Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

Digital publication kindly authorised by:

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Conditions of use


Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Recollecting Mansfield


page break


After this trip, with the new information gained from the Newberry Library, I continued with the work but also underwent two major physical changes. I was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to have an operation for removal of the tumour. The operation was successful and I am, some 10 years later, still alive. The other thing that happened around that time was the end of my smoking career. I had resolved many times in the past to beat my nicotine addiction but I seemed to be expert at rationalising myself into believing that it was not, just then, a good idea. I remember when Harry and I were in Auckland in 1952, about to depart for Canada, I had thought that perhaps this big disruption in my life would make it possible for me to stop, but the strain of the deprivation was ruining everything that happened. I remember Keith Sinclair turning up for breakfast after a farewell party the night before, looking at me, and saying, 'Oh, for God's page 153sake give the girl a cigarette!' That was the end of that attempt. But there had been many others.

By the early 1990s, with additional pressure from Rachel who would not let me smoke around her children, I was just humble enough to admit that I needed help, so I went to the pharmacist and asked his advice. He put me onto a patch remedy — not either of the widely advertised ones, but one I hadn't heard of. It was, though, like the others, very expensive, and I knew I could afford either to smoke or to buy the nicotine patches — not both. And so my inability to waste money saw me through the first few days, by which time my excitement at my success was enough to keep me going. As well as this, Kate decided to provide me with a full back-up service. She was living in Wellington at that time and she rang me every day to discuss my progress, and brought me a present at the end of each successful week. The first present was a helium-filled balloon with Congratulations printed on it, which bounced against my ceiling for the ensuing week until I liberated it. Kate's attention to my endeavours made all the difference. And I was also helped by several memories such as Joan Catapano's 'Oh, how disillusioning!' when I sat on a garden seat on the Indiana University campus and lit a cigarette. Somehow everything came together to work for me and from the moment I put the first patch on I have not smoked. One unexpected side-effect of giving up was that I developed a bronchitic sort of cough which lasted for three weeks and was, I think, an attempt on the part of my grateful lungs to dislodge their layers of malign sediment.

Joan Catapano was still keen that Indiana University Press should publish my Mansfield notebooks, but now that it was clear that the material could not all be squeezed into one volume (I thought it should be three), the director of the press was against it. He had formulated a policy of not publishing anything consisting of more than one volume. On the other hand, the press page 154did not want to release me from my contract because they wanted to publish the notebooks — but in one volume. They tried to persuade me to cut it down to size — to do, in other words, just what Murry had done in creating The Journal: pick out the 'best' bits and put them together in one volume. I was adamant, pointing out that this would lose the whole point, which was to convey Mansfield's sometimes haphazard psychological, literary and emotional development.

So we were at a stalemate: I would not reduce it to one volume and they would not publish it complete. I began to cast about for another publisher. In New Zealand, the Auckland, Victoria and Canterbury University Presses all turned it down as not commercially viable. I thought an American press would probably serve me better and would not need to be quite so cost-conscious. I was on the point of writing an exploratory letter to Chicago University Press, which had an excellent reputation and which might, I thought, be interested in the Newberry Library connection, but just before doing that I tried Daphne Brasell, whose office was further along Tinakori Road. This, incidentally, was also the street where Mansfield was born, and where she later lived as a teenager in a house that provided the setting for her story, 'The Garden Party'. Daphne Brasell, an energetic young publisher, did not need to have the significance of this material explained to her. She knew at once that it needed to be published complete and that it would be a complicated and demanding job. She took it on and I abandoned thoughts of American university presses. But it took years. Editors came and went, and work on the texts was demanding and slow so that it was October 1997 before the volumes saw the light of day.

A good example of the difficulties of deciphering, which I gave in a talk at the National Library, I will describe again here. Middleton Murry's selection from the early notebooks was slanted page 155(unconsciously, I'm sure) to depict a young woman of fragile sensibilities languishing in the cultural desert of the South Pacific. The reality was a robust, tough-minded young woman whose intellectual development while she was at school in London was so immensely satisfying to her that she longed for more of it and for the chance to stretch and prove herself on the world stage. She believed it was London that had made all that enrichment possible; in fact, it was her own unfolding in the nourishing environment of a good school. She attributed to London mysterious powers of benediction and came to expect far more from it than it could give. But she was also aware that there was danger in cutting herself off irrevocably from her home and family, and she was more anxious and divided about this than has hitherto been recognised. One should remember here, too, that only in the period covered by these early notebooks — only in New Zealand, in other words — was she healthy and happy.

