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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Back in Wellington, with the children home for the summer holidays, I felt as if I had survived mountainous seas on an unexpectedly hazardous fishing trip from which I had, nevertheless, brought home a useful catch. The children had all, in their healthy, vigorous ways, learned how to live without me. Although this speeded up their maturing, it sometimes gave me slightly too strong a sense of their growing up and away. Well, I had wanted the omelette, so I had had to break the eggs. After the holidays they went back to school — Rachel in the seventh form, Jonathan in the fourth, Katie in standard six, all of them flourishing, though Jonathan was disliking school more than I realised, as he later recounted in his book, Harry's Absence.

I returned to work with a determination to make up for all the lost time of the past year, but I was rather up against it. My fulltime job at the Turnbull included an occasional late night. The page 107library stayed open on Thursday evenings and the Reference and Manuscripts staff took it in turns to be on duty. I think my turn came round every few weeks and on those nights I usually had Katie with me so I didn't have to leave her at home alone. All in all, there was a lot of juggling to be done, and it was not an easy life. On top of that, the colossal job of transcribing had to be tackled. I was not a typist, so that although my typing was pretty accurate, it was slow. If personal computers existed in the 1970s I had never seen one and would not have been able to afford one anyway. I had an aunt in Christchurch — my mother's sister who lived with my parents — who had been a typist and was an educated woman looking for a way of making a bit of extra pocket money. I couldn't afford to pay her much but we fixed up a system whereby I dictated the letters onto a tape and then sent it to her. The tapes zoomed back and forth in the mail and gradually the stack of typescripts grew. I paid my aunt by the hour but at a low rate. Luckily, she so much enjoyed the letters themselves that the rate of pay seemed secondary. This all had to be done at home where I had no workroom or study, nowhere to keep stacks of paper. I worked at my desk in my bedroom but this was a pinched arrangement.

The illegibility of Mansfield's handwriting is legendary. It varies from day to day, page to page, and, because she never fell back on clichés to express herself, the word you are trying to decipher is never an easy, expected one. As well as this, there was a period, October 1917, when the quality of the ink she used was so poor (owing to wartime restrictions) that it has largely faded away. It gave Murry a lot of trouble when he tackled it in the 1920s, and when I came to it 40 years later I thought the script would be totally impossible to read. But, using all the aids I could muster, and with a lot of sheer slog, I subdued it.

The saving grace was the quality of the letters. They really are superb. I suppose I must have worked through each letter at least page 108six times, getting it through to page-proof stage, but never did I become bored with them or find them tedious or stale. Their language — that sensitivity of each word to its precise task — is a constant delight, and the wit sparkling all through them is brilliant. Then, too, they are full of drama: excitement, pathos, tragedy, mystery, all the elements of a rich novel. Mansfield always wanted to write a novel and, when she was young, several times started to do so. These letters are just as unputdownable as any novel she might have written, and have been, for me, over several decades, an endless source of pleasure.

In the meantime there was a new development at the library. In the course of cataloguing and arranging the Mansfield notebooks and collating them to some extent against Murry's transcription of them, I had, before going overseas, been struck by the amount of material he had not tackled. It was mainly early, adolescent material and I supposed he thought that it was not mature enough to warrant publication. And it was all written in a faraway strange land to which he had never been and which had difficult, alien names for places and flora and fauna. Also, some of this early stuff was extraordinarily hard to read. Whatever the reason, he left a lot of it alone, and I was excited to find not only that I could read it (and pick up a lot of mistakes in what he had transcribed) but also that it was wonderfully revealing of her emotional and psychological development. My boss, Mr Bagnall (as he was at the library), did not have much interest in Mansfield, to whom he referred provocatively as 'that woman', but he was definitely interested in the Turnbull's possession of unexplored but not insignificant literary manuscripts. So he approved my spending 20 minutes at the end of each afternoon transcribing some of this material and he began publishing it in sections in the Turnbull Library Record, of which he was the editor. This series was called 'The Unpublished Manuscripts of Katherine Mansfield' page 109and, although the Record had a very limited circulation, the series has been cited or discussed in many European and North American critical works since. I greatly enjoyed doing it and was disappointed when it came to an end on Graham's retirement at the end of 1972.

Lesley and I continued to correspond until she died in 1978, though she did once or twice complain that I did not write as often as she would like. To begin with, I tried also ringing her on her birthday but she was so deaf that I did it only twice. It seemed pointless after that because all it did was agitate her. One of her later letters — August 1975, I think, though it was not dated — seems to sum up the sadness of her disappointed hopes for her book and for the reunion with Km which she meant it to facilitate:

It is strange Margaret but I feel empty in these days. After all the talk and hearing Km — km — km … I feel that now I have no treasured life with K left. I have given it all away — emptied the casket into the lap of the world — & it is no longer precious — just interesting or not interesting — but anyhow gone from me — even K seems gone. I seem to see her happy with Chummie & Jack — & perhaps her Mother — but I am not there — I don't belong any more — & if I do try to answer & explain I can almost feel & see her, serious, rather far away, saying 'Don't — you can't explain …' It was the me she wanted me to become that I am trying to become now, that she offered her friendship to in that last letter —

All the rest that I have treasured & now thrown to the world — has — gone. This is all — forgive it — a sort of cri de coeur that I could write only to you — almost too misty & vague for words. Never mind — don't worry.

page 110

The 'Chummie' mentioned in this letter was Mansfield's beloved younger brother, Leslie, who lost his life in France in 1915 at the age of 21. This extract also shows, however, the therapeutic, cathartic effect of her book on her compulsion to cling to Km. But it was too late for her to be able to make use of it. If she had written the book 30 or 40 years earlier she would have lived a freer and happier life. During her last few years Peter Day kept an eye on her, and eventually took on power-of-attorney, helped her to move from the cottage, sell it and settle in the house of a friend, a younger woman who could give her the care she needed. I am privileged to have known Lesley, and to have been allowed to see what it was that Mansfield loved and hated and relied on and struggled against and needed until she died.

There are still people who say that Mansfield and Ida Baker had a lesbian relationship, which they clearly did not. The New Zealand lesbian community is misguided in claiming Mansfield as one of their own. As a teenager she had one or two crushes on girls or women, as do many girls who are incarcerated in single-sex schools away from men. But in her adult life there is simply no evidence of her sexual interest in any woman, though plenty of her interest in men.