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


Meantime, back in Menton I was hearing quite regularly from Lesley. She was nearly blind but still managed to write letters, although sometimes the ends of her lines disappeared off the edge of the page. In April she wrote:

I am feeling so stupid and old this afternoon because when I was exercising Megan this morning a woman got out of a car and asked me if I would like to have a carpet!!! 'left over' from the sale in Fordingbridge. I knew there was a meeting of the Anti-Vivisection people in Fordingbridge — & bought one — a hearth rug mat — thinking I was helping the A.V. people — then I found it was a sale of a sold up business! I need a nurse, don't I!!

Then, in May, she wrote that she had received an advance copy of her book.

page 72

I looked at my own forward & am very disappointed in it. I am sure I did not write it so. It is stiff & matter of fact & quite lacks the spiritual significance of my meeting with my Mother three months after her death. They have left out the essence & the facts are almost banal. It is dead, not living at all — & those two episodes are to me almost the most personally important. They have left out the fact that while listening to Mother I was lifted above the ground — & the pony came to me while, not before, my Mother & I were together. Oh dear, I wish you were here. You know. The others even Georgina are sensitive to me and to my thoughts of K, not to K herself. I don't intend to read the Notes — I should probably get too cross. The words when I wrote flowed through me. Now others have touched them up with commas & factual breaking of the sentences. I'm sure they will be dead & not caught from their inner truth. I should feel ashamed & want to cry Forgive me Katherine. I am unhappy & wish I could go away & hide. All this since reading what stands for my forward or preface. Before, I thought the book looked attractive & promising as the outside of Spiritual Truth. Forgive me — I'm sorry I think this must be self-pity. Forget it — but read it first!!!

Here I should say that Lesley eventually gave me her notes — the manuscript she had submitted for the book. It is now safely in the Turnbull Library (as are all her letters to me) and I did a spot check against the book. As far as I could see, the editors had remained faithful to what she wrote, though they did add some connecting narrative, dates and annotations. No doubt there was also some tightening up of Lesley's style. I think her feeling that it was all strange and not what she had written was probably because a book looks quite different from a set of hand-written notes — stern, implacable, set in concrete. She hadn't quite anticipated that every Tom, Dick and Harry would soon be reading it, and she felt uncomfortably exposed.

page 73

She wrote again in the following month, June:

In the Notes — glancing through for photographs — I came across the evening when 'The Daughters of the Late Colonel' was finished. It is dreadful & I feel sure not my words, I can hear Georgina's young voice. You must know K's reserve & personal dignity & control. She would never have cried out 'It's finished. It's finished.' In the first place this would have assumed my knowledge of what she was doing. Could an artist — let alone K — allow anyone to be at the birth of a new creation. Too childish — & for her, falsely excited. When I went in she was putting the pages together, in order. It was rather the quiet joy of another creation achieved. She looked happy & said she felt like a proud hen clucking because one of her chicks had just come out of its shell. Then she blamed herself for her pride. She offered to read it to me because 'you are in it'. The dawn was just breaking — I remember the light through the mimosa trees — when we had a cup of tea. I have added the words 'in celebration'. Somehow the description in the book makes me — shrivel up — it is so unlike Katherine. You know Margaret I have only myself to blame. I should have made you read me the proof copy — all of it — then I could have straightened out all these crooked toes & fingers. But I shirked it, may Katherine forgive me.

Peter Day, who was one of the book's generators and of whom she was fond (she called him her adopted grandson), was determined that publication day should be marked in some way. He lived in a comfortable flat in London and was a good cook, so he decided to have a dinner party to launch the book. He sent me a telegram in Menton requesting my presence, and also invited Mary Middleton Murry and Ruth Baker, as well as Georgina Joysmith, the book's editor and Lesley's favourite person, and Georgina's page 74new American husband, Jim D'Angelo. Lesley did not feel warm towards Jim because of her old problem of jealousy of the husbands of her close friends. On top of that, Lesley and Mary had never met and I knew that Lesley had some vague notion that she and anyone who had been married to Jack would hit it off wonderfully. So we were in for a fairly unpredictable evening. There were things, too, about Peter that Lesley did not understand and preferred not to think about, and when, on the night, he wore a pink kimono she felt, I think, that London was not as safely anchored as the village of Wood Green.

