On the train journey to Diss I shared a compartment some of the way with a voluble little man who ran a dog kennel establishment and who was also, he told me, a psychic. He could communicate with the dead, if I would like any help in that direction, and he was just then on his way to address a meeting of a psychics society in one of the big northern towns. I did not avail myself of his services so when he left the train he gave me his card in case I should change my mind later.
I knew I would be spending a couple of nights with Mary and Ruth and felt I should take them a small present. The problem was that I had almost no money. In the end, on my way through London, as a token, I bought a pair of attractive porcelain and silver egg-coddlers. I myself would have liked to have them so I thought Mary might too. But she could buy plenty of such things if she wanted to, and I felt that I had made a misjudgement. It page 101couldn't be helped. On the first evening I told them about the butterfly incident at Lesley's, and Mary said it was reminiscent of Rosamond Lehmann's autobiography, The Swan in the Evening, about the death of her daughter and their subsequent communication. She produced the book and I read the whole of it in bed before going to sleep, so compelling was its subject-matter. Compelling but not, alas, convincing.
In the morning I woke remembering Lesley's little request. I looked at the wall beyond the foot of the bed and there was a large painting of flowers in a vase. I jumped out, ran over to it and saw that it was signed 'Brett'. I felt, for Lesley's sake, that I should draw Mary's attention to it. But when I told her what Lesley had told me she snorted and said, 'Oh, I'd want a good deal more proof than that before I handed it over.' Poor Lesley. This was clearly unjust, like so much in her life, but I could do nothing about it. I didn't even tell her that the painting was there, though I have since thought that I should have done so.
The house was centrally heated, luckily, for the weather was icy and it was snowing quite heavily. Mary took me upstairs to Jack's study, sat me at his large desk and produced his letters to Katherine. The study was in a corner of the house, with windows along two walls looking out over large flakes of snow falling on a silent white world. The other two walls were lined with Jack's books; it was all as he had left it. On the desk, under the window, was a large framed photograph of him. As I sat there reading his letters to Katherine, reliving his anguish and effort and love, I felt his presence so strongly that I turned, half-expecting to find him standing behind me. Butterflies and swans in the evening must have been undermining my grasp of reality. But I was able to assess and evaluate the letters and when I wrote my report for Graham Bagnall he entered into negotiation with Mary and the purchase for the Turnbull was eventually achieved.page 102
I then had a last few days' work in London before Paris and home. Richard Murry, Jack's brother, took me to lunch at an Indian restaurant in Queen's Square. He ordered a bottle of red and we had a long, chatty, pleasant lunch. He told me, among other things, that Jack had had a venereal infection before Mansfield did; he talked about having to change the dressing on Jack's penis because of it. After lunch we went back to his office, close by, and he showed me his letters from Mansfield. They were, of course, exactly what I was after and he said he would supply me with photocopies, although he had been warned against me by Antony Alpers. I couldn't discover what sort of warning it was — Richard was very vague — and he decided, anyway, to ignore it. So I was well pleased with that day's work.
Next, I decided to try to see William Gerhardi. In 1921, in the process of finishing his first novel, Futility, he had read Mansfield's story 'The Daughters of the Late Colonel' and written her a letter of praise for it: 'I don't remember ever reading anything so intolerably real — stifling — since "The Three Sisters".' Mansfield much admired Checkhov so this remark hit the nail on the head. He also said, 'I think it is, and in particular the last long paragraph towards the end, of quite amazing beauty.' Mansfield wrote him a charming reply:
Dear Mr Gerhardi,
I cannot tell you how happy I am to know that The Daughters of the Late Colonel has given you pleasure. While I was writing that story I lived for it but when it was finished, I confess I hoped very much that my readers would understand what I was trying to express. But very few did. They thought it was 'cruel', they thought I was 'sneering' at Jug and Constantia, they thought it was 'drab'. And in the last paragraph I was 'poking fun at the poor old things'.page 103
It's almost terrifying to be so misunderstood. There was a moment when I first had 'the idea' when I saw the two sisters as amusing, but the moment I looked deeper (let me be quite frank) I bowed down to the beauty that was hidden in their lives and to discover that was all my desire … All was meant, of course, to lead up to that last paragraph, when my two flowerless ones turned with that timid gesture, to the sun. 'Perhaps now.' And after that, it seemed to me, they died as truly as Father was dead.
You will understand, therefore, how I prize your wonderfully generous letter telling me my attempt was not in vain. I can only repay you by trying not to fail you in the future. And that, believe me, I shall do.
Gerhardi, however, thought of another way she could repay him, and some four months later he wrote to her and asked if she would read his just-finished novel, Futility, and let him know whether she thought it worth publishing. She did read it, did think it worth publishing and recommended it to a publisher who brought it out the following year. Gerhardi was extremely grateful. Now I hoped for permission to use the letters she had written him.
Michael Holroyd, whom I had telephoned when I was in London in March to ask about Mansfield's letters to Lytton Strachey, which are mentioned in Michael's biography of Strachey, had come to lunch with me in Menton in June and given me some tips for approaching Gerhardi. Now an elderly eccentric, Gerhardi lived alone in an apartment in central London, and Michael warned against telephoning him unless I had plenty of time to spare. He himself had once had a seven-hour telephone page 104conversation with Gerhardi, in the course of which he, Michael, had eaten two meals. Duly warned, I phoned with a statement of my mission as concisely prepared as possible. Half an hour later I hung up, having accepted an invitation to take sherry on the following afternoon.
In Gerhardi's big old block of flats the lift, an iron cage, decanted one right into his apartment. There was a long passage lined on both sides with high stacks of newspapers, he must never have thrown out a newspaper in his life. He was a sprightly little old man, jocular and chatty. In a small sitting room he poured me a glass — capacity about two thimbles — of sherry and, passing it to me, accidentally spilt some onto the two-bar heater. He told me cheerfully that one could die spilling liquid onto an electric appliance. We sipped the sherry, rather a good one, and discussed his letters from Mansfield which had been sold on to the American market and had disappeared. (I should note, in passing, that those letters eventually surfaced, and the Turnbull Library bought them.) He liked the Mansfield who had come through the letters and was sorry they had never actually been able to meet.
'Do you think she would have liked me?' he asked with a nudge-nudge wink-wink twinkle.
'I think you would have been too young for her,' I replied primly. 'She was 32 when you were 25.'
'A perfect age difference!' he assured me.
It happened that Dan Davin had given me his copy of Futility, which I had by this time read, enjoyed and admired, so we had that as one topic of conversation. He loved talking about his work and said several times that he wanted to start a new novel but he always needed a real person as inspiration for his fictional heroine. I had met writers with just that problem before, and I was all ready to point out modestly why I, myself, would not do. As he escorted page 105me along the passage to the lift he started again on his need for a heroine, and when I was in the lift with the door about to clang shut, he said, with a bright smile, 'Have you any daughters?' I was hugely amused and only had time to nod and say, 'Two', when the door banged, the lift descended and William Gerhardi disappeared from my life.