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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



Even in these early years she was torn—like that other Katya (of The Tedious Story), and like Marie Bashkirtseff—by the conflict peculiar to one having the temperament and the ideals of genius. In her very ardour to achieve, she was paralysed at times by what Baudelaire called la stérilité des écrivains nerveux. It was not until, like Blake, she had passed through innocence to experience, and through experience to a new innocence again that she could write as easily and naturally as a bird sings; not because she wanted to be a writer, but because she wanted to write. During these early years, she was in the throes of a power too strong for her. She had not yet known—except at a few rare happy instants—

“… the moment when the act of creation takes place—the mysterious change—when you are no longer writing the book, it is writing, it possesses you.”

Letters were always her means of “taking the soundings.” To Ida alone during those two years she wrote a packet more than a foot square. Ten years later, looking through them hurriedly, she page 258 said:“This is such young, unformed work; there's no time to sort it; let's destroy it all.” And though Ida had guarded them preciously for ten years, she answered gently:“They belong to you, Katie,” and helped her burn them—too many for a fireplace—in a garden bonfire. Those letters were “just one long wail” —all the unhappy aspects of her existence. When she had put, in one of them, a laughing picture of herself with Chummie and little Jeanne, Ida wrote back:“But how can you laugh!”

Her own room was by no means the only place where she wrote; as she wrote every day, so she wrote everywhere. The Note Books that always went with her, a very part of herself, are eloquent of the tremendous efforts she was continually making “to become a writer”; of her anxiety concerning her talent and her possibilities of achievement:

“I am full of ideas tonight. And they must at all costs germinate. I have seen enough to make me full of fancy. I should like to write something so beautiful, and yet modern, and yet student-like and full of summer….
“Now truly I ought to be able, but I don't feel by any means confident. Oh, do let me write something really good, let me sketch an idea and work it out. Here is silence and peace and splendour—bush and birds. Far away I hear builders at work upon a house—and the tram sends me half crazy. Let it be a poem…
“And I shall do well. Bright sunshine, now. I am glad. It will be a beautiful afternoon—but, I pray you, let me write.”
page 259
“… I ought to make a good author. I certainly have the ambition and the ideas, but have I the power to carry me all through? Yes….”
“I have read enough for this afternoon. Now I want to write. Shall I be able I wonder? Here is the attempt.
“I can write nothing at all. I have many ideas but no grip of any subject. I want to write verses—but they won't come…. I cannot get a charming effect anyway. It's hatefully annoying and disheartening. But there is nothing like trying, so I shall make a further attempt. I should like to write something just a trifle mysterious—but really very beautiful and original.
The Growing of Wings.
“Try to make some sort of sketch of the whole. It will be far simpler—so to speak—block it in— For instance place your characters carefully and completely—She is born in New Zealand. At the death of her Father she is sent to London to Miss Pitts who keeps a boarding house for the young girls who wish to study at the various colleges. Here is the opportunity for sketching in say—a pal…. Constance Foster and Miss Manners. They are taken by Miss Manners to see her nephew Paul Hardy—author.”

Even at that time—when she was between eighteen and twenty—she seemed to be turning definitely toward the short story form; and though she wrote sketches with such facility, there seemed always the one story haunting her—the story of her birth in the storm, and her early life in New Zealand. Again and again she started it in her Note Books; and those abandoned beginnings are significant not only of the immediate influences working upon her— the mark of her reading, the effect of her study of page 260 style, her sensitiveness to delicate atmosphere, to ironic overtones; but also of the manner in which she modified characters whom she knew to meet artistic demand:

“I should like to write a life much in the style of Walter Pater's Child in the House. About a girl in Wellington; the singular charm and barrenness of that place—with climatic affects—wind, rain, spring, night—the sea, the cloud—beauty. And then to leave the place and go to Europe. To live there a real existence—to go back and be utterly disillusioned, to find out the truth of all—to return to London—to live there an existence so full and so strange that life itself seemed to greet her—and ill to the point of death return to W. and die there. The story—no, it would be a sketch, hardly that, more a psychological study— of the most () character. I should fill it with sinister disturbance and also of the strange longing for the artificial. I should call it Strife—and the child I should call—Ah, I have it—I'd make her a half-cast Maori and call her Maata. Bring into it Hasbrick the guide.”

