyes. The Maoris would have said she possessed mana—“personal magnetism.”
To all the girls there was something romantic about Maata—something in herself, even apart from the title of “Princess.” And Kathleen loved her. Maata imparted to her a warmth as no one else could at that time. She caught some of the fire and felt it fly through her own blood. She felt ardent toward Maata—she felt she adored her—“she worshipped her.”page 157
Yet because Kathleen had been conventionally brought up, the girls were forced to keep their meetings clandestine.
Years after—in the autumn of 1913—Katherine Mansfield drafted a novel with Maata, for its central character. In Paris that winter she wrote the first chapters of Maata, catching something of the flame and the passion—something of the Maata of those days when they both were in their teens; but her writing was interrupted unexpectedly, and she never was able to complete the “novel.”
Maata, herself, despite her fiery beauty and her expensive education in “town” —or perhaps because of these things—lived a brief and varied and unhappy life. Her conjugal history was not unlike that of Armena down in the country of Marlborough Sounds.