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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



What was the importance of those six weeks in the wild King Country? It drew her back (that was perhaps paramount) to New Zealand in a way closer than she had ever known. There had been Anikiwa and Picton on the Sounds, when she was a child. There had been Karori, too—the Pa Man's New Zealand—the Island of the '90's. But at Lake Taupo she found something which rooted her even more deeply and permanently in the wild and beautiful primitive country and its people.

She was older now; she could know its more poignant significance. She never forgot those things; she spoke of them often; all her life she kept the small black Note Book with the jottings of that trip—meaning, in her own way, and in her own time, to make it live again later, as she did, indeed, in the two early stories.

This was its enduring meaning; but the page 308 immediate effect was to make her even more restless in Wellington, even more at odds with her immediate surroundings; they had neither the lure of the wild, nor the attraction of the cultivated. January ist she greeted:

“The year be darned—My Year 1908
And a happy New Year to you and the sky, the great star, the light….
Well—I have the brain and also the inventive faculty.
What else is needed?”

February and March were bitter and painful months. Wellington seemed more insufferable by contrast to the wild, free Midlands. Again she lived a dual existence—living, as it were by force of will, in London, gathering all her forces in desperation against the physical barriers that held her from it.

“I always seem to learn at the risk of my life” (she said later)—“but I do learn.” She knew, without doubt, that only by behaving so outrageously that her father would be glad to be rid of her, could she free herself. Yet the price of such behaviour was terrible to her. She was no “widely experienced woman of thirty.” She was a girl of eighteen, reared in an isolated mid-Victorian community for fourteen years; sheltered in Miss Clara Fenessa Wood's circumspect London boarding-house for three more; taught “life” suddenly and violently by unassimilated, ill-assorted reading.

Her entries for the next three months were only curt “evidence” :

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“Feb. 10th.

“I shall end—of course—by killing myself.”

“March 18th.

“I purchase my freedom with my life—It were better that I were dead—really—I am unlike others because I have experienced all there is to experience. But there is no one to help me—Of course Oscar—Dorian Gray has brought the S.S. to pass.”

“May 1st.

“I am now much worse than ever. Madness must lie this way. Pull yourself up.

There lay one secret of her rapid and extraordinary growth: that remarkable rallying power—that source of strength which (after vainly looking everywhere) she found within herself.

Always it had been true—and always it would be—there was “no one to help” her. Like that other Katya, to whom she felt herself so similar,“her soul had never known, and never would know shelter all her life, all her life.”

Now she was searching deeply for the answer—and for the strength to measure it—as always she forced herself to seek the answer and the means:

“9 p.m. Sunday Night. May 17th. Full Moon.

“Now to plan it.
“O, Kathleen, do not weave any more of these fearful meshes—for you have been so loathsomely unwise. Do take wisdom from all that you have and must still suffer. I really know that you can't stay as you are now. Be good—for the love of God—be good—and brave, and do tell the truth more and live a better life—I am tired of all this deceit—and the moon still shines—and the stars are still there—You'd better go and see the doctor tomorrow about your heart—and then try to solve all the silly drivelling problems. page 310 Go anywhere. Don't stay here—accept work—fight against people. As it is, with a rapidity unimaginable, you are going to the Devil—Pull Up Now Yourself. It is really most extraordinary that I should feel so confident of dying of heart failure—and entirely my Mother's fault.”

Rapidly she was freeing herself from “the self-forged chains.” She was coming to doubt what had been gospel to her for three years; and in her very doubting, she was finding her release:

May 1908.

