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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



Harold Beauchamp (who was to be the father of Katherine Mansfield) thus belonged to the first generation of New Zealand-born pioneers. It was the generation which still spoke of England as “home” (in the manner of its fathers), yet preserved a silence, very eloquent, concerning personal relation to the colony. If at heart the men still were Englishmen, they were in soul New Zealanders.

The energy of the new generation was needed in the colony now. The tireless struggle of the older pioneers at the bottom of the world, remote from any real aid (since they would not and could not look to Australia, but only to England), brought the primitive stage of colonisation to an end only forty years after the Tory had anchored on the edge of a remote and savage wilderness. By this time (1879) Harold Beauchamp had been in Wellington, the capital, for three years. At eighteen, when he started out for himself, he rode on a brief tide of prosperity. The financial courage of Sir Julius Vogel, the Colonial Treasurer, who with the colony owing seven millions, dared to borrow ten, had page 55 brought eight years of commercial success. The wool market rose, trade increased, roads, railways and telegraphs were built. New Zealand became a modern country.

“Hal,” as he was known to his contemporaries (he became “Sir Harold” forty-seven years later knighted for “distinguished public service, particularly in connection with financial matters”) began as clerk in an importing firm. He had been “privately educated,” in the usual school of the pioneer; but until he was thirteen, and his father left Picton for Wanganui, he attended the Picton dame's school, a little house-boat standing high on stilts, taught by old Mrs. Currie—and a curious curriculum she did teach. At school he far outstripped the other six little Beauchamps, as his contemporaries at the school—Mr. Hornby's daughters among them—well remember. He set the pace and easily held his own.

His independence was soon manifest. After leaving the Collegiate School at Wanganui (where Arthur Beauchamp had been Government valuer and auctioneer from 1872 to 1876), he went his own decided way. He chose to remain in Wellington, while his father tried sawmilling in Manaroa in the Pelorus Sound.

“Hal,” at eighteen, was a stocky youth, filled with his own fire, alert, elastic, careful to keep fit with walking and exercises even when busy, and finding leisure for football and boating. He was “musical,” too, though he never had learned to play any instrument. His bright blue eyes, rather prominent, often had a deceptive look of helpless- page 56 ness. To his father's vein of humour, and his propensity for telling and enjoying a good tale, he added logic; and to his tenacious memory he added tenacious will. He had a flair for finance. Very early he determined to become both wealthy and influential in the new country.

For a while he lived in lodgings in Molesworth Street, with five other boys, including Charlie Palliser—a blue-eyed Irish youth, towering well over six feet, after whose great-grandfather the New Zealand Cape and Bay were named. In the 1870's Molesworth Street, running parallel to the Quay, was practically wilderness. The native Waipirau whare (site of the first Government house), lay at the lower end; but except for a store and a few boarding-houses it was only a sandy road still encroached on by native bush. The six boys held a sitting, one night, over a leg of mutton. Mutton was New Zealand's main product. It could be had for a shilling a leg; and the landlady had served it for six consecutive evenings, cold. After the sitting, the court decreed that it be put out in the road; and when the landlady came down to carve, they told her where to go to find it. With it was a note:“No more cold mutton. We're going to have our meat hot.”

When he was twenty-six, in 1884, he married Annie Burnell Dyer, daughter of Joseph Dyer, who had been a pioneer of Australia, and the first resident secretary of the Australian Mutual Provident Society in New Zealand. Margaret Mansfield Dyer, his wife, and the youngest daughter, Bell Dyer, left the big house on the corner of Burnell page 57 Avenue, overlooking the Harbour, and went to live with the Beauchamps in Hawkstone Street.

The Dyers were all beautiful women. Annie Burnell, finely made, seemed almost too slight and small to contain so much delight in sheer living. The thrill, the novelty of simply finding herself alive never had worn off for her. An opalescent morning, a cluster of rata blossom, the mock-orange tree at the gate—almost any slight or lovely thing could fill her with the exhilaration that another would find in glorious adventure. Yet her hold upon life was curiously slight—just this thin chain of casual delight.

Of her—when she died, in 1918, with the same high and delicate courage with which she had lived, slipping off without telling a soul to a nursing-home for an operation which she knew might be, and which was, fatal—Katherine wrote:

“She lived every moment of life more fully and completely than anyone I've ever known—and her gaiety wasn't any less real for being high courage— courage to meet anything with. Ever since I heard of her death my memories of her come flying back into my heart—and there are moments when it's unbearable to receive them. But it has made me realise more fully than ever before that I love courage—spirit—poise (do you know what I mean? all these words are too little) more than anything.”