My invitation to the party was a chance to escape to England for a couple of weeks — to see people, talk and do something about my dearth of reading material. It was July by this time and very warm. Monsieur Lorenzi undertook to clear my letter box and look after my mail, and I flew to London and went straight to Peter's flat. He had prepared a marvellous dinner but his odd assortment of guests were not very relaxed. Mary and Ruth had driven down from Norfolk for the occasion, and were hot, flustered and red-faced. Mary had by this time read an advance copy of the book and was outraged that it should be so unsympathetic towards Jack. Lesley, whose jealousy of Jack was unconscious, and who had not read Mary's own book about him, could not understand that particular component of the atmosphere.

Conversation was sticky. At one point Jim and I had an exchange about Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, who interested me partly because of the New Zealand connection (his father, Owen Merton, was a well-known New Zealand water-colourist and his aunt, Agnes Merton, was one of my more horrible teachers at high school) and partly because I had found his books fascinating. I was not (and am not) a Roman Catholic, or even a Christian, but something about Merton's discussions of spirituality was irresistible. When Jim and I had this brief page 75conversation Lesley remarked, slightly acidly, 'It must be wonderful to be clever and to be able to talk about things.' A perfect conversation-stopper.

At the end of the evening Lesley and I stayed over, sharing Peter's spare room, and in the morning her taxi lady from Salisbury came and drove us back to Wood Green. But that night, after the dinner party, indulging in 'girl talk' in our room, Lesley said, 'Do you think there's something wrong with me, dear? I've never even been kissed, you know.' And, to my dismay, she reached for her handbag and extracted from it a small snapshot of the young man who had shown an interest in her on the ship coming home from Rhodesia in 1911, and who had subsequently called on her for afternoon tea and been frozen out by Mansfield and Murry, never to be heard of again. She must have been carrying that photo around with her for half a century. I didn't answer her question, but I did (and do) think that Lesley's sexual deprivations had something to do with Mansfield. My postulation is that when these two girls were at school (Lesley having just lost her mother and being immature and emotionally vulnerable), there was an incident — probably a declaration — perpetrated by Mansfield, which, with the force of shock, fixed Lesley in an unbreakable emotional attitude. It arrested her psycho-sexual development and imprisoned her for life in a passionate attachment to Mansfield. At the age of 83 her attitudes towards sex ('I've never even been kissed') were those of a Victorian schoolgirl. Mansfield was aware of Lesley's stunted development, and felt vaguely responsible for it, though I'm sure that she didn't understand, when she started the whole thing off, that her victim was already damaged and therefore not able to defend herself. Mansfield's ambivalence — feeling trapped and exasperated, but also dependent and responsible — led to her famous outbreaks of frustrated rage.

page 76

Lesley and I, the morning after the night before, were now back in her cottage and she took a paper bag of mushrooms from a kitchen cupboard to cook for a 'special occasion' lunch. She tipped them into the sink to wash them, hesitated for a second when she caught a whiff of their vile smell, then boldly ran the tap over them. When I said, 'Do you think they're quite fresh?' she said sharply, 'Of course they are. Do you want to examine them?' I did want to, but said no. She put butter in a pan and the mushrooms on top of it. As they began to sizzle a large population of maggots crept out and began seething on top of them. 'Lesley, dear, they're crawling with maggots!' She grabbed the pan, stumbled with it to the back door and tipped the pan out onto the grass, saying, 'There you are, my darlings — was I in time to save you?' Later she explained that it wouldn't really have mattered if we had eaten the maggots (except that it would have been so cruel) because they had been living on nothing but mushroom and were therefore really made of mushroom.

I don't remember what we did have for lunch, but I stayed a few more days with her on that visit. It was midsummer in that warm, green, perfumed woodland. The hum of hard-working insects was almost the only sound. The postman came, but nobody else while I was there.