“I have just finished reading a book by Elizabeth Robins Come and Find me. Really a clever, splendid book; it creates in me such a sense of power. I feel that I do not realise what women in the future will be capable of achieving—They truly, as yet, have never had their chance. Talk of our enlightened days and our emancipated country—pure nonsense. We are firmly held in self-fashioned chains of slavery yet. Now I see that they are self-fashioned and must be self-removed. Eh bien! Now where is my ideal and idea of life? Does Oscar—and there is a gardenia yet alive beside my bed—Does Oscar still keep so firm a stronghold in my soul? No! Because now I am growing capable of seeing a wider vision—a little Oscar—a little Symons—a little Ibsen—Tolstoy—Elizabeth Robins—Shaw—D'Annunzio—Meredith. To weave the intricate tapestry of one's own life—it is well to take a thread from many harmonious skeins and realise there must be harmony. Not necessary to grow the sheep, comb the wool, colour and braid it—But joyfully take all that is ready—and with that saved time go a great way further.
“Independence, resolve, firm purpose and the gift of discrimination makes mental clearness. Here are the inevitables. Again—Will—the realisation that Art is absolutely self-development—The knowledge that page 311 genius is dormant in every soul—that that very individuality which is at the root of our being—is what matters so poignantly.”

The struggle with her family was very bitter to her. She carried the scars of it in her soul for many years to come; and though, afterwards, she judged her past self with an extreme severity, she stood fast by the conviction that, essentially, there had been no other way to freedom for her but to be cast out. What this meant to her in sheer pain, only the one or two who knew her intimately can imagine: for henceforward her delicate, sensitive, child-like spirit was hidden, now permanently, behind an armour. To those who met her she was quiet and aloof, or gay and mocking and reckless, or bewilderingly both at once; yet at the touch of true sympathy and affection the barriers were down, the gates of her heart flung wide. Too suddenly, sometimes, and too wide. This was, henceforward, her danger. Her longing to trust and to give was almost an anguish; and when her gift was given into blundering or even callous hands, when, as she afterwards put it,“she let the wrong people into her holy of holies,” the recoil was terrible. Again and again she was torn to pieces, shattered by disillusion. Then she gathered her amazing courage again.

That courage speaks, perhaps for the first time, with its own authentic accent—“my heart is hurting me with Fear” —in her words to herself before the final struggle with her father. The pulse of her physical heart, at such moments, she afterwards said was so rapid that it seemed to flutter and cease. The strain was so great that she was page 312 secretly convinced all her life that she would die of heart-failure. She never believed that she would die of tuberculosis. That was not in her destiny. The manner of her death was quite certain to her. The heart that hurt her so often with fear would give the final stab.

“I am frightened and trying to be brave. This is the greatest and most terrible torture that I have ever thought of enduring. I can have courage, face him bravely with my head high and fight for Life. Here at last I am standing terribly, absolutely alone. What can happen—help—support—What can I do—and what can happen—Shall it be Heaven or shall it be Hell—I must win, but I first must face the guns, resolutely. It is no good shrinking behind these hedges and great stones—remaining in the shadow. In the full glare I must go to Death or Life. Now is the time to prove myself, now is the fulfilment of all my philosophy and my knowledge. Think only what it means—for a moment think of all that, and then do not mind if the enemy fire and fire again. You have the magic suit of mail. Belief in the outcome clothes you; but be firm and rational and calm. And at last learn that you must go forth into the great battle with a strong heart. I cannot longer stay in the shadow though my heart is hurting me with Fear. Here is the supreme crisis, here is the ninth wave. If it goes over my head, I must rise and shake the water out of my eyes and hair and plunge in, Oh, victory must be mine. With both hands I embrace the thought. Hold, hold, stand firm, and let the music crash and deafen. It cannot hide the beating of my heart.

“O Kathleen, I pity you, but I see that it has to come, this great wrench. In your life you are always a coward until the very last moment, but here is the greatest thing in your life. Prove yourself strong—Dearest, I hold your two hands, and my eyes look full page 313 into yours, trustingly, firmly, resolutely, full of supreme calm, hope and illimitable belief. You must be a woman now and bear the agony of creating. Prove yourself. Be strong, be kind, be wise, and it is yours. Do not at the last moment lose courage. Argue wisely and quietly. Be more than woman. Keep your brain perfectly clear, keep your balance!!!
“Convice your father that it is la seule chose. Think of the Heaven that might be yours, that is before you after this fight. They stand and wait for you with outstretched hands, and with a glad cry you fall into their arms. The future years—Good luck my precious one. I love you.”

What she was afterwards to call “the old trick of looking in the glass and saying, ‘Courage, Katherine!”’—the trick she needed so often in her life—“won after all.”