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 home, life went on much as before. Lauris has reported in her book The Quick World that she came home very hard up while I still had a bit left over, and that I gave her $1000. So I must record here that some years later when our positions were reversed — I was hard up and she was in financially calm waters — she gave that money back to me, and very welcome it was!

The children had all, now, well and truly left home, and so the Wadestown house, which had performed its function beautifully, was now unsuitable for a lone, aging woman. The garden was too big (it always had been too big for me to look after alone), and the house was in great need of maintenance which I couldn't afford. I was very touched when one of Rachel's boyfriends offered to paint the house, and did so, and then his father came to inspect it and make sure he had done it properly. Eventually, in 1984, I decided to sell it and find a smaller place. I succumbed to the page 141temptation of having other people around, and bought a two-bedroom owner-occupier unit in a high-rise block of flats quite close to the Turnbull Library and, it turned out, across the street from the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace. It was on the seventh floor, looking out over the harbour and the Hutt Valley and the Eastbourne hills, on a northwest corner with all-day sun. I stayed there happily and comfortably for 15 years.

By this time, the first volume of The Collected Letters had been published, and my role in the whole project was becoming ever more diminished. There were to be five volumes altogether and I had done most of the transcribing, though I still had to finish it, but otherwise I could forget about the letters — they no longer appeared to have anything to do with me. But I began to see that the huge amount of work I had done towards them need not be regarded as wasted. It could be thought of as training for something else. And I knew what the something else should be. It was as clear as a bell. The vast bulk of Mansfield's notebooks — 46 of them — had been sitting in the Turnbull since 1957. John Middleton Murry had combed them several times for versions of his The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, and scholars from all over the world had pored over them and made what they could out of them. All of their attempts were flawed, however, some seriously so. Reading Mansfield's script took years of practice as well as a bit of flair. Since the notebooks were clearly a goldmine of information about Mansfield and her work, and since the need to understand them had not abated as the years went on, here was a job I could do which would be mine and which I would not give away halfway through. Still, I needed some acknowledgment of my claim to do it, and I needed financial support.

In 1988, the centenary of Mansfield's birth, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs put out a Mansfield desk calendar, mainly for distribution from their overseas posts, but also for sale in New page 142Zealand. In 1987 they had asked me to work on this, to find the illustrations and Mansfield quotes and to annotate the material. This turned out to be a more demanding job than it appeared on the surface but the ministry paid me for my time and seemed pleased with the result. Towards the end of the following year, 1988, I saw, quite accidentally, an advertisement in the Listener announcing a New Zealand National Library Research Fellowship, tenable the following year, with a stipend of $35,000, to be awarded to someone who planned to work on manuscripts held by the National Library (which included the Turnbull), with a view to their eventual publication. Heavens! Tailor-made! Had the gods changed their tune? I compiled my application material very carefully and sent it in, and they gave me the fellowship.

This was a very different deal from working on the letters. This had proper and substantial and official backing, and from the first it went swimmingly. I was given a small room in the Turnbull, with a computer and staff privileges. It was like coming home. I lacked any computer experience so the first few weeks were a bit trying, but mainly because I expected it to be harder than it was. People kept saying helpfully, 'If you press a wrong key you can lose weeks of work', and this generated unnecessary anxiety. I never did lose any work. Another initial problem was that the manuscripts could be looked at only in the Reading Room, under the eye of the staff, so I would not be able to transcribe them directly onto my computer. But the Turnbull staff — David Retter in particular — were keen to facilitate things for me and they proceeded to photocopy all the manuscripts so that I could transcribe from photocopies in my room.

I greatly enjoyed living once more according to a structured timetable, though the structure was self-imposed, and I greatly enjoyed having a bit of pocket-money at last. Most of all I enjoyed the untangling of Mansfield's appalling script. I have said page 143several times in public that the rewards are similar to those of solving a highly cryptic crossword puzzle — a secret vice of mine for most of my life. Not only was Mansfield's handwriting (which, of course, she expected no one but herself ever to read) idiosyncratic and mercurial, it was also hurried and rough. Middleton Murry had transcribed and published much of it and although many of his misreadings looked plausible enough to escape comment they did, in fact, lose the significance of what she had written.

