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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



During the time she was writing Juliet (her last three months at Queen's) Arnold Trowell was in London giving recitals at the Bechstein Hall, before audiences that were, for the most part, very enthusiastic. He had finished his two years' study in Brussels, and had been playing on the Continent.

Kathleen herself heard him in Brussels on March 26th (1906), while she was on Easter holidays under the chaperonage of Bell Dyer. What must have been her exhilaration to sit in that audience applauding with enthusiasm the boy whom she had made her artistic counterpart during the three years since she left New Zealand? All was altered. All was different from that far-away time of her childhood when she had sat in the Sydney Street Hall in Wellington and listened to the fourteen-year-old “local prodigy.” She felt that she was a woman now. Through her reading, through glimpses of London cafés, she felt she “knew life.” How much older she thought herself than most of the girls about her! And the belief that this genius of seventeen, this young composer who could transport his audiences actually belonged to her, sent her page 218 imagination winging in the wake of his music to ecstasy.

It was about this time—when they met again—that there was a tacit agreement between them practically amounting to an engagement.

While she was in Brussels, too, she met Rudolph, upon whom she modelled the “villain” in Juliet. Rudolph was one of Arnold's musician friends—a handsome, excitable and temperamental youth. He had brusque ways, covering his supersensitiveness. It was he who gave Kathleen the cue to calling Arnold “Old Hoss,” with a clap on the shoulder (perhaps it was, too, a reminiscence of Trilby, which was a favourite book of Kathleen's at this time).

Rudolph shot himself soon afterward. Kathleen took it very much to heart. This experience of sudden death in her own world—the death of a friend of Arnold, a boy whom she had known, and who had fired her imagination—was quite another thing from “knowing life” through books. This was her first personal experience of the feeling which she later tried to convey through Laura (in The Garden Party) whose bewilderment she described in a letter :

“The diversity of life, and how we try to fit in everything, Death included. That is bewildering for a person of Laura's age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn't like that. We haven't the ordering of it. Laura says, ‘But all these things must not happen at once.’ And Life answers, ‘Why not? How are they divided from each other?’ And they do all happen; it is inevitable.”
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She was too near the beginning of things, then, to be able to add:

“And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.”

She met Maata again. Maata stayed in London for a short time on her way back from Paris. She came—a finished little Parisian in dress and manner.“She kept her feet as exquisitely as she did her hands,” Maata's mother said. Their meeting was rapturous and romantic. Two years later, when they both were keeping diaries (and Kathleen preserved Maata's all her life, expecting to make some use of it) she looked back longingly to that time together in London :

“In the pocket of an old coat I found one of Ariadne's gloves—a cream coloured suede glove fastening with two silver buttons. It has been there two years—but still it holds some exquisite suggestion of Carlotta (Maata)—still when I lay it against my cheek I can detect the sweet of the perfume she affected. O, Carlotta—have you remembered? We were floating down Regent Street in a hansom—on either side of us the blossoms of golden light—and ahead a little half hoop of a moon.”

When Maata had gone, Kathleen arranged to meet the Trowell brothers. This was possible by taking advantage of the permission given to girls over a certain age to go out in the company of another Queen's girl.

“I met them both (writes one of her friends) at the London Academy of Music, where Kathleen went to play in the orchestra every Friday (I believe). I thought them (the two T.'s) the most extraordinary page 220 beings I had ever met. Red-haired, pale, wearing huge black hats (a very familiar thing that, now) and smoking the longest cigarettes I had ever seen, or have.”

From that purely external picture, one can guess the importance of the two brothers in Kathleen's life at this time. They were authentic denizens of the enchanted world of Art, wearing its livery. In their company, and their genuine friendship, Kathleen was for moments made free of another kind of existence; and she was stirred far beyond anything she had known in what one of the girls called “the hot-bed of emotion” at Queen's.

Then the realisation—so evident in her journal and her “novel” of that time—began to creep over her : she did not mean to Arnold what she believed he meant to her. Yet, vividly as she forced herself to meet her experiences, she could not at once accept this appalling thing. At first it was just a shadow, reflected in her writing, but not received as reality. Two years later she still was refusing to accept it as truth, even when she wrote to Arnold in her journal a letter not to be sent :

“… O—let it remain as it is—Do not suddenly crush out this, the beautiful flower—I am afraid even while I am rejoicing …”

It did not make it any easier that she was in love with an ideal which she herself had created during those changing and emotional three years when she had not seen him, but had built up her dream through letters—so many more on her part than on his. It was not until her return to London three page 221 years later, that she was to face the real truth of the situation. Now, in Juliet, she admitted it for a moment, in fancy only to deny it later :

“‘She hates me,’ Rudolph said.
“‘I only wish she hated me,’ said David. ‘It is an impossible position—I feel as though I ought to love her … but I do not. She is too much like me. I understand her too well. We are both too moody. We both feel too much the same about everything … and so she does not attract me. Do you understand?’”

