Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Recollecting Mansfield


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It was good to be able to discuss all these things with Charles Brasch — by letter, by phone and sometimes in person. He and I had made great strides since we first met in 1949. Back then, by the time I met Harry, Landfall was under way, and Harry and Charles between them were paying the rent for a flat at 1 Dorset Street in Christchurch, though Charles occupied it for only two weeks four times a year when he came up from Dunedin to see Landfall through the Caxton Press, which was conveniently just around the corner in Victoria Street. When we were falling in love, Harry of course wanted Charles and me to meet and so he arranged for me to go to Dorset Street for dinner with them one evening on Charles's next visit. I was nervous because Charles was rather forbidding and was not, it seemed, easily amused, and the occasion felt like a major exam that I simply could not afford to fail. He was friendly and pleasant to me and all seemed to be page 112going well until after the meal when we were sitting around the fire and Charles dozed off. I did not realise then that this was a habit of his (he once took me to a marvellous Paul Robeson concert and slept through a good part of it), and I thought I had failed the exam. So, presumably, did Harry, for he looked at me bleakly and said, 'I may as well take you home.' But all was well. My exam marks were not spectacular, but I did pass.

When Harry and I married at the beginning of 1950, I moved into the flat and Charles continued to come for his Landfall stints. Then, when Harry and I went to Canada for two years in 1952, Charles stayed with my parents in Armagh Street, still very handy to the Caxton Press, for his Christchurch visits. He became a good friend of the Bennett family, and years later my mother remarked that Charles was the only person who had attended the weddings of all her five children, one of which took place in the Magdalene College Chapel, Cambridge. On our way home from Canada Harry and I benefited greatly from Charles's knowledge of England and Italy, and saw things we would not even have known to look for if he had not schooled us:

14 December '54

Ten days in Italy: hurrah! Don't try to see too many places — it's only exhausting and confusing. I suggest Florence, 2 days; Arezzo, to see the Piera della Francesca frescoes, one day (it is about 40 miles S. of Florence on the main line to Rome); Rome 4 days; Naples the rest. In Florence you must see the Uffizi, the chief Gallery; San Lorenzo, Michelangelo's Day & Night, etc; Santa Croce: the Florentine church, Santa Maria Novella, & the Duomo (cathedral) the other most rewarding churches; & if possible cross the river by the Ponte Vecchio to pass the Pitti Palace (no time for its pictures) & walk up the hill to San Miniato, one of the most perfect early Renaissance churches, with page 113a lovely view too. That's about all you'll manage. If time, also San Marco (Fra Angelico).

Rome: St Peters; Vatican (Sistine Chapel, Raphael frescoes; Loggia, & you'll walk through many other rooms to see those). Forum, to walk round without getting Baedeker-indigestion, see the Colosseum, Arch of Titus etc, & Palatine. Pantheon, & church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Pincio — gardens above the Spanish Steps; Villa Borghese, park, & pictures in the villa if time. One day if fine for Appian Way, Alban Hills (Frascati), & the Villa d'Este at Tivoli. You must walk about, in Florence & Rome, to see the streets, palaces, fountains. No matter where, whatever you see will be worth it. In Rome you must have a glimpse of the Corso (the main street), the Piazza del Popolo, one of the great squares; Piazza di Spagna with the beautiful Spanish steps. Don't scorn conducted tours if you have no friend to guide you. If you have to find your way alone you need time, Rome is very big. And noisy. Naples: wonderful Greek sculpture in the main Museum. Otherwise, mainly outside if fine. Try to see Pompei & Sorrento, for the wonderful beauty of the land & sea-scape. No time for Capri. Italy can be damned cold in winter: the tramontana is an icy wind.

