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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I made one last visit to Lesley at Wood Green. It was November now and England was cold and, for a lot of the time, dark. Lesley wanted to sort through some papers and throw away as much as possible so I sat on the floor going through them and discussing them with her. A number of things she allowed me to keep and take home to put into the Turnbull: her 'Notes', a little diary she had kept for a while towards the end of Katherine's life (I couldn't see that it had anything significant in it, but a good manuscripts librarian does not throw such things away), the little Corona typewriter that had belonged to Middleton Murry and on which Katherine had typed many of her stories as well as a letter or two, and a few other bits and pieces.

The typewriter was a very primitive affair but it still worked. Lesley had planned to let the village children practise on it, but no amount of practice would have helped them to use a modern page 97typewriter: the keyboard was totally alien and it was now simply a curiosity. It has ended up on display at the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace in Wellington, and I was able to confirm that one of Mansfield's letters to Murry in the Turnbull was written on it. I just had to take it to New Zealand House in London and it was sent out in the diplomatic bag.

Lesley also gave me a lovely mother-of-pearl brooch of Katherine's 'on condition that you don't put it into your silly old museum but keep it for yourself.' Katherine had seen it in a shop window in London, had fallen in love with it, gone away to scrape up enough money, returned to buy it, remained devoted to it. It was indeed a marvellous present and I have, sometimes, enjoyed wearing it. Thirty years later I gave it to Kathleen Jones, Mansfield's biographer, on the grounds that she is a lot younger than me, and is the perfect recipient for it. Perhaps in another 30 years she might send it a step further on down the path of its non-biological inheritance. Lesley gave me, also, a handsome black silk grosgrain tunic of Mansfield's, its borders delicately embroidered in pale blue and green. This, too, has ended up in the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace.

As the days passed Lesley spoke to me severely about my failure to believe that our 'passed over' loved ones are waiting on the other side to greet us. I didn't want to challenge her belief, which was patently of vital importance to her, but I regarded my methods of coming to terms with Harry's sudden death as my own business. She berated me for not attempting to communicate with him and for not being open to his attempts to communicate with me. One morning when I came down to breakfast she turned to me (a slow, deliberate movement) and said, 'Your husband is bothering me now. He can't get any response from you so he keeps asking me to persuade you that he's there.' This would, of course, have been inexpressibly exhilarating and thrilling if it were true, page 98which made someone else's insistence on it all the more irritating and intrusive. But I did not want something that mattered so much to her to drive a solid wedge between us so, to lower the temperature, and to appease her, I rashly told her my butterfly anecdote. Once or twice in my garden at home I had been entertained by the antics of a large colourful butterfly dancing around my head, alighting on my arm, darting back and forth in front of me, very much as if it were attempting to communicate. 'A message from the other side,' I remarked to myself, without any actual belief in its being so. Lesley, however, pounced on this as proof positive of her own beliefs and of my failure to respond when approached. When she accused me of having a closed mind I pointed out that there was a difference between a closed mind and a critical mind. She didn't understand this defensive utterance but it brought us to a kind of truce until a ludicrously improbable thing happened.

Winter, late afternoon, dark, a howling storm outside, a roaring fire as well as an electric heater in the little sitting room where Lesley and I sat talking. The cottage was shut tight, the only ventilation in that room was draughts under the doors and up the chimney. I was permitted to go into the kitchen and prepare the tea tray. When I had given Lesley her cup of tea and something to eat I carried my own over to the armchair I had vacated a few minutes earlier, and there on the seat was the most enormous butterfly I had ever seen. It was brilliantly coloured and its huge wings were pulsing slowly. I was so astonished that I called out, 'Lesley! Come and look at this!' She stumbled over to my chair, looked at the butterfly, looked at me — with bewilderment, then with triumph. 'Now do you believe?' she said.

I can only suppose that the warmth of the room had persuaded the occupant of some lost chrysalis that it was time to emerge. Using a sheet of paper I placed the butterfly gently in the porch outside the door. But of course in the morning it had vanished. I page 99did think this apparition mighty peculiar occurrence, though not one with supernatural significance. But for Lesley it was final proof and she was exultant.

Time was running out now, and after a few days I had to move on to Mary Murry in Norfolk. The Turnbull had given me a commission to undertake there. I had found that Mary still possessed Murry's letters to Mansfield and was open to suggestions about how much she might be able to sell them for. The Turnbull had asked me to examine and evaluate them so that an offer could be made. They would be something of a prize because the other side of the correspondence — Mansfield to Murry — was already in the Turnbull, and to have both sides of such a long, literary and personal correspondence was rare indeed. As I prepared to leave Lesley she told me about a large painting by the Honourable Dorothy Brett which the artist had once given to her. It was a big still life of flowers in a vase and Lesley had not been able to cart it about with her so she had left it with Mansfield and Murry for safe keeping and had then lost sight of it. 'Just have a look about, dear, will you, when you are there, to see if Mary still has it?'

On my last morning in Wood Green — sunny, at last, and calm — I wandered outside and into the meadow behind the cottage. As I walked through the long grass great crowds of tiny butterflies rose up around me. Well, I think they were moths, but I was somewhat butterfly-sensitive at the time and I saw these pretty clover-coloured little creatures as butterflies, assembling en masse to close off the Wood Green chapter of my life.