And when this story would not grow, she was thrown into black fits of depression, into dark moods of restlessness; just as, when a story flowered, she was released again happy and free. But she had to wait for maturity—until she could look back upon her childhood from innumerable points of exile— before this story could be written.

No time or place seemed impossible for her writing. She had a special “corner” of her own in the Parliamentary Library where she was made to feel at home. She wrote on a moving caravan— scrawled pencil jottings of all she saw on the journey through the wild King Country in November. page 261 She wrote as they returned on the train—as, invariably, when travelling alone, she jotted descriptions of her compartment companions. While she waited for a concert to begin (Clara Butt and Kennerley Rumford, who were touring Wellington) she described acquaintances in the music hall, and then began a new chapter of her “novel” Juliet; as when waiting for Arnold Trowell to play in London, she had scrawled a note of the audience, and his probable state of mind:

“There are a more or less large number of weak looking females waiting here of the slightly mushroom hat type—the flannel coat and skirt type. I feel rather self-conscious, so I doubtless look arrogant. No other man to be seen. What must the feeling of the Master be. In two hours he will be playing. Does that excite him—is he too blasé for excitement—Is he looking at his fiddle—calling out—lifting—the lid of his case— Yet I think not—or he is eating the proverbial Sausage with his …”

She scribbled a letter in German to Arnold while she was waiting for someone before the Court House in Wellington. Alone in the Library at home in Fitzherbert Terrace, she experimented with several versions of a Vignette—the view from the window.

It was her custom, in those days (in composing one of the slight sketches which she called Vignettes), to write the first draft quickly under the impulse of her original idea; then to experiment with it—crossing out words and lines, revising the first text; later to rewrite completely, retaining only certain sentences and phrases from the first draft— really giving the idea a new chance to form itself.

page 262

In this same manner she wrote in the Day's Bay cabin, and at Island Bay (where she told Matty she was going “to the sea for copy”):

“Thursday (Feb.)
“I am at the sea—at Island Bay, in fact—lying flat on my face on the warm white sand. And before me the sea stretches.
“To my right—shrouded in mist, like a fairy land— a dream country—the snow mountains of the South Island; to my left fold upon fold of splendid golden hills. Two white light-houses, like great watching birds perched upon them. A huge yellow dog lies by me. He is wet and ruffled and I have no boots or stockings on—a pink dress—a panama hat—a big parasol. Adeläida, I wish that you were with me.
“Where the rocks lie their shadow is thickly violet upon the green blue—you know that peacock shade of water. Blueness—with the blueness of Rossetti— green with the greenness of William Morris. Oh, what a glorious day this is. I shall stay here until after dark—walking along the beach—the waves going over my feet—drinking a great deal of tea—and eating a preposterous amount of bread and apricot jam at a little place called the Cliff House. Across the blue sea a boat is floating with an orange sail. Now the Maori fishermen are sailing in—their white sail bellying in the wind. On the beach a group of them—with blue jerseys, thick trousers rolled to their knees. The sun shines on their thick crisp hair—and shines on their faces so that their skins are the colour of hot amber. It shines on their brown arms—bare legs. They are drawing in a little boat called To Kooti, the wet rope running through their fingers and falling in a mystic pattern on the foam blown sand.”