Harry and I did not, needless to say, prove worthy of this demanding programme. We did not make it to Arezzo or Pompei or Sorrento, for instance, but we saw much that we would otherwise have missed. Charles on England was also enlightening and memorable:

November '54

Now that you've passed all the hurdles [the doctorate], you can relax & rejoice, & revel in whatever there is to see in the States. But page 114you must allow me to deliver myself of another little sermon about England, the importance thereof. You know I think that we, as New Worlders, have more to learn from the Old World than from other parts of the new, & I feel very afraid that you will be repelled by England in the winter, & see nothing there but ugliness (if you land at Liverpool) & darkness & discomfort. You will find those, certainly. But in an old country the surface of life conceals much more than in a new one; & you've got to make an effort of the historical imagination & try to see the immense richness & continuity of English life. It is all there, in the shapes of hills fields trees roads, none of which (except the newest arterial roads) are solely natural or solely human, but the result of that agelong co-operation of man & nature, & secondly in the stones, which include Stonehenge & Avebury & many a nameless circle & tumulus; & the White Horses & the Giants (Cerne Giant, Long Man of Wilmington), & the Roman roads & villas & walls, & the Saxon churches & the medieval towns & churches — the great Cathedrals above all — , & the eighteenth century towns, & the industrial towns. England has four parts or faces; London, the villages, with which I include the country generally & the great country houses, the great cathedrals & their towns; & the industrial areas. You may get a glimpse of all four parts — I hope you will. What you must realise is that the south, rural & fairly prosperous, & London, do not properly represent England, as too many New Zealanders suppose; the general idea of Home is quite a false one.

During our married life Charles was so warmly attached to Harry that I sometimes wondered if he loved him sexually, although he had never shown the slightest hint of it, or of jealousy of me. When his book The Estate was published, with its eponymous poem sequence addressed to Harry, a review of it by Kendrick page 115Smithyman said, in effect, that this material was too private and should have remained unpublished. Harry and I were living in Auckland by then and Charles sent us a telegram saying, 'Are you embarrassed? You have no need to be.' I asked Harry then if he thought Charles might be in love with him, but Harry waved the suggestion away. He said that Charles's apparent lack of interest in women was because he was one of those rare people for whom sex is borderline, and that that, combined with his natural fastidiousness, kept him isolated. I was not entirely convinced by this, but it did establish in me a defensive reaction to ignorant labelling of Charles as homosexual.

He was a part of us, really, and when the news came through of Harry's death I first rang his parents in Palmerston North and then tried to ring Charles in Dunedin. He was, presciently, out of earshot of the phone, so there was a delay, but he got the news soon enough and offered to come to Christchurch at once. I didn't want him then because his presence would somehow have sharpened the pain, so he waited until later. From then on Charles was meticulous in his attention to me and to the children. He never failed to give birthday and Christmas presents to each of the four of us, and he visited regularly and rang up long distance even more regularly. Financially, he thought it important, as it was, that we should manage on our own resources — but I knew his private income meant that, as long as he was there, we would never starve or become homeless. In fact, when I bought the Wellington house I didn't have quite enough money for the down payment and so Charles came up with a second mortgage of, I think, £3000, which was interest-free and 'forgiven' in his will. It was not always easy to feel quite relaxed with Charles because he was a bit prim, a bit Victorian, a bit limited in his experience of knock-about life. But he was wonderfully generous, thoughtful and intellectually substantial, and I came to love him dearly.

page 116

I consulted him, for instance, on a decision that had to be made concerning Rachel. In 1972 Joan and Dugal Campbell and their four children, whom I had last seen in Kingston, Ontario, the previous year, came to Wellington to visit us. They had always been great travellers and had been in Auckland visiting old friends before coming to us. Rachel had only dim memories of Dugal and Joan because she had been barely four when Harry died and that Titirangi life broke up. But I was keen for her to see them again, and I was also keen to have her help while they were here, because an influx of six people, four of them children, was quite a lot to handle alone. To escape from boarding school for a few days suited Rachel very well, so I obtained her headmistress's permission for her to come home for a weekend. She had had enough of school.

It was midwinter when the Campbells came. They were, of course, used to central heating, and were conscious of the cold in Wellington. We had every electrical appliance in the house going full bore and then suddenly the main fuse blew and there was darkness. All in all, I could not have managed without Rachel, and the Campbells were so impressed by her efficiency and good sense that, on the spot, they put a proposition to me. Dugal was about to take a sabbatical year and the whole family planned to rent a house in London (where Dugal's mother lived) so that he could pursue some research there and Joan could continue with her own work. They would do some travelling in Europe as well as some exploring of London. Could Rachel join them as an au pair for a year? This was both dazzling and alarming. How could I foresee all the implications of such a proposal so as to make a wise choice? It seemed to me that I couldn't. I could only plunge or not plunge. Of course Rachel herself cast the die. She was so enormously keen to go that 'not plunge' became impossible. It would mean missing the last term of her seventh form year, and missing out on Bursary, page 117but she already had University Entrance and her headmistress cautiously approved the plan. Charles, predictably, applauded it, while my father helped with the airfare to London.