Two chapters from Juliet reflect something of what was happening then : the uneasiness, the sleeplessness of the time when she was meeting Arnold. Her room-mate remembers that she came back from those meetings in a state so highly strung that she would throw herself on the bed, weeping violently; that she talked and moaned and walked in her sleep; that she went to fortune-tellers to “try to discover the future”; that she started going to séances, which only upset her the more. One day she announced to the girls that she was “going to have a séance”; and when they prepared for the table rapping, she “went into a trance” —as one of them remembers—“and talked so wildly that we were frightened out of our wits, and had to shake her violently to bring her back to herself.”

Since Arnold had come to London, everything had subtly changed for Kathleen. It was not Arnold's coming, merely, nor Garnet's coming—then. It was that intangible shifting of relationships of which Katherine Mansfield was always so acutely aware. Everything was weaving a new page 222 pattern—and a strange light played over it—shadowed, diffused. In it they all looked different; and she, too, as she looked down upon herself, seemed strange.

Her manner toward Ida appeared abrupt to spectators. They heard her say :“Oh, I couldn't come then!” after Ida had waited for her at an appointed place. They heard her say :“Ida! Get my handkerchief from the left-hand bureau drawer!” And they heard Ida's quiet reply :“Yes, Katie darling.” Yet it was the sign that now all was accepted, the adjustment made; and that it was sometimes difficult for Kathleen to reveal herself to one who—because she loved her—could interpret the secret most poignant meaning :“I feel I have to tear a delicate veil from my heart when I speak to her; and I feel that I oughtn't to tear it. Is that nonsense?” Though she hid, at moments, behind a mask, there was the tacit acceptance, only rarely remarked as when, a dozen years later, they had discussed the inexplicable, and Katherine Mansfield,“talking it over” afterwards with herself :

“I must not forget the long talk L. M. and I had…. The marvel is that she understands. No one else on earth could understand.” (And on that same occasion)” All that week she had her little corner. ‘I may come into my little corner tonight?’ she asks timidly, and I reply—so cold, so cynical—‘If you want to.’ But what would I do if she didn't come?”

There was the wordless thing between them which they knew, and no other : that Ida, uninstructed, understood certain of Katherine's needs, as page 223 Katherine, by her very being, supplemented Ida's. The din around them, the mischances, the nervous tensions of daily living could not intrude upon the centre of peace, the “silent singing” of that which lay between.

In Queen's College days Ida was one “with whom she could be herself.” Kathleen knew (and there were times when she desperately needed to know) that no matter what could happen in her world, Ida was steadfast. They evolved between them, once, a symbol : Ida was the tall green column, and herself the live bird who rested upon it—and from it flew away—only to return before taking the new flight. Except for occasional restless periods, it was always to be so. Superficial circumstances might seem to intervene, but the intangible relationship remained—out of sight, at times—beyond reach, even—yet recognised, acknowledged, as when Katherine Mansfield wrote from Paris in 1915 :

“You sent me a letter from L. M. which was simply marvellous. She wrote, as she can, you know, of all sorts of things, grass and birds and little animals and herself and our friendship with that kind of careless, very infinite joy—There is something quite absolute in Lesley—She said at the end of a page—‘Katie, dearie—what is Eternity?’ She's about the nearest thing to eternal that I could ever imagine. I wish she were not so far away …”

The chapters of Juliet written during the last months at Queen's show not only the restlessness which Kathleen seemed impotent to control, but also the fierce rebellion which rose in her at her page 224 father's intention of taking the girls back to New Zealand, when they had finished college at the end of July, 1906; and her desperate and unavailing attempts to persuade the family to let her remain in London. That they were unable to understand the depth of her desire is not remarkable; neither is it strange that it should have seemed to her impossible to be torn from a place where she felt her whole life was centred—all her friends and her interests, and all her opportunities. She believed in herself—yet when one is young, if that belief is not supported by the belief of another, the doubt creeps in :“Can I do this thing?” So she flew to Ida, crying :“But you believe in me—don't you?”

Her father said, in bewilderment :“I hardly know the girls; I've lost them now. I'll never send the two younger children ‘home’ to be educated.”

But Kathleen, reassured, said to her room-mate :“When I get to New Zealand, I'll make myself so objectionable that they'll have to send me away.” Even then she had perception enough—penetration enough—to know the one way of escape.

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Black and white photograph of a weatherboard villa.

47 Fitzherbert Terrace, Wellington

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