Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Recollecting Mansfield


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There were money problems. My fellowship money was supposed to come to the banque in monthly instalments, but two did not turn up and I was in a precarious state for a while until it was all sorted out. Through all these and my other vicissitudes Graham Bagnall, my boss at the Turnbull, was a tower of strength. I poured it all out to him in letters, and he wrote to me regularly through the whole period. I could not have managed without his support. I remember an occasion when Lorenzi brought in one of his very nice lunches and then dashed home for his teeth while I ran up the stairs to the box and found a fat letter from Graham which then had to sit, unopened, on my table for the next two hours. Mon beau was oblivious of it, as of most things that mattered to me.

My work was slow and laborious but I could see that, to me, the real value of the fellowship lay in the opportunities it provided for crucial contacts in England and North America. But how to get page 89to North America? I needed to check out the Katherine Mansfield to Virginia Woolf letters in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. I needed to meet Vera Bell, Mansfield's oldest sister, in Toronto, and, if possible, her son Andrew as well. I had to try to see Marion Trowell, now a widow, whose husband Garnet's letters from Mansfield were in the Library of Windsor University in Windsor, Ontario, but were under total embargo. And I had a brother in Vancouver and a sister in St Louis, and old friends in Montreal, Kingston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The fellowship provided passage to the Northern Hemisphere and home again — northwards on the delightful Queen Frederika, but southwards was to be a Uta flight leaving from Paris. Because my passage on this was complimentary I was treated like baggage, carried in the cheapest seats and not permitted any stopovers or any kind of leeway. But I still had things to do in England, and I hadn't enough money for all that and to return to Paris to fly to New Zealand at the end of November when the children got home from school. Graham saved the day by proposing to the Turnbull Library Endowment Trust that they help to finance my trip to the States. They agreed, and made me a grant of $NZ300. Because I was able to stay with friends and relations most of the time, this was enough. And so I applied myself to making arrangements, writing to the people concerned, booking flights. Some of it, I seem to remember, couldn't be done in Menton and so I had to take the train to Nice more than once.

There were things in Menton that I knew I would miss, such as the cacophony of the swifts in the eaves of my building before they streamed skyward at sundown, the cornucopia of le marché, the evocation of past centuries in La Rue Longue where I lived, the charm of the hill villages with their pervading smell of lavender and thyme and their marvellous food, even the delectable young Hungarian who spent his winters in Paris making high-class page 90jewellery and his summers in a little shop opposite me, selling it. But, all in all, it had been an endurance test. I missed my children and I was keen to go home. I had much to do first.

In the New York Public Library, the Berg Collection of literary manuscripts was guarded by a dragon-lady called Dr Lola Szladits. I have since seen her name in scholarly works where she was thanked for invaluable help — Antony Alpers's new biography, for one — so that I wondered if she was obliging towards men only. She decided, anyway, to make life hard for me. There were all sorts of reasons why I couldn't see the manuscripts at all without proper documentation. When I produced this she said it was against her policy to allow the purchase of photocopies; if I had proper permission to publish the letters I would have to transcribe them then and there, and this could be done only in pencil. She produced a soft pencil for me and some canary-coloured paper, and I set to work. I'm not sure how long it took me — a couple of days, I think — and she kept a beady eye on me. At one point I asked her about a note in Leonard Woolf's hand, written on one of the letters.

'Oh no,' she said confidently, 'that's not Leonard Woolf.'

'But I have a letter from him,' I said, equally confidently, 'and I clearly recognise his very distinctive hand with its pronounced tremor.'

She didn't pursue the matter.

Later, a man sitting at the next table said to me, 'What are you like at deciphering handwriting?' 'Not bad with my own subject,' I said modestly. 'Who have you got there?'

'Robert Browning.'

I got up, went across to his table and bent over to look at his problem. The dragon-lady darted out and said there was to be no talking. She then found that he had asked for my help, and she indicated that help would be available from her, no one else. I page 91retreated and I don't know to this day whether he got what he needed. For the record I should say that when I got home and set about typing out those letters to Virginia Woolf, my transcriptions were beset with problems. Is that really a comma, or is it just a flaw in the paper? That word that should be plural but has no s on the end — is that my omission or Mansfield's? That word that I couldn't read properly would perhaps come clear if I could study it. And so on. I wrote to Dr Szladits and said it was absolutely essential for me to have photocopies of the manuscripts to work from if I were to make reliable transcriptions of them. She replied as if that was what she had always thought herself, and arranged for me to purchase the copies forthwith.

Also in New York I went, at the Turnbull's request, to examine Mansfield's letters to her publisher, Constable, which were held by a dealer who had advertised them at a very high price. I reported that, since they were largely business letters, they did not seem to warrant the Turnbull's crippling itself financially to purchase them. They were, however, bought eventually by William Targ of Putnam's, the publishers, and when I wrote and asked him if he would allow their inclusion in the collected letters he sent me photocopies by return post.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I stayed a day or two with Dr Helen Mahut, an old friend and a PhD colleague of Harry's at McGill, in Montreal. Helen and Harry and I had shared an apartment in Montreal for a while so knew each other pretty well. Now she was at Northeastern University in Boston. After that I headed for Montreal and a touch of nostalgia. Twenty years earlier, Molly Camp and I had been workers at the Children's Service Centre in Montreal, a vividly exhilarating and rewarding period of my life. Now we met again and I spent a couple of days with her and her husband and children, during which time Molly drove me around to look at a few old haunts. We went to Rue Souvenir, where page 92Harry and I had lived for more than half of the two years, and there was number 2180, solid stone, unchanged. I remembered the way the snow used to pile up in that short side-street, and the way everything shook and all speech was drowned when a train thundered past on the Canadian Pacific Railway line at the back of the building. I remembered how filthy the tiny kitchen was when we moved in, with generations of grime on every surface, and how Harry set to work on it, scrubbing and scraping and polishing until everything gleamed. Above all, I remembered what a huge adventure it all was, and how avidly we embraced the whole experience. Other memories came leaping up, too, as Molly drove me around the city — memories centred on work-places and on McGill University.