One problem remained. I had always been determined to bring up the children as if Harry and I were both making the decisions, and those decisions, I was quite convinced, included tertiary education. Harry had been the first of all the generations of his extended family to go to university (and his father, in that little farming community, had incurred some scorn for allowing him to do so). Both of my parents were the first in their respective families to go to university, and my own university education had been wonderfully intellectually liberating for me, so I was determined on it for all my children. (I once said to Antony Alpers, when he was talking about marriage, 'What about university education for the children?' and he shrugged and said, 'They would have to take their chances.' This did not strengthen his suit.) I extracted an agreement from Rachel that when she returned to New Zealand she would embark on a degree course at Victoria University. She kept this promise.

I, in the meantime, inched forward in transcribing the hundreds and hundreds of letters — many of them very long — while the pile of those waiting to be done grew ever bigger as more letters were traced and acquired. I began to feel weighed down by the size of the job, and then one day I was approached by Vincent O'Sullivan with an offer of help. He was an academic in the English Department at Waikato University and I had met him casually a couple of times. He said he had some spare time and would be prepared to give me a hand if I would like it. This seemed like a gift from the gods and I felt greatly relieved. At first all seemed well and after a while I approached Oup and told them we needed a new contract in which Vincent and I would be co-editors, he having, as he explained, alphabetical priority.

page 118

Failing to soldier on alone was a piece of cowardice for which I paid dearly in the long run. For it soon became clear that no kind of collaboration would be possible. The arrangement just simply didn't work, and the next few years were desperately unhappy. The experience left me vulnerable to an insidious depression and, at the same time, other clouds descended on me. Graham Bagnall retired from the Turnbull. And Charles died.

During those years after Harry's death I was, of course, awake to the possibility of a new partner. But it had to be someone with whom the degree of intimacy I had had with Harry was again possible, and this didn't happen. There was a time when Charles, who, in his mid-50s, had never relinquished the idea of marriage and children, thought of himself as my new partner. Most of my attraction for him, probably, was that I was Harry's relict. He began courting me by letter, and then came up to Christchurch to check it all out. This was before my move to Wellington. He was, of course, at war with himself over this. Presumably he knew, au fond, that such an arrangement would not do, but the process had been a cerebral one and he was going to give it his best shot. The photo of him in Gordon Ogilvie's biography of Denis Glover was snapped by a roving photographer as he arrived in Christchurch on that occasion. He gave me the ticket with which to redeem the photo but I don't think he ever saw it. It is wonderfully expressive of his mixture of anxiety and anticipation.

I knew as soon as we got home from the airport (my mother had the children for the night) that I was no more sexually attracted to Charles than I had ever been. I loved him, but that is different. Nevertheless, this was a crisis in his life which he was approaching as if it were a huge test, a crucial rite of passage. I learnt subsequently that once, when a young man in England, he had steeled himself to undergo the same rite of passage with Robin Hyde, who was also there. He told me that he had set off page 119to spend an evening with her, determined to take her to bed, but his nerve failed him and he made no move. Now, with me, he was again at the sticking point, and although I didn't know, then, about Robin Hyde, I did know, by instinct, that he needed help. We talked for a long time by the fire — about the death of his mother when he was four, the lack of sympathy between him and his father, the death of his sister as a young woman, the importance in his life of his mother's sisters, Aunt Emily and Aunt Kate, his lack of any — and I mean any — sexual experience.

He resisted the idea that he might be homosexual. He agreed that he was attracted to men as well as to women but he believed that this was 'normal' — superior normal, in fact — and that, as the ancient Greeks had maintained, men who were capable of responding to both sexes were the most highly developed of the species. What he seemed not to realise was that his attraction towards women (and there were not many of those, overall) was more intellectual than physical. At the end of that evening we went to bed, and Charles, I knew, was determined to acquit himself like a man, which he did. But never had he seemed so old-fashioned and out of touch with the real world as he did the next day when (I discovered later) he went to my father and told him that we were going to get married. My father was considerably surprised, having long since made his own diagnosis of Charles, but he decided, wisely, just to wait and see what happened.

