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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



“I Wish that I was as far advanced in my work as you are in yours—but I am far from it,” Kass had written to “E.K.B.” —Edith (“Edie”) Kathleen Bendall—early in 1907.

About this time the following entry appeared in her Note Book:

“There is—I think Mr. Trowell. Definitely I have decided not to be a musician—It's not my forte—I can plainly see—The fact remains at that—I must be an authoress. Cæsar (A.T.) is losing hold of me. Edie (E.K.B.) is waiting for me—I shall slip into her arms. They are safest. Do you love me?”

Everyone remembers the laughter greeting her announcement:“I'm going to be a writer!” Her Aunt and Rose remember it, and her cousins, and her friends. It was more than half due to her challenging gesture; less than half because she didn't look the part, and because she had been “just Kass” to them for so long.

Independent though she was, Kathleen was always seeking for someone in immediate sympathy—someone to create for, someone to speak to in creating. page 244 Her need was peculiar, and intimately her own. The warm immediate relation she sought was to be, as it were, the touchstone of her art-speech, to save it from the cynicism and bitterness which, she felt, were always threatening to engulf her. As intuitively she felt towards an art in accord with the simple miracle of human love, so instinctively she felt towards simple human affection as the soil in which alone her peculiar art could come to flower. What the relation meant for her she defined when writing of her husband thirteen years later.“In fact we are—apart from everything else—each other's critic in that he ‘sees’ me, I see myself reflected as more than I appear and yet not more than I AM, and so I believe it is with him.” Someone in whom she could see herself reflected as more than she appeared, and yet not more than she was—someone in the security of whose affection she could let unfold the sensitive tendrils of childlike delight and childlike desire which were her essential and secret self—such a one she found at this barren moment in E.K.B. Years afterwards, when she would speak of E.K.B., the “special” note of tenderness would enter her voice, a sure witness to her abiding affection for one of the few friends she had known who had enabled her to be herself.

As early as 1901 Edith Bendall had made little water-colour sketches of dark Maori babies for Kass's album. Her ambition to be an artist—to draw children—had crystallised long before Kathleen Beauchamp's aim was focussed. She had a real flair for portraits of children; they blossomed like page 245 flowers under her hand—so alive, so mobile, such minute individuals.

If she walked down Tinakori Road and saw a row of little round heads, like pale lanterns in the gloom of the Chinaman's Shop, or if she went into the country and saw Maori babies tumbling about an old pah, she could keep their faces individual and distinct in memory until she had painted them. Indeed, she could remember for years the face of a child who had delighted her.

She and Kathleen stimulated each other's observation—fanned the creative fire. Kathleen's interest in children was mainly artistic: she saw them as colour studies—bright butterfly bows hovering above the fringe and long curls (the fashion for children then).“The Little Girl with the Fringe” was the child who ran so lightly through those verses.

Kathleen, watching the children as she walked through the Botanical Gardens or down Lambton Quay, made mental notes for daily letters to E.K.B. In one she described a group on the Quay: a small red-haired girl in a green frock, sitting on the steps of a bead shop holding oranges in her lap, the envy of a small boy in a holland suit and his smaller sister emerging from an enormous pinafore—her “aggressive little braid” (like the triangular tail of a kitten) tied with a huge orange bow. Sympathetic Ida receiving letters that were “one long wail,” might well have been astonished at these notes—so gay, brimming with colour, with tender amusement.

There had always been a baby in the Beauchamp home; Kass knew children well. Jeanne—a quaint child in sunbonnets, a tiny thing with minute hands page 246 and feet—had been heard to say:“Daddy's afraid I'm going to be a dwarf.” Leslie “looked such a darling,” Kathleen thought, with his short fluff of curls and beaming smile under the huge straw hat he wore pushed far back. All of this Kass drew upon, in retrospect, in her poems. Her own childhood had been precious to her—secret, lonely,“behind the Blue Mountains.” It was a vivid memory, and being back in New Zealand after long absence brought back so much of her fanciful past:“the cabbage tree with its hair out of curl,” and “shadow children thin and small.” Her mind became a sensitive plate to such impressions. Every memory, every observation gave her ideas for a poem. If Jeanne had a new leather belt and pulled her waist in like a young lady, Kass said:“I must write a poem on that!” This ardour, so focussed, so stimulated by E.K.B.'s devotion, inspired a series of verses which (when they were posthumously published) Walter de la Mare called “as true to childhood as any child poems that we know.”

E.K.B. was able to share Kathleen's retrospective childhood in another way: in the preference (which she still had) for very small things—some tiny shell found at the Bay, a minute flower that they could look down into and study—an unknown world which they entered by themselves.

Her friend was older than Kass. (She had no use for girls of her own age, except Maata, who also was living beyond her years.) E.K.B., who might herself have sat for a Wedgewood figure, thought Kathleen beautiful. One sketch, which she made of her while they were at the Bay, shows a round, thoughtful page 247 face with beautiful chiselled mouth, fine dark eyes, level brows, under a little winged Mercury hat. And E.K.B., like Ida, thought Kathleen's voice “wonderfully lovely—a voice that you couldn't forget.” Unlike Matty, she remembered her as always laughing—effervescing with mischief and amusement over the comical situations she noticed when they were together, or which she saved to tell.

When the sketches and verses were finished, in June (1907), Kass copied out the poems in violet ink, in a leaping happy hand, and sent them with E.K.B.'s illustrations to an editor abroad.

The poems, alas, were rejected; but they were at least returned. The drawings were irretrievably lost. Probably it was this total shipwreck of her hopes which caused Kathleen to turn ironically upon the whole affair. She had exposed herself, and been repaid for her folly. So she reacted by professing to regard the episode as an absurd and childish interlude.

Here are consecutive entries in the black Note Book:

“(June 29).
“I do not think I shall ever be able to write any child verse again. The faculty has gone, I think.
“Now E.K.B. is a thing of the past …”

Yet, nearly a year later (April, 1908) she collaborated with her again, this time writing prose, reflecting once more something of her own childhood—the tender and lively sketches of The Thoughtful Child.

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