I went then to Kingston where Dugal Campbell, who had been Harry's second in command in the Auckland Psychology Department, was now at Queen's University. As New England had been, Kingston in October was a stunning extravaganza of red and gold maples. I stayed with Dugal and Joan and their children for one night, and in the morning had a visit from Antony Alpers who, by that time, was also at Queen's University, in the English Department. He had some dating problems to do with the Mansfield manuscripts which he wanted to discuss, and he also had some information for me about Mansfield's letters to Elizabeth von Arnim. Antony was very distant and impersonal, making it clear that The Past was non-existent. When I told him that I was about to visit Andrew Bell, he said that Andrew had not liked my last long letter — it was too insistent or something — and was rather suspicious of me. I did not understand this but it sounded ominous.

Then to Toronto to call on Mrs Vera Mackintosh Bell, Mansfield's oldest sister. Tall and elegant, she lived in a block of luxury downtown apartments, and I felt shabby and travel-worn in page 93her company. But she was friendly and interested in my project. She didn't think she had any more Mansfield material (everything she had accumulated over the years had been pasted into a giant scrapbook and given to the Turnbull some years earlier — I was familiar with it) but she would consult her son Andrew. He lived in another apartment in the same building and she would take me down and introduce me to him when he was ready; it was still a little too early for him. I was curious about Andrew because, in correspondence, he had seemed confused and defensive. Eventually I had written him a long letter in which I set out as simply and clearly as I could what the collected letters was for, why it was important and what were some of the difficulties I was up against. This was the letter that Antony told me Bell had not liked. Vera Bell had another son, John, but he was not mentioned.

After a while she telephoned Andrew and found that he was ready for us (I had the impression he was being ministered to in some way, perhaps by nurses) and she rose to take me down. I had discussed with her my intention to call on Marion Trowell in Windsor. Her late husband, Garnet Trowell, had known Mansfield in Wellington and then later had an affair with her in London. She had become pregnant but had miscarried, and he, having been forced by his parents to renounce her, had preserved her letters and asked his wife to put them safely in the university library. They were now in Windsor University, under embargo, and I wanted to put to Marion Trowell the importance of these letters to the collected edition. When I told Vera Bell this, she was dubious. Probably she didn't want Katherine's scapegrace youth raked over again, but I think she also thought, as I did, that Marion Trowell should not be bullied. Vera Bell said I should discuss it with Andrew and he would advise.

As I collected my things from her bedroom, because it was understood that I would not be returning to her apartment, she page 94pressed a 10-dollar note into my hand 'because Katherine would have liked you'. Presumably it was also because I looked hard up, which was embarrassing, but not embarrassing enough to prevent me from accepting it with thanks. At her son's apartment Vera Bell simply introduced me and then vanished. Andrew was sitting on a couch wreathed in smoke. There was a large glass ashtray beside him at which he kept jabbing with the cigarette in his fingers, but he had such a pronounced tremor that more often than not he missed. His fingers were stained dark with nicotine and he chain-smoked all the time I was there. I never saw him standing up and his physical appearance made no impression on me. I somehow knew straightaway that I could expect neither measured judgement nor reliable help from him, so we indulged in some chit-chat to pass the time. But his mother had said I should ask his advice about Marion Trowell, so I raised that matter. He said he knew her well and, yes, he thought it would be a good idea to go and see her. He asked me when I planned to go and I told him she had invited me to lunch tomorrow. That seemed fine to him, and he wished me luck. Nothing else of note transpired with Andrew, who struck me as quite disabled in some way — perhaps in several ways.

The town of Windsor was on the United States border, bang up against Detroit on the other side. After a night in a hotel there I walked about in the morning and bought some pink carnations for Marion Trowell. When I gave them to her she seemed delighted and greeted me warmly, showing interest in my project and listening to everything I had to say. Then, when we were sitting at lunch, the telephone rang and Mrs Trowell left the table to answer it. I could hear her remonstrating with someone and when she came back she looked annoyed. She said it was Andrew Bell, warning her off me, and advising her not to agree to my request for access to the letters. She said, 'I told him I couldn't page 95discuss it just now because you were here and we were in the middle of lunch.' When I explained that he knew I would be there because I had told him so the day before, she replied, 'He makes me cross sometimes.'

By this time I was quite bewildered by Andrew. It got worse, later, when Lesley sent me a letter she had had from him (they had never met) saying that I was not to be trusted, that he had strongly advised me not to visit Marion Trowell and that I had done so anyway. This was, not to put too fine a point on it, a pack of lies, so I did not communicate with him again. Some years later I heard that he had died in a fire that gutted his apartment. I know no details but I would not be surprised if one of those misdirected cigarette butts had had something to do with it.

Marion Trowell expressed sympathy with my predicament about the letters but did not feel able, then and there, to lift the embargo. Luckily, the librarian at Windsor University was also sympathetic, and eventually the letters were made available in time for the collected edition. They were important letters, too, showing how much Mansfield had loved Garnet Trowell and how deeply she had been hurt by the cessation of the affair.