What happened was that Charles and I slept together off and on for some years — in Christchurch, in Dunedin and in Wellington — and this seemed to bring him some release. But as he gradually came to realise that this was an interlude rather than a permanent arrangement, he praised me for having liberated him and for enabling him to explore other situations.

The first one he explored, I think, was with Rodney Kennedy, through whom Harry and Charles had first met. For a time, page 120Rodney and Charles had shared a house in Dunedin, in an entirely platonic relationship, for Charles wouldn't or couldn't see himself as a homosexual, as Rodney plainly was. So, after his 'liberation', he said, 'I asked Rodney to come to me'. Rodney told me later that the occasion had been a total disaster, by which I supposed he meant that he found Charles too inept. Charles's subsequent sexual experience, if any, he did not tell me about.

His unawareness, before this, of his homosexual nature seems to me extraordinary. On one occasion he described a conversation he had had with a man whom we both knew, and whom I knew to be a homosexual. Charles was, he said, warmed and pleased when this man, passing behind his chair, put his hand on Charles's shoulder and rested it there briefly. I gathered that Charles had not responded to this gesture, so I said, 'Didn't you realise that he was making a pass at you?' He was astonished, and appalled at himself. He wrote an agonised poem about it, 'No Reparation', published in his book, Ambulando.

One rather poignant factor in all this is his diaries. Charles recorded every single day in a diary, a small notebook, a new one each year. These diaries were important to him. A couple of times when he was overseas he wrote, in letters to me, a detailed account of what he had been doing and asked me to keep it for him because he had not had time to write up his diary. These are now, with his letters to me, in the Turnbull Library. And once, towards the end of his life, he told me that if he should suddenly die while with me or in my house, I must first of all find and take his current diary — he carried it always in the breast pocket of his jacket — and then make sure it went to the Hocken Library. He left all his diaries, letters and manuscripts to the Hocken, to be under total embargo for 30 years. In the early days of our working to understand and know each other, he once sent me — or left with me for a few days — two of his diaries from 1949–50, to help page 121me to understand something about his feeling for Harry. In one of them I was struck by the simplicity of his statement, describing lying in bed and hearing Harry let himself into the flat after taking me home: 'and my seed spilled over'. That, it seemed, said it all.

He didn't understand much about children or about the rough-and-tumble nature of family life with three children and only one parent. After we moved to Wellington, once or twice, when staying with his Aunt Emily Forsyth, who lived around the corner from me in Wadestown, he would arrange to come to me for breakfast — a rather classy European custom, I gathered. This was when the children were living at home and going to primary school. He didn't, apparently, foresee that breakfast at our house would be a matter of my briskly making sure that the children were properly dressed, fed, brushed, equipped with lunches and homework and dispatched to school in good time, before the scramble to get myself ready for work and into the office by 8.30. Civilised conversation about literary matters somehow got lost along the way. Luckily the children were all reliably resourceful and intelligent and co-operative. Charles was patient and amused, if a bit frustrated. When speaking to the children he raised his voice, as if they might be slightly deaf.

Once, when he came for an evening meal, because he had long before told me that anemones were his favourite flower, I had a vase of them on the table and he said 'Oh! If you want to remember me when I'm dead, buy anemones on my birthday.' He said he had always thought he would like to have a honeymoon in Antioch, where anemones grow wild on the hillsides. Finding anemones on each of the 27 of his birthdays since he died hasn't always been easy, but I have managed it.

Towards the end of 1972 I suggested to him that in February, after Jonathan and Katie had gone back to Nelson (Rachel was by this time in London), we might go somewhere together for a page 122couple of weeks. He was keen and said he had always wanted to see more of the French Pass area. He also said that he wasn't very well just then, but I had the impression that it was something minor and transitory. So I set about finding out where we could go and discovered that there was a cottage to let at Kapowai on D'Urville Island. It was arranged that Charles would come up to Wellington for a few days to see his relations and then we would take my car across to Picton on the ferry, stay overnight in a motel in Picton, do all our shopping for supplies there and then drive to French Pass, unload the car onto the jetty, park it in an adjacent field, load the gear onto the launch and be taken by launch across the pass to Kapowai.