This is beautifully shown in the so-called Urewera notebook. In 1907, she was one of a party of eight people, of whom she was the youngest, on a four-week camping trip into the isolated Urewera country. They travelled in horse-drawn vehicles, though they also did a lot of walking, especially uphill, to save the horses, and pitched their tent each night somewhere along the way. Kathleen (as she was then) took with her a thick black notebook and filled many of its pages with quick, pencil-scribbled notes on where they went, what happened, how she felt about it. This material is probably the most illegible of all her manuscripts, written, as it sometimes was, on the back of a horse-drawn luggage cart travelling over dirt roads. Murry attempted a transcription of it in The Journal of Katherine Mansfield, and did surprisingly well, given the unfamiliarity of the country in which the writing was set, but there was much that he couldn't read, and this he omitted.

page 156

Then Professor Ian Gordon tackled it and in 1978 published his transcription in a little book called The Urewera Notebook [by] Katherine Mansfield. Needless to say, he did a great deal better than Murry, but his transcription is flawed, nevertheless. In his introduction, however, he was the first to point out that the picture of the wretchedly unhappy adolescent was false. In this manuscript she says things like 'we laugh with joy all day' and 'we are blissfully happy'.

During this long deciphering period, I came up against problems of the utmost knottiness. Sometimes a word was illegible and I knew from the context that it was not important enough to warrant spending the rest of my life on, and so I moved on. But the Urewera notebook contained a number of extremely difficult and at the same time obviously significant words. This is a little story about a couple of them.

The party has left Rotorua behind and pitched their tent on a bank of the Waikato, quite near the Atiamuri Hotel. Here is the context of the two difficult words — not polished prose, just rough notes, in which she writes of herself in the third person.

Behind them the sky was faintly heliotrope, and then suddenly from behind a cloud a little silver moon shone through. One sudden exquisite note in the night terza. The sky changed, glowed again, and the river sounded more thundering, more deafening. They walked back slowly, lost their way and found it, took up a handful of pine needles and smelt it greedilyand then in the distant paddock the tent shone like a golden poppy. Washing outside, the stars, and the utter spellmagic.

Next morningmist over the whole world. Lying, her arms over her head, she can see faintly like a grey thought the river and the mistthey are hardly distinct. She is not tired nowonly page 157happy. Goes to the door of the tent, all is very grey, there is no sun first thing, she can see the poplar tree mirrored in the water. The grass is wet, there is the familiar sound of buckets. As she brushes her hair a wave of cold air strikes her, clamps cold fingers about her heartit is the [something something]. Gradually the sun comes

Murry omitted the phrase containing the two difficult words as well as the long word that followed them. Gordon has' … a wave of cold air strikes her — lays cold fingers about her heart — it is the shadow from Pohatoroa — the sun comes — '. I could see that this was wrong because the word before 'the sun comes' was the start of a new sentence, beginning with a capital G. It was hard to read, but it was quite definitely 'Gradually'. But the two words before that, in their faint, disappearing pencil, were murderous.

One Saturday morning, working in the Turnbull Reading Room, I deciphered the second of them — 'London'. London? On the banks of the Waikato? What on earth could be the preceding word? It was obviously important to find out. On Saturdays the Turnbull closes at one o'clock, so I had to go home. I photocopied that page with the copier set at its maximum contrast level to try to bring up the pencil marks, and went home, telling myself that from now on I was not permitted to read at mealtimes until I had solved the puzzle of that word, even if it meant I could never read another book in my life. I improvised a stand to hold the page propped up in front of me while I had some lunch.

It is no good fixing an intractable word like that with a hard stare and willing it to roll over. You must treat it rather as you treat a difficult cryptic crossword clue, by holding onto all parts of the clue — the context in this case — while at the same time allowing your mind to play laterally, vertically and circularly over the word, leