Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

Digital publication kindly authorised by:

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Conditions of use


Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Recollecting Mansfield


page break


Middle age and old age, and their richness, were denied to Katherine Mansfield because she died young. When I was nearly the same age I suffered a catastrophe that might easily have drowned me but for the Mansfield raft which carried me to dry land and to a later life she herself was not allowed. This is the story of how that came about.

Late at night on 1 February 1960, in Christchurch, there was a ring at my father's doorbell. He went to answer it and I heard a young man ask tentatively if Mrs Scott was staying here. I went and stood beside my father in my dressing gown and said to the policeman, 'I am Mrs Scott.' He looked extremely uncomfortable and said, 'I think I would prefer to talk to your father.' So I withdrew to my parents' room and said to my mother, 'There's a policeman at the door with something to say — obviously about Harry — but he won't say it to me.' Then my father came in and page 8said, 'Harry and Jim Glasgow have had a fall, and the search parties have to wait until first light to be able to go and look for them.' I thought, he's probably broken a leg and I'll make sure he never goes climbing again. Nevertheless, I was in shock, and was shaking in my bed rather than sleeping. At 6 a.m. I went down-stairs for the paper and there were the front-page headlines: 'two mountaineers killed: 6000ft Fall Off Ice Cap Of Mount Cook'. The accompanying story had obituaries of both Harry and Jim, and I was referred to as 'Dr Scott's widow'. Four days earlier I had turned 32; now I was Dr Scott's widow.

My life stopped. Everything I had done and thought and enjoyed and struggled for and aspired to had been centred on him. He was the achiever; mine was a support role, and it suited me very well. I was ill-equipped to manage by myself, let alone bring up three children as well. We had no assets to speak of because Harry, having spent the war years behind barbed wire as a conscientious objector, had then to acquire an Ma and a PhD with no financial support, before making a late start on his academic career. So, apart from our mortgaged house in Titirangi, Auckland, I had virtually nothing.

Also, his death was characterised by a number of irresolutions. The first was that the bodies — his and Jim Glasgow's — were never found, so that there was no ritual closure to Harry's life. This made acceptance difficult for me. Although I knew very well, rationally, that he was dead, something deep in my brain repudiated it so that, for decades afterwards, I kept having dreams that he wasn't really dead after all. Not daydreams, but real deep-asleep dreams. At first, he had not been killed by the fall, but just badly hurt and found by a woodsman who nursed him back to health in a mountain hut. After a year or two, these dreams seemed, even to themselves, not very sustainable, so then there was one in which he had had to fake his death in order to page 9disappear on some frightfully important United Nations secret mission. But later came a highly disturbing series in which he had chosen to disappear — he no longer wanted to live with me and the children and he had gone away somewhere 'up north' to work for a logging company. Then, decades after his death, there was one in which he actually came back. He was rather vague about why he had been away for so long and his presence by now was a ghostly rather than a physical one. Finally — I think it was the final one — he had been here all along but had denied me any 'conjugal rights' for 30-odd years, and I was deeply resentful.

This ties in, I think, with the other irresolution of his death: the question of his culpability. His heartbroken mother said, 'I thought knowing about the new baby coming would have stopped him from going on a climbing trip.' And Charles Brasch, who loved him, said, 'It is unforgivable but it has to be forgiven.' Amid these and other similar judgements I was rather at sea. Harry had not thought he was running risks. Or, rather, he thought the risks were acceptable. When he and I had climbed Mount Sealy some years earlier it was my only summit ascent and parts of it, I thought, were very hairy indeed. But he explained to me that if you did everything precisely by the book you would be safe. On the difficult parts he did not take a step until I had him belayed, and I also waited patiently until he had me belayed before moving. There were strict rules and if you followed them all with care and attention you would be okay. He firmly believed this, and so I believed it too. He had climbed with people who were careless of the rules and who had died as a result. In his own fatal accident he had followed the rules but his belay, although up to the hilt in the snow, had failed to hold.

