Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Recollecting Mansfield


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The years until my daughter Katie was old enough to go to school were grey and hard. Bringing up three small children alone is hard work and requires more faith in the future than I had. For a little while I worked part time (with my mother's backing) in the university's stencil-copying department (washing your hair, I was told, was the best way of getting the ink off your fingers) but this was not exactly interesting work. I applied for a job in the university library but was turned down on the grounds that I had young children and would therefore be unreliable. Deeply interested in astronomy, I joined the Canterbury Astronomical Society whose journal I edited for one or two issues. Then I decided that I had better get a qualification for the kind of work I aspired to. I had done social work in Montreal and had flourished, but such a career now seemed a little too close to the bone: too much in need of help myself, I would be ineffectual page 19at helping others. Secretly, I would have loved to be a lecturer in English, and I even discussed with Professor Winston Rhodes of Canterbury University, whom I knew well by that time, the possibility of doing an honours degree. He was discouraging — it would be far too demanding for someone who already had a full-time job. I'm not sure that this was good advice but I took it and decided, after all, to try for a library qualification. The postgraduate library diploma course was offered only by the New Zealand Library School in Wellington. An application for admission and two supporting references were required.

I knew I wouldn't be able to do this course until Katie turned five and was able to go to school, so I waited until then to make my application. I had strong backing from two very good friends, Charles Brasch and Lawrence Baigent, a highly gifted lecturer in the English Department whose course on the textual analysis of Measure for Measure made the study of texts irresistibly fascinating and helped to fix the direction of my life's work. It happened that my application was for 1966, the year in which another old friend, James K. Baxter, was awarded the Burns Fellowship in Dunedin. He and his family lived in a small house in Ngaio, Wellington, so I wrote and asked if we could become his tenants while he was down south. I was interviewed for Library School and accepted, and Jim wrote back to say that theirs was a house that needed children; and he didn't want very much rent.

At last my life was moving again. By that time we were living on Clifton Hill above Sumner, in a house I had first visited with Harry when its owner, Denis Glover, invited us to a party there. I remember being struck by its long sunporch and the sound of the sea very close. Denis had sold it some years before I saw it again and by that time it had been tarted up and altered so that it had a broad, open sundeck, among other features. My father was page 20dubious about my shifting there because it was halfway up (or down) Aranoni Track and everything coming to the house had to be carried up the hill by hand. But it did have the trees, hills, water, distance that inspirited me. The children and I lived there happily for about three years before we moved to Wellington for the Library School year.

In Wellington, luckily, I found Mrs Dench who lived in Newlands and was able to come to the house each weekday afternoon to be there when the children got home from school and to do some housework and dinner preparation. This made the whole scheme possible.

Not much of the library course was stimulating. Its good lecturers were few and far between and the work was humdrum, though relentless. But it was a training of sorts and it did equip me with a qualification. At the end of the year the whole class (except for one or two drop-outs) graduated, and at the ceremony for presentation of the diplomas the startlingly loud applause I received came, I realised, mostly from my children.

One of the more interesting of our lecturers had been A.G. (Graham) Bagnall, the new Chief Librarian of the Alexander Turnbull Library. I had met him before and at Library School we had one or two conversations. Although I had always intended to move back to our house on the hill down south, as time went on I became reluctant to do this. The children were all happy at school and had made friends who were important to them, and I was finding Wellington an invigorating place to live in. Then, idly perusing the properties for sale in the paper, I saw a place that I could almost afford if I sold my Christchurch house. It was in Wadestown, on a hill, looking over the harbour and beyond to the Orongorongos. I found a lawyer to do the financial juggling for me and, with some backing from Charles Brasch and from my father, I bought 86 Pitt Street. Still hankering after universities, I page 21applied for a job at the Victoria University Library but withdrew my application when the Turnbull Library offered me a job as its first Manuscripts Librarian.

I had always had a special feeling about the Turnbull although I was not familiar with it. As part of a Library School exercise, I had had to write about the Turnbull and this had made me realise that I was enormously attracted to it. To be offered a job there was an extraordinary gift. At last the gods were relenting. Maurice Gee, to whom I had been introduced by Charles Brasch and who was also at Library School in my year, was appointed to a job in the Catalogue Section of the Turnbull, so my new job had a comfortable feel right from the start. And then to discover that I now had responsibility for the care of masses of Mansfield manuscripts, many of which were nearly illegible and some of which had never been read since they were written, took my breath away. And, quite apart from those, there were all the manuscripts to do with New Zealand's history, the correspondence and records of early missionaries and early run-holders and surveyors and settlers — new ones coming in all the time — as well as the papers of other literary figures. It was a world of never-ending fascination, and with the children all doing well at school and in good health, we were set for a much happier few years than the last six had been.

Another of the friends I inherited from Harry was Eric McCormick, the literary critic, who lived in Auckland but with whom I was to remain constantly in touch for the last 30-odd years of his life. Apart from being New Zealand's foremost literary critic, he was the outstanding authority on Frances Hodgkins, the painter. He has always been, for me, the epitome of the brilliant scholar whose principles and practices of scholarship were impeccable. While writing his books he also occupied a number of important academic posts and it seemed to me a tragedy that this all had to page 22be juggled with a complex homosexual life at a time when such activity was a criminal offence and therefore had to be hidden most scrupulously. Over the years he often told me of his adventures and his skin-of-the-teeth escapes from discovery. I admired him enormously and later tried to emulate his methods of work.

In my excitement over Mansfield's little Milton I badly wanted to show it to someone who would appreciate its significance, and I chose Eric. Although not exactly excited by it himself, he benignly observed my pleasure in it. Then, soon after I started work at the Turnbull, he wrote to say that Dan Davin at Oxford University Press had asked him for suggestions as to who might take on the editorship of the collected letters of Katherine Mansfield. Dan had decided that the time for such a work had come and that, ideally, the editor should be a New Zealander and a woman. Eric, touched by my pleasure in the little Milton, had replied to Davin recommending me; Dan would be writing to me soon and also to my boss, Graham Bagnall, because the Turnbull, as the repository of the bulk of the letters, would have to be closely involved.

It hardly needs to be said that I was both thrilled and terrified. There were several large flaws in the scheme. I had no experience, no money and no time left over from the library job and my domestic responsibilities. But Graham Bagnall was pleased about it and encouraging, and Charles Brasch rather summed up my own feeling when he said, 'Well, my dear, you can't turn that down!' So, after a good deal of correspondence with Oxford University Press, which was to publish the edition, I signed a contract to do the work.