The night before we left Wellington Charles spent with his cousin Elespie Prior and her husband Dr Ian Prior. He discussed his medical problem with Ian, but without clinical tests Ian could not make a diagnosis. However, he gave Charles some advice — I didn't know what — and equipped him with analgesics for the trip.

The cottage, almost on the beach, was just what we hoped for, and we had a very happy, peaceful, undemanding few days until Charles's discomfort turned to harsh pain and he had to resort to painkillers, which he normally staunchly resisted. Once, in the middle of an evening, he dropped his book, stood, paced up and down the room and said, 'There's a limit to how much pain one can take.' By this time I was alarmed but also helpless. Then Charles told me that Ian had said that if this should happen he must cut short the holiday and return at once to Dunedin to be properly examined. So, at the end of the first week I took him to Nelson and put him on a plane to Dunedin. On our last day at Kapowai, late afternoon or early evening, I was preparing a meal and Charles went outside onto the stony beach where some fishermen were pulling up their boat before taking their catch home. Charles asked them about the area, the fishing, the boat and so on. I was page 123struck by this because it was the only time I ever saw him in easy conversation with people with whom he had nothing in common. Usually he was too timid and uncertain of acceptance. His voice — deep, soft, melodious, precise, cultivated — announced his difference from ordinary Kiwis and made them wary of him.

It had been arranged that Janet Paul would join us for the second week but she arrived to find that Charles had gone. So she and I had that week there without him, and enjoyed it, though I was struggling with a distracting sense of foreboding. Back in Wellington I found that Charles was in hospital in Dunedin with Hodgkin's disease which, I was told, quite often responded to treatment and went into remission for years at a time. I clung to this straw tenaciously. It wasn't just Charles himself I feared to lose, it was what he represented in my life. Harry's sudden death had, nearly done for me and I had had no opportunity to face it and absorb it into the deepest recesses of my mind. I was still, 12 years later, having dreams in which he wasn't dead at all. And in the aftermath of his death, Charles had kept me steady and given me undemanding love and loyalty. To have him snatched away now was not a possibility I could face.

He was able to spend some time at home in Dunedin and Elespie went down to be with him for a few days. Then Elizabeth, wife of Charles's cousin Tim Thompson, took over for a little while until he went back into hospital again. When he was able to return home I took leave without pay and went down to be with him. But just before I got there he had to go back into hospital (Wakari) and I was met by Rodney who said Charles had asked him to hire a car for me. I would be able to visit him that afternoon but I must try not to be too shocked at his weight loss and general frailty. I was shocked, though. I put my hand on his shoulder to lean over and kiss him but he shrank from my hand, saying the slightest touch hurt him. He had a pile of unopened mail which he said he page 124couldn't manage by himself so I opened it and read it to him. A letter from Fleur Adcock showed an awareness of the seriousness of his condition and spoke about how much she valued him and owed to him. He cried at this and then apologised for doing so, saying it was just because of weakness. When I went back in the early evening he seemed slightly more in charge of himself: he gave me instructions to pass on to the woman who was coming to clean his house (she must do the dusting before the vacuuming), and asked me to water his bay tree.

The following morning, greatly wanting to do something to lift his spirits, I strode about the town visiting every florist I could find and asking for anemones. But it was April — too early. Then, at the end of a side-street there was an unobtrusive little flower shop in which the man said,' I think I might have a bunch out the back somewhere.' He went away and brought back a bunch of tightly closed buds. I looked at them, perhaps dubiously, and he said, 'They haven't woken up yet. Give them a couple of hours and they'll be perfect.' I bought them, took them back to Charles's place, where I had lunch, and in a couple of hours they were perfect — a variety of wonderfully glowing colours. When I took them to Charles at two o'clock his face lit up with pleasure. He indicated a vase of flowers that someone had just brought him and asked me to take them away because he wanted only the anemones. We talked for the visiting hour and then I left him. When I went back at seven he said he had written a poem and wanted to read it to me:

Winter Anemones
The ruby and amethyst eyes of anemones
Glow through me, fiercer than stars.
Flambeaux of earth, their dyes
From age-lost generations burn
page 125 Black soil, branches and mosses into light
That does not fail, though winter grip the rocks
To adamant. See, they come now
To lamp me through the inscrutable dusk
And down the catacombs of death.