Also, there was a background to this Mount Cook trip which gave it a kind of moral justification. Jim Glasgow, editor of the New page 10Zealand Alpine Club Journal, was an excellent climber with whom Harry had often climbed before. The two men trusted each other's judgement and Jim depended on Harry's advice in matters to do with the journal. In 1959 Jim wrote to Harry saying he had been asked to lead an Alpine Club party on an exploratory and scientific expedition in Antarctica, and he wanted to know if Harry would be interested in coming as his second-in-command. Harry's eyes shone as he told me about it, and to me, too, it seemed a wonderfully exciting possibility. It would have been a peak of experience for him, allowing him to be a climber and a scientist simultaneously. He would be away for six weeks over the summer and I had two small children, but I thought I could manage so he wrote Jim an enthusiastic acceptance. Before any of the detailed planning had started there was another letter from Jim saying that his wife, who had four young children, did not feel able to spare him for so long and so, regrettably, he had had to call off the trip.

Some months later, however, Jim Glasgow proposed getting Jack Woodward and Bruce Young to join them for an assault on Cook instead. To lose the Antarctic trip was a huge disappointment to Harry but the prospect of Cook softened the blow considerably. In a letter of 11 August 1959 Jim listed the members of the party as follows:
  • T.H. Scott, a lively Doctor of Philosophy returned from Canada.
  • J.L. Woodward, a climber of some promise with the treacherous Black Tower to his credit.
  • B.R. Young, a first rate cook & competent climber.
  • M.J.P. Glasgow, a tired editor.
And so, that summer, having just completed additions to our Titirangi house in the Waitakeres, Harry and I and four-year-old Rachel and 22-month-old Jonathan piled into the little Singer page 11Sports car we had bought in Montreal for $300 and drove down to Wellington, stopping overnight in Rotorua, took the Cook Strait ferry to the South Island, and went on to Christchurch to spend Christmas with my parents. In January, leaving the children with their grandparents, Harry and I, and my brother Colin took the car to Queenstown where we met Charles Brasch, and then the four of us rode the Earnslaw steamer up Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy where we disembarked and began an idyllic tramping trip up the Rees Valley. Harry and Colin climbed a number of peaks as we went, while Charles and I stayed mostly on the valley floor. I was two months pregnant and Charles was not attracted to heights. During this time Harry apparently suggested to Colin that he might like to join the Mount Cook assault, but Colin had commitments back home. It was with a pang that I heard this, years later, because if Colin had joined them the outcome might have been different, but whether better or worse, who knows?

The presence of Charles Brasch with us on that trip needs some background. As a conscientious objector, Harry had spent four years in detention camp during the war and with him there were Rodney Kennedy, Terry Baxter (James K. Baxter's brother) and Noel Ginn, all of whom knew the Dunedin poet, Charles Brasch. After the war Harry was, for a while, crushed, uncertain of himself, unable to move forward. It was Charles, whom he quite soon met, who did for Harry what my interest in Katherine Mansfield did for me, and Charles who, later, helped me to find my own feet. His value to the Scotts was immeasurable and I would like to acknowledge it in these pages. By the time we did this last tramping trip his attachment to us — to Harry, really — was firmly established.

Those few days were the last I ever spent with Harry. When we emerged again into civilisation at Queenstown, we stayed one night at the house of Charles's aunt, Kate Thompson, sleeping in page 12hammocks slung from big old oaks, and then, leaving Charles there, we went to Pukaki (colonial goose for lunch in the pub) where Colin and I left Harry to join his climbing party, and then drove back to Christchurch. That night I wrote Harry quite a long letter, mostly about the children, and delivered it to Jim who was driving down the next day to join the others at Mount Cook. I heard later that Harry had read bits of it aloud to the others on his last night alive.

Stranded now in Christchurch, with no husband and no visible future, I wondered briefly whether an abortion might be the responsible course of action, but to eradicate Harry's last child — not even give it a chance to be born — was against all instinct, however 'practical' it might have seemed. Whenever, subsequently, I have remembered entertaining this possibility I have been abjectly thankful for instinct — life without Kate would have been poorer, narrower, greyer, not just for our family but for many other people too. This 'brute fact' is most perfectly caught by Charles in his poem 'A Lady of Ten: To Katie Scott' in his posthumous volume Home Ground.

My parents took us in. To go back to Auckland alone, pregnant and with two small children seemed too difficult. My father, Francis O. Bennett, a Christchurch physician, quickly found for us a small house about two minutes' walk from their own. He financed this purchase until I was able to sell the Auckland house to cover it. During the next seven-odd months of my pregnancy that little house at 1 Te Awakura Terrace, below St Andrews Hill, was wonderfully convenient to my parents and the various kinds of practical support they both gave me, although I couldn't help pining for the kind of outlook — trees, water, hills, distance — that Harry and I had always managed to find for ourselves (except in Montreal).