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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Late in the pregnancy when I was heavy, depressed, cheerless and lonely, the three of us moved in with my parents for a while. In those days there was no such thing as grief counselling; indeed, people seemed to believe that the less they said about Harry and what I had lost the sooner I would forget about it, but I was longing for a chance to talk. I received the widow's benefit, which was a life-saver, but the life it saved was a very pinched one. There was not enough money even for a babysitter to enable you to get out of the house, and if you earned any money by your own efforts (a couple of times I was paid for articles I wrote) you had to declare it and have it deducted from the benefit. I knew I couldn't possibly live like that until the children were self-supporting — I would have to find a way to earn the money we needed. But with no qualifications other than a Ba degree and Canadian training in social work, my prospects were not bright.

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One sunny morning in September there was a ring at my mother's doorbell. I answered it and there stood Antony Alpers, smiling and friendly. I had never met him but had been highly aware of him, mainly because he had written the first biography of Katherine Mansfield, in whom I had been intensely interested since I was at school, but also because I knew he had consulted Harry several times about aspects of animal psychology in connection with a book about dolphins that Antony was writing. Now, on the doorstep, his face was familiar to me from photographs but I did not know who he was. He introduced himself and told me that he had tracked me down with some difficulty, that his dolphin book had been published, and that the copy he would have given to Harry in gratitude for his help he now wanted to give to me. In retrospect I think this was slightly (but probably unconsciously) disingenuous because Antony was between wives at the time and perhaps wanted to check me out. He was charming, however, and my mother invited him to stay for lunch. By the time he left we had all had such a good time that it seemed inevitable we would stay in touch. Indeed, the previous seven months of my life had been so painfully arid that Antony seemed like manna from heaven.

During those few days we met and telephoned. Then, when he returned to Wellington, we wrote frequently. A couple of hundred yards down the road, at the bottom of St Andrews Hill, was a letter box with a 9 p.m. clearance. I often used to walk down to it with a letter for Antony which he would get in Wellington the following morning. One night I was walking back up the hill in the dark when something occurred to me with such force that I remember it still, 40 years later. I thought, 'I really am in an appalling situation but I won't, I will not let it annihilate me. Somehow — heaven only knows how — I will page 15make a proper life for the children and myself.' Having that thought did not change my circumstances but it did generate a spark of determination which I caught by the coat-tails as it swept past.

Antony instructed me to telephone him in Wellington when I went into labour 'because a girl needs a chap to pace the floor'. This I did, so that he was one of the first to know about the arrival of the little girl — the only perfectly straightforward and manageable of my three childbirths. Antony kept closely in touch and enlivened my hospital hours with marvellous reading material. He sent me John Aubrey's Brief Lives, a memorably diverting book, and also a whole box of Mansfield documents, notes of interviews and bits of information that he had not been able to incorporate into his biography because of the controversial nature of the material or because Middleton Murry had embargoed it. It was all utterly fascinating.

When I took the baby home everybody assumed I would need help with naming her and some preposterous suggestions were made. I began to feel under pressure from various quarters until, one night on the telephone, Antony said, 'Why don't you call her Katherine and be done with it?' That seemed an excellent idea, so I did. Whereupon he sent me, 'for Katherine', a little leather-bound complete Milton that had belonged to Katherine Mansfield. She mentions it in a letter to William Gerhardi in October 1922: 'It's raining. I must rescue my little John Milton from the window sill.' (The leather, binding still shows the effects of that dampening.) Inside the front cover is a note from John Middleton Murry to D.H. Lawrence:

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Wayside Cottage,
Jan 17 1923 Sussex

Dear Lawrence,

In her will Katherine instructed me to choose one of her books to send you. She had hardly any books which were really her own — this Milton was, however, one of them. Ottoline originally gave it to me, and I gave it to Katherine because she liked it. She took it with her everywhere during the last year.


It seems that Murry gave the book and the note to Ida Baker (who briefly performed secretarial duties for him after Katherine's death and to whom I will come later) to send to Lawrence. She had never been able to like Lawrence and so she somehow forgot, or anyway failed, to send it, and many years later she gave it to Antony when he was writing the Mansfield biography. Thus it came to the Scotts, where it still is. It had one more important job to do before retiring, but that comes later in the story.

Because Antony and I were both young and unattached and personable, with interests in common, it was inevitable that we should think about whether we wanted to marry. Antony, always importunate when it came to engaging wives, decided quite soon that he did. I enjoyed his company but did not want to marry him. He saw this as rejection, something his childhood had made him unable to tolerate, and he never forgave me for it. Although we had to communicate from time to time over the ensuing years he became, and remained, largely hostile.

That was my first encounter with Mansfield since Miss Ethel Duff, at Christchurch Girls' High School, had said, 'Now, girls, all page 17your University Entrance exams are over and it is nearly the end of your last school year, so I am going to read you a short story. It was written by a famous writer who was born and brought up in New Zealand.' She read us 'The Doll's House', that gem of a story whose every word is chosen perfectly, and I was irremediably hooked. I set about reading everything by or about Mansfield that I could lay my hands on, and so, while still at school, laid the foundations of a later competence.

Miss Duff was a funny little old lady, always called, I'm sorry to say, 'The Duffer'. She had two available comments on our work, both delivered in sepulchral tones: 'That's good', and 'That's bad'. But she was gentle and careful and had the gift of exposing us to ideas we were then free to pick up or not. One morning, as we filed into the classroom, she was already in the room writing on the blackboard: I think continually of those who were truly great. This was an introduction to Stephen Spender and the contemporary English poets, and we began to see that great poets didn't have to be dead. And her introduction of Katherine Mansfield profoundly affected my whole life. Dear Miss Duff, you are long dead but I have always been grateful to you.