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Journal of Katherine Mansfield

Recollections of College

Recollections of College.

J.'s application is a perpetual reminder to me. Why am I not writing too? Why, feeling so rich, with the greater part of this to be written before I go back to England, do I not begin? If only I have the courage to press against the stiff swollen gate all that lies within is mine; why do I linger for a moment? Because I am idle, out of the habit of work and spendthrift beyond belief. Really it is idleness, a kind of immense idleness—hateful and disgraceful.

I was thinking yesterday of my wasted, wasted early girlhood. My college life, which is such a vivid and detailed memory in one way, might never have contained a book or a lecture. I lived in the girls, the professor, the big, lovely building,1 the leaping fires in winter and the abundant flowers in summer. The views out of the windows, all the pattern that was—weaving. Nobody saw

1 Queen's College, Harley Street, London.

page 53 it, I felt, as I did. My mind was just like a squirrel. I gathered and gathered and hid away, for that long “winter” when I should rediscover all this treasure—and if anybody came close I scuttled up the tallest, darkest tree and hid in the branches. And I was so awfully fascinated in watching Hall Griffin and all his tricks—thinking about him as he sat there, his private life, what he was like as a man, etc., etc. (He told us he and his brother once wrote an enormous poem called the Epic of the Hall Griffins.) Then it was only at rare intervals that something flashed through all this busyness, something about Spenser's Faery Queen or Keats's Isabella and the Pot of Basil, and those flashes were always when I disagreed flatly with H.G. and wrote in my notes—This man is a fool. And Cramb, wonderful Cramb! The figure of Cramb was enough, he was “history” to me. Ageless and fiery, eating himself up again and again, very fierce at what he had seen, but going a bit blind because he had looked so long. Cramb striding up and down, filled me up to the brim. I couldn't write down Cramb's thunder. I simply wanted to sit and hear him. Every gesture, every stopping of his walk, all his tones and looks are as vivid to me as though it were yesterday—but of all he said I only remember phrases—“He sat there and his wig fell off—” “Anne Bullen, a lovely pure creature stepping out of her quiet door into the light and clamour,” and looking back and seeing the familiar door shut upon her, with a little click as it were,—final.

But what coherent account could I give of the page 54 history of English Literature? And what of English History? None. When I think in dates and times the wrong people come in—the right people are missing.1 When I read a play of Shakespeare I want to be able to place it in relation to what came before and what comes after. I want to realize what England was like then, at least a little, and what the people looked like (but even as I write I feel I can do this, at least the latter thing), but when a man is mentioned, even though the man is real, I don't want to set him on the right hand of Sam Johnson when he ought to be living under Shakespeare's shadow. And this I often do.

Since I came here I have been very interested in the Bible. I have read the Bible for hours on end and I began to do so with just the same desire. I wanted to know if Lot followed close on Noah or something like that. But I feel so bitterly I should have known facts like this: they ought to be part of my breathing. Is there another grown person as ignorant as I? But why didn't I listen to the old Principal who lectured on Bible History twice a week instead of staring at his face that was very round, a dark red colour with a kind of bloom on it and covered all over with little red veins with endless tiny tributaries that ran even up his forehead and were lost in his bushy white hair.

1 On the opposite page is a long list of the chief figures in the history of English Literature, working backwards from the eighteenth century. Evidently, Katherine Mansfield had been trying to test her knowledge. In the final result, the list, though it is much corrected, is singularly accurate.

page 55 He had tiny hands, too, puffed up, purplish, shining under the stained flesh. I used to think, looking at his hands—he will have a stroke and die of paralysis…. They told us he was a very learned man, but I could not help seeing him in a double-breasted frock-coat, a large pseudoclerical pith helmet, a large white handkerchief falling over the back of his neck, standing and pointing out with an umbrella a probable site of a probable encampment of some wandering tribe, to his wife, an elderly lady with a threatening heart who had to go everywhere in a basket-chair arranged on the back of a donkey, and his two daughters, in thread gloves and sand shoes—smelling faintly of some anti-mosquito mixture.

As he lectured I used to sit, building his house, peopling it—filling it with Americans, ebony and heavy furniture—cupboards like tiny domes and tables with elephants' legs presented to him by grateful missionary friends…. I never came into contact with him but once, when he asked any young lady in the room to hold up her hand if she had been chased by a wild bull, and as nobody else did I held up mine (though of course I hadn't). “Ah,” he said, “I am afraid you do not count. You are a little savage from New Zealand”—which was a trifle exacting, for it must be the rarest thing to be chased by a wild bull up and down Harley Street, Wimpole Street, Welbeck Street, Queen Anne, round and round Cavendish Square….

And why didn't I learn French with M. Huguenot? What an opportunity missed! What page 56 has it not cost me! He lectured in a big narrow room that was painted all over—the walls, door, and window-frames, a grey shade of mignonette green. The ceiling was white, and just below it there was a frieze of long looped chains of white flowers. On either side of the marble mantelpiece a naked small boy staggered under a big platter of grapes that he held above his head. Below the windows, far below there was a stable court paved in cobble stones, and one could hear the faint clatter of carriages coming out or in, the noise of water gushing out of a pump into a big pail—some youth, clumping about and whistling. The room was never very light, and in summer M.H. liked the blinds to be drawn half-way down the window…. He was a little fat man.

The old man could not get over the fact that he was still strong enough to lift such a lump of a boy. He wanted to do it again and again, and even when the little boy was awfully tired of the game the old man kept putting out his arms and smiling foolishly and trying to lift him still higher. He even tried with one arm….