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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



The Sketch always reminds me of the morning-room at 47,” Kathleen wrote, long afterward, to Marie. This big house, the scene of the tumultuous years of her New Zealand life, did not so readily become her “possession” as either the two homes in Tinakori Road, or “Chesney Wold” in Karori. Yet, had she continued to write, she undoubtedly would have set stories here. In 1920 she was turning back toward it, at last, though it had taken ten years to transcend the conflict of those days :

“Even if one does not acquire any ‘fresh meat’—one's vision of what one possesses is continually page 231 changing into something rich and strange, isn't it? I feel mine is. 47, Fitzherbert Terrace p. e. is colouring beautifully with the years and I polish it and examine it, and only now is it ready to come out of the store room into the uncommon light of day.”

The family in 47 was rather quieter than it had been in the earlier homes. Bell Dyer had married, in England, and was living (as Wellington put it)“in a house full of servants.” The Grandmother had moved to Bolton Street to stay with friends. Vera was being courted by a young Canadian geologist who was engaged on a survey in New Zealand; and her departure was imminent.

Leslie Heron (“Chummie”) was going away to the Wailaki Boys' High School. He was twelve, now—a fine, upstanding lad with charm and self-assurance. Kathleen had been too busied by the urgency of her own evolving life to show more affection toward him than toward the other members of her family. Probably she was barely conscious of her affection at the time. It was something realised much later, as she looked back; yet, even two years afterward, she summarised one aspect of her relation to “Chummie.” After all, he was her only brother, and a very nice one.

“I felt maternal toward him. As a baby he clung to me, and all the years after, I could, when I looked at him, feel those little hands around my neck. He had a little habit of bringing me flowers—a rose, some violets, a spray of apple blossom—Yes, he was always coming to me with his hands full of flowers.
“I see him as a little child, sitting on the table, while I scrubbed his grubby knees, and after his bath in my room in the morning, in his pink pyjamas, his page 232 hair curling all over his head, standing on one leg and flicking his towel, and crying : ‘It's a lovely day, dearest.’ (And at night the game, ‘Payjamaarm.’)
“After playing cricket, stumbling up the stairs, hot, out of breath, and his shirt collar unbuttoned, his hair on end, damp, and mopping his face with an indescribable handkerchief. He was so absentminded, too … He read everything I gave him.
“I remember very well saying Good-bye to him. He was going away to school, and we kissed for a moment, and then I leaned out of the window. It had been raining. The air was very cool and clean. He waved to me from the gate, and I listened, hearing his glad little footsteps die down the street, fainter and fainter, so fast out of my life.”

Between Kathleen and her mother there was a certain similarity—a particular fastidiousness for one thing, which came to both from the Grandmother. Mrs. Beauchamp would refuse a cup of tea having a drop of milk spilled in the saucer :“That's for servants!” she would say; and how high poised was her fine little head, with the high arched brows and the little frown between, as she said it, so airily.

Kathleen had something of her mother's manner; she looked rather like her, too—had her colouring. And though she was more Beauchamp than Dyer, she had something of her mother's nature. Mrs. Beauchamp, at one time, had wanted to write (her letters always were delightful); she was in sympathy with Kathleen's longing to be a writer, even though she couldn't comprehend the demands, the restrictions, which this desire imposed upon her daughter.

page 233

Kathleen once tried to express something of their relationship:

“… I often long to lean against Mother and know she understands things … that can't be told … that would fade at a breath … delicate needs … a feeling of fineness and gentleness. But what Mother hadn't is an understanding of Work.”

Her mother's detached air—the way of seeming to live utterly apart from the little world to which she willingly gave herself—had by no means lessened since the children were grown. If anything, it seemed more pronounced now that there was need for keeping up social position.

Her husband had realised his life-long ambition for acquisition and influence; he had now become one of the commercial magnates of New Zealand. In 1894 he had been a general merchant and a Justice of the Peace; now, in 1907, he was many things beside : a commanding figure in the profitable frozen meat trade, a member of the Harbour Board, managing director of the Building and Investment Company—he himself had purchased land of which the future increase in value was assured—Director of the Bank of New Zealand, on the brink of becoming its Chairman. He had identified himself completely with the commercial and financial development of Wellington during a period of great prosperity, and he had prospered accordingly.

His was the determination to take him straight to his chosen goal, and he was near enough to the pioneer to find the materials still flexible in his page 234 hands. He had the sensitive pride of the man rising rapidly, by his own capacities, and he found protection in armour of his own forging. Anything which stood in the way of his purpose was, of course, intolerable (and Katherine—looking toward such a different goal—was to be her father's daughter). Wealth was the great means to his end, and he expected, as a matter of course, to manage his family as he managed his business :“on a sound financial basis.”

Mrs. Beauchamp was not, in any sense,“a climber.” But she loyally kept up her end—went to teas, made calls, gave musical evenings and dances for the children in the big Fitzherbert Terrace house. Kathleen, at least, understood how alien it was from her mother's own real world :

“It was the late afternoon when Mrs. Sheridan, after having paid Heaven knows how many calls, turned towards home.
“‘Thank Heaven that's all over!’ she sighed, as she clicked the last gate to, and stuffed her little Chinese card-case into her handbag.
“But it was not all over. Although she hadn't the faintest desire to remember her afternoon, her mind, evidently, was determined she should not forget it. And so she walked along seeing herself knocking at doors, crossing dim halls into large pale drawing-rooms, hearing herself saying, ‘No, she would not have any tea, thank you. Yes, they were all splendidly well. No, they had not seen it yet. The children were going to-night. Yes, fancy! he had arrived. Young and good-looking too! Quite an asset! Oh dear no! She was determined not to allow any of her girls to marry. It was quite unnecessary now-a-days, and such a risk!’ And so on and so on.
“‘What nonsense calling is! What a waste of time! page 235 I have never met a single woman yet who even pretended to like it. Why keep it up then? Why not decide once and for all? Mock orange,' and Mrs. Sheridan woke out of her dream to find herself standing under a beautiful mock orange bush that grew against the white palings of old Mr. Phillips' garden. The little sponge-like fruits? Flowers? Which were they—shone burning bright in the late afternoon sun.
“‘They are like little worlds,’ she thought, peering up through the large crumpled leaves and she put her hand and touched one gently. Now her glove was all brushed with yellow. But it didn't matter. She was glad, even. ‘I wish you grew in my garden,’ she said regretfully to the mock orange bush, and she went on, thinking, ‘I wonder why I love flowers so much. None of the children inherit from me. Laura perhaps. But even then it's not the same. She's too young to feel as I do. I love flowers more than people, except my own family, of course. But take this afternoon, for instance. The only thing that really remains is that mock orange.’”

Kathleen was to comprehend, very fully, in time, her mother's detachment. It arose not as her own did, now, from inward division, from the longing of the soul to be in places where the body was not; but rather it was the outcome of an existence passed in spaces between the known worlds—the almost disembodied life of one for whom” the barriers are down … and you've only to slip through.” Finally, in her own experience, Katherine was to understand:

“Once the defences are fallen between you and death they are not built up again…. Mother, of course, lived in this state for years. Ah, but she lived surrounded. She had her husband, her children, her page 236 home, her friends, physical presences, darling treasures to be cherished.”

Yet this suspended state had its inevitable effect upon her children.