This was refashioned into this Vignette:

“Evening By the Sea.
“Lying thus on the sand—the foam almost washing over my hands I feel the magic of the sea. Behind the page 263 golden hills the sun is going down—a ruby jewel in a luminous setting—and there is a faint flush everywhere over sea and land. To my right the sky has blossomed into vivid rose, but to my left the land is hidden by a grey blue mist—here and there a suggestion of sun colour. It is like land seen from a ship— a very long far away oceanland—mirage—enchanted country. I see birds—high in the air—fly screaming toward the light. It beats upon their white crests; it flames upon their dull wings.
“Far away a little boat is sailing in the sweet water. And now the Italian fishermen are sailing in— their white sail bellying in the breeze. Several come rowing in a little boat. They spring ashore. The sun shines on their crisp black hair—it shines on their faces so that their skin is the colour of hot amber— on their bare legs and strong bare arms. They are dragging towards them their boat. The long black wet rope running through their fingers—falling in a mystic pattern on the foam blown sand.
“They call to one another. I cannot hear what they say, but against the long rhythmic pulse of the sea, their voices sound curiously mystical like voices in a dream.
“And there are exquisite golden brown sprays and garlands of seaweed—set about with berries white and brown. Are they flowers blown from the garden of the sea king's daughter—does she wander through the delicate coral forest seeing them—her long hair floating behind… playing upon a little silver shell?
“And near me I see a light upon the blue coast— steadily, tenderly luminous a little candle set upon the great altar of the world. The glow pales in the sky— on the land—but the voice of the sea grows stronger. Oh, to sail and sail with the heart of the sea—It is darkness and silence.”

Revised yet again, this Vignette was one of the sheaf which she sent to her friends in England. page 264 She had to keep in touch during this time. It was always so. She asked, years later:“To whom did I always write when I kept those huge, complaining diaries? Was it to myself?”

At this time Kathleen practised writing, as she practised music. The method is not common among writers, though it has the authority of Robert Louis Stevenson. But it was not from him that Kathleen derived it. Partly, no doubt, it was instinctive; but the main influence seems to have been the fact that her first serious artistic passion was music. When she turned to writing she carried over to it her habits as a musical student. And since she probably felt that a musician would have a natural understanding of her method, it is from her musician-friend, Milly Parker, that we have a firsthand description of it.

“… We named the flowers she brought each week. I remember two glorious tulips, one a great rich brown satin fellow, the other a smart little scarlet bud, thin and perky—'Dignity and Impudence.' This finding of names for the flowers prompted us to spend a day in the Wellington Botanical Gardens for the purpose of writing down what we saw. We came to a new fence, I remember—upright posts at even intervals apart, and 5 rails across. Just in front of it a bed of young cabbage trees reared their round heads at varying heights. In a flash she saw it as a line of music, the fence the stave, the heads of the cabbage trees the notes, on the line and in the spaces. There being no clef mark, we hummed the melody through first as treble, then as bass, but found no tune either way, so it was put down as ‘a strange native pattering melody.’
“On the slope of a hill a man was busy burning page 265 scrub: ‘a vigorous figure in blue smoke,’ she jotted down as we walked by. Though she read aloud much of her work that day I remember only those two phrases…
“She was at that time only about eighteen but very mature and experienced for her age and often delighted and amused when people mistook her age for twenty-eight. Her handwriting too, looked more like twenty-eight than eighteen. There was an unusual forcible-ness in its emphasis, very like a man's writing, with odd kinks that gave it a rather hieroglyphic effect, though always quite legible.
“I have come across a piece of music, a gift from her, inscribed in her interesting looking handwriting. ‘With best wishes from the 'cello,’ and also a leaf from an autograph book. An accident spoilt this book years ago, but before destroying it I removed one sheet, K. Mansfield's contribution. I still have it. We had raced through the Goltermann concerto at a terrific pace and had gone out on the balcony to get cool. There the roses were in bloom, and in an ecstasy of delight she pronounced the following lines, whether actually extempore, I did not think to ask.

“Red as the wine of forgotten ages,
Yellow as gold by the sunbeams spun,
Pink as the gowns of Aurora's pages,
White as the robe of a sinless one,
Sweeter than Araby's winds that blow,
Roses! Roses! I love you so!

“I asked her to write them in my book, which she did, adding below the following:
“It cannot be possible to go through all the abandonment of music and care humanly for anything human afterwards.
“K. Mansfield, 1908.
“I remember her remarking about the signature ‘K. Mansfield,’ for it was the first time I had seen it. page 266 She had been writing as Julian Mark for the Native Companion, a Magazine which was then being published in Melbourne.”