He had altered a couple of words during the afternoon but made no more changes to it. It had emerged fully formed. It delighted me, as I told him, although I was made uneasy by 'the catacombs of death' but kept that to myself. I told him that, on the following day, Michael Hitchings and Ted Middleton were coming to lunch with me at his place. 'Oh good,' he said, 'give them something nice to drink, won't you?'

So, the next day I prepared a good lunch — fish, I think — and we drank well with it, and then at something to two I had to abandon my guests and go back to the hospital. Charles's friend Ruth Dallas was there, and he was elated because he had been told he could go home for afternoon tea. When we took him home he was very happy to be there and to be with Ruth.

At the end of my last afternoon, when I left him and walked across the car park, I looked back up at his window. He had got out of bed and was standing at the window watching me, almost as if he thought we would never see each other again. We never did. But for the next few weeks I didn't really believe he would die. He was allowed home again for an indefinite time and Ruth Dallas moved into his house to be with him. One morning she went into his room and found him dead. Elespie rang to tell me and I was utterly unprepared and undone. Tim Thompson, one of the trustees of his estate, told me Charles had left me an annuity of $1500 which somehow made it worse. For a while I clung to Alan Roddick, Charles's literary executor, as the nearest I could get to Charles himself, and Alan was very patient and understanding.

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Of the many things Charles gave me, the outstanding one was an amber and silver necklace. He had resurrected some pieces of amber, 'rough-hewn jewels of the sea', which he had bought from an Arab who had gathered them from the bed of the Red Sea and which he had kept for over 30 years. His poem 'Red Sea Amber' is about them. Margaret Morris, a silversmith in Wellington, was a friend of his, and he asked her to make a necklace with them. In the finished piece, the chunks of amber are strung onto an unbreakable wire, alternating with small nuggets of silver. There is a heavy clasp of silver at the back, and suspended from the front is a large ankh — an Egyptian life symbol, a distinctive cross within a wide circle — of beaten silver. Altogether it is an astonishingly handsome piece. My sister-in-law Julia Sutherland asked to wear it at her wedding to my brother Colin and did it proud. After my death it is to go to my Kate whose hair colour is just right for it.

Charles also had Margaret Morris make two silver rings, plain bands; one, he said, was from him to me and the other was from me to him. One had C.M. engraved inside it, the other M.C. He wore his on his little finger; I wore mine on the penultimate. But for some strange reason to do with the chemistry of his skin, his ring always turned black quite quickly, so we exchanged them every time we met. I took the black one which then, with no effort on my part, turned silver again. Charles said the rings turned black on him because of all the wickedness inside him, a pleasantry I did not rise to. After he died I asked Tim Thompson if I could have Charles's silver ring and he gladly gave it to me. Thereafter I wore them both until my fingers became too misshapen with arthritis and then I gave them to Kate.

In his will Charles had asked that his ashes be scattered from 'a high and windy place', a task performed by Tim, who carefully and lovingly selected the spot. Charles himself could not have page 127found a better one. Tim took me there once. It is at Te Oka on Banks Peninsula, on the far side of Lake Forsyth. We drove nearly to Little River then turned off to the right. A long winding road continued to rise until, when Tim stopped the car, we were quite high. We then walked through snow-covered tussock for a little way until we came to a smallish outcrop. It was no different from many others around it, except that there was a tunnel underneath, into which Tim put his arm to draw out a small cardboard box. This contained about a teaspoon of ash — left, Tim said, for me to scatter. The spot itself was simply stunning: a great sweep of snow-covered Southern Alps, the Canterbury Plains stretching out to them, the big lake in the foreground and, behind, the whole Pacific Ocean. I took the last of the ash and scattered it in all these directions. Tim put the box, which had Charles's name on it, back in the hole where it probably still lies. I picked up a small, sharp-sided black stone from the place and took it home.