A small example is in a story Mansfield began and never finished. She headed it 'You love me — still?', and it appears on page 244 of Volume 2 of The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks. Murry's version, which he headed 'Cassandra', is in his edition of The Scrapbook, on page 157. It is a story about a young married woman, Cassandra, who turns up unexpectedly at her parents' house and goes up to her mother's room where her mother is dressing for dinner. Cassandra is in an agitated state, wanting, and yet not wanting, to tell her mother that she believes her husband is being unfaithful to her. But she sobs, 'I can't talk in this room — I'm afraid we'll be interrupted. Come into my old room, Mother.' After this, Murry has 'And away she sped down the passage into her bedroom that was next to the nursery'. What Mansfield wrote was 'And away she sped, across the wide hall and down the passage into her bedroom-that-was, next to the nursery'. Admittedly, in all the hieroglyphic scribble and run-together words, the hyphens don't exactly stand out, and the transcriber needs not only a good eye but also a sensitivity to the suggestion of nostalgia for childhood which is part of Cassandra's confusion of feeling at the time.

Another slip of Murry's caused no end of bother. In a passage where Mansfield is discussing Dickens, she mentions the death of Merdle. The left leg of her capital M started with a wide curve like page 144a capital C, and Murry read the name as Cheedle. Nowhere in the whole of Dickens could I (and no doubt others, too) find anyone called Cheedle, and because I had not read Little Dorrit I didn't recognise from the context that it must be Merdle. Professor William Burgan in Bloomington, Indiana did that for me, at the same moment as Professor Ian Gordon of Wellington also did it.

A more familiar kind of misreading — the kind Murry's transcriptions are littered with — occurred in a passage about Dostoevsky. Murry read 'How did Dostoevsky know about that extraordinary vindictive feeling, that relish for little laughter — that comes over women in pain?' What Mansfield wrote was 'How did Dostoievsky know about that extraordinary vindictiveness, that relish for bitter laughter that comes over women in pain?'

There was a huge amount of material and the organisation of it — both the photocopies and the transcriptions on disk — was a major and ongoing logistical exercise. I plodded on and by the end of my fellowship year I had done all the transcribing. But there were still vast seas of work ahead: it all had to be checked, several times, somehow organised into a publishable state and then annotated. The Turnbull put itself out to come to my aid. Desk space and a computer were found for me in the Reference staff workroom so that I could just keep going. Of course I no longer had a stipend (and I had become ineligible for the widow's benefit 13 years earlier) but I had national superannuation and I had learned by then to manage without money. I still seemed to be able to eat well, drink sometimes and smoke.

There would, of course, be the problem of finding a publisher, and I wrote first to Oxford University Press to sound them out. I had in mind a handsome hardcover, uniform with their five volumes of the Mansfield Letters. But they did not want it. Since Dan Davin had retired they had had no interest in me or my work, so I was in some ways relieved when they turned me down.

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Then, early in the fellowship year, Mary Burgan from Indiana University wandered into my room and asked what I was doing. When I told her she seemed struck by the thought that Indiana University Press would like to publish it, and quite soon they invited me to submit a description and an assessment of the work for them to consider. I did my best but, because I had only just begun to transcribe, it was impossible to tell how much material there would be in terms of printed pages and I underestimated rather badly. Nevertheless, they took it on and sent me a contract. Not to have to hawk it around trying to find a publisher was exhilarating and I even had a congratulatory letter from a member of Parliament whom I had never met.

Not so simple was the process of meeting an agreement with the Society of Authors in London. The society is the literary executor of the Middleton Murry estate, which includes the Mansfield material, and since some of Mansfield's manuscripts were still in copyright in England, the society wanted a copyright fee. Unfortunately it took them months to answer a letter (I concluded that they met only quarterly and would not answer a letter until they had discussed it at a meeting) so the whole process was painfully protracted. Eventually, however, they permitted my use of the material and required a quarter of the royalty as a fee.

After I had worked for a further year I began to feel the financial constraints of not being supported in the work. And there was another worrying money problem. What I was producing was a treatment of not just the manuscripts in the Turnbull but also those in the Newberry Library in Chicago, and thereby hangs a little tale. It had long been known that Middleton Murry occasionally sold off a few Mansfield manuscripts when he felt the need for a bit of cash, but nobody seemed to know where these manuscripts had fetched up. Then one day, while I was still page 146working on the letters, I invited a visiting American Mansfield scholar home to lunch. In the course of the conversation she accidentally told me who now owned these papers. She said it was meant to be a secret because Mrs Dick 'did not want scholars beating a path to her door' but the name slipped out by mistake. I picked it up, though, and wrote to Jane Dick, in Chicago, explaining that my discovery of her identity was accidental but that I was extremely interested in the manuscripts, particularly the letters, and I explained why.