Was it the ambiguous look of helplessness in Hal Beauchamp's eyes that drew her to him? He seemed always to need her: to help him find his things; to reassure him; to support and companion him in so many ways. With her slimness, and small, finely-cut features beneath heavy chestnut hair, she page 58 looked frail beside his vigorous ruddiness, especially when (as at their first appearance at a “recital”) he sat leaning heavy against her shoulder.

The younger sister, Bell, the “family beauty,” had the attitude naturally accompanying this distinction; but in “Grandmother” (Margaret Mansfield Dyer) was the flexible adaptability of a dramatic artist. But it was instinctive and unconscious: she adjusted herself naturally to the parts for which she was cast. She had married when very young, and worked as hard as the pioneer woman must for an eccentric husband, one son and three daughters. But her difficult, active life had not altered her. She was exquisite in personal habits—in old age—exquisite in person, immaculate, with clear fair skin and hair soft under her cap, which she wore as though it were an ornament.

Annie had been “delicate,” and “had a heart”; she was different from the other two girls. Grandmother Dyer easily stepped into the way of doing necessary things in the furnished house in Hawkstone Street.

Vera Margaret was born the following year, and Charlotte Mary, the next. They all moved to Hill Street in 1886. Shortly before Kathleen Mansfield was born, in 1888, Harold Beauchamp built his first home, at 11 Tinakori Road, next door to Walter Nathan's big one, No. 13, on the corner. (Walter Nathan was Mr. Beauchamp's business partner in an importing firm.) No. 11 was the standardised earthquake-proof style: a square, wooden box-like house; but with the distinction of a stained-glass door let into the little front porch. It was through page break
Black and white photograph of Katherine Mansfield's birthplace.

Birthplace of K. M.
11 Tinakori Road, Wellington, New Zealand

page break page 59 this coloured glass that Kezia looked out at a “little Chinese Lottie” on that last night before they moved from Tinakori Road to Karori.

“Tinakori” is a Maori phrase—not a place name at all, but a phrase meaning “lunchless,” or “unsatisfied,” from the Maori's complaint:“O! tin a kore, tin a kore,” when the overseers suggested working through the noon hour to finish laying the last lap of road. Tinakori Road, upon which Kathleen Beauchamp was to live for ten years of her life and which was to be the scene of two of her finest stories, ran down the hill, past the Botanical Gardens, toward Lambton Quay and the windy Esplanade. It seemed to have bit into the gardens of the box-like houses, robbing them of all but a small square of grass between the front porch and the fence of painted palings or iron rails. A patterned balustrade, like lace, stretched across the second storey; often a matching web dripped down from the eaves. Running parallel with the road, the Tinakori Hills rose abruptly to a thousand feet—wooded heavily toward Karori beyond the Botanical Gardens; mottled with brown and fresh green, splashed yellow with gorse toward the Harbour.

The house at 11 Tinakori Road where Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born and lived for her first six years, faced these hills. Behind it lay a deep rift, a gorge cutting toward the Harbour. Overgrown with “a wild tangle of green,” bordered with pines twisted by winds blowing up from the sea, it was the first thing she looked upon (uncomprehending) on the day of her birth.

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That Harold Beauchamp should have owned—should have had built for him—a home in 1888 indicated no little activity in one who had started with “nothing”; for those had been years of unbroken depression in New Zealand. When the world depression of 1879 struck the colony, New Zealand fairly reeled before it. The older generation, in many cases, paid with all they had. The depression in New Zealand was to last for sixteen years; yet to those born there it was a challenge by which to test their fighting strength. Curiously enough, the hardest year of all was 1888, in which Kathleen Beauchamp was born. In that year the Bank of New Zealand (with which Sir Harold was later to be identified) was tottering, involved by heavy mortgages on lands which had sunk in value. Only the legislation of Richard Seddon saved it in 1894, by procuring Government aid and control.

Here, obviously, was neither time nor chance to cultivate the arts. Isolated at the bottom of the world, the New Zealand of Kathleen Beauchamp's childhood had no “leisure” —no “cultured class.” When talent did appear, the artist was sent to study at “home” where—for one reason or another—he usually remained. Yet New Zealanders were proud, justly and sensitively proud, of what they had built up; so a situation arose which was to make it difficult for Katherine Mansfield, as she grew older—and difficult, indeed, for New Zealand to comprehend her, afterward.

Years later,“the little Colonial” still, looking back with longing from the various points of her exile, she was to rediscover the heritage she had page 61 received from the Pa Men. If England was to teach her how to write, New Zealand—Wellington, the Sounds, Karori—had given her what she was to write about.