Mrs Dick replied graciously, saying she had not yet decided what to do finally with her Mansfield manuscripts. It was clear that she had a great many of them. It turned out that Murry had always sold them to the Chicago dealers Hamill and Barker, from whom he always got a good price, and that Mrs Dick had an arrangement that they would give her first refusal of all their Mansfield material as it came in. Over the years, she had bought the lot. She was wealthy and liked the feeling of owning them, but she was now realising that she would have to make some arrangement for their ultimate disposal. I reported to Jim Traue, at that time Chief Librarian of the Turnbull, and he wrote to Mrs Dick, with the result that she and her husband came out to New Zealand to look at the Turnbull. We rolled out the red carpet, showed them the National Library and the Turnbull within it and the Turnbull's Mansfield holdings, took them to lunch at the home of Sir Alister and Lady McIntosh, long-time benefactors of the Turnbull Library, gave them advice and information for their brief exploration of the South Island and hoped for the best. Mrs Dick was warmly appreciative of all this but said that, although she could see that there was a sense in which her manuscripts belonged in the Turnbull, she nevertheless had a lifelong friendship with someone who was influential in the Newberry Library in Chicago and who thought that was where they should go. So that's where page 147they went. This could be seen as a pity because the Newberry's manuscripts were to do with the history of the American Mid-West, and to add to them the papers of a British/colonial literary figure was something of an aberration. However, the deed was done, and is irremediable.

All of this happened in time for the letters in the Newberry collection to be incorporated into the Collected Letters. Most notably, there were all Mansfield's letters to her close friend, the painter Dorothy Brett. I, and others, had looked high and low for these letters which Brett was known to have kept in her possession for most of her life and then sold, so it was exciting to have them turn up at last. Included with them were Brett's own transcriptions, and these dismayed me. Her misreadings were so many that it was clear that she had missed wit and subtlety in the letters. What would Mansfield have thought if she had known? How many ordinary, everyday letters are misread by their recipients? In this case, it is clear that Brett was not on the same wavelength as Mansfield, as Lesley had not been either, and one does have to feel sorry that Mansfield had such difficulty finding friends to match her. Together with Brett's letters and transcriptions was this letter from her, written, apparently, when she sold the letters:

The Tower Beyond Tragedy
Taos, New Mexico
Feb 15 1942.

To the unknown Collector

I am very glad you have the letters, I hope you will cherish them and keep them safe. Partly my reason for selling them was to find a safe keeping for them in case anything should happen to me. Another, the difficulty of being able to read them, even now after page 148 all these years I find it extremely difficult to bring Katherine so vividly back. She was lovely beyond words.

Her early death should be a warning to parents financially able to help their children, yet refusing to do so because the children refused to live according to their ideas and plans. Katherine and Murry's early poverty and struggle started the illness that turned a gay, laughing, life-loving woman into a woman lying day after day, week after week, year in and year out, on a bed or sofa. Katherine loved life, loved adventure, her unlimited imagination, turned all life into a joyous prank … then stricken, a photograph taken just after she had received her death warrant shows a face so unbearably sad, that only a painting of a young woman by Goya, painted before and after the death warrant of her incurable disease, matches it.

Some day I will try and write the history which led up to these letters, but whenever I think of Katherine, I see her in my small Queen Anne house in Hampstead, lying in bed, an orangy pink light throwing a little colour into her pale face, it is the evening before she starts for Fountainbleau [sic], a smile ripples like light over her face, and the ethereal beauty of her spirit cannot be conceived by anyone who did not see it. Spirit transcending pain, loneliness, the reward of courage, of changing the physical adventure of life, into a spiritual adventure of increasing purity. That was Katherine, the Katherine that went to Fountainbleau, to ly [sic] again on a couch in a stable with the cows and goats below the balcony on which she lay.

Keep her letters safely, that show so much of that spirit, and were the reward of tireless friendship.

Yrs sincerely

D.E. Brett.

page 149

Because the Newberry collection included seven of the original group of 53 notebooks, as well as a great many loose pages of notebook material, and because when Mansfield had died all of these items — those in the Turnbull and those in the Newberry — had been one group, I was transcribing them all, to publish as one edition. The Newberry staff were very co-operative and sent us microfilm copies of all of their material, so that at least I did know what they had. But I still had to examine the originals in case there were significant things about them that didn't show up on microfilm (which it turned out there were) and so, somehow, I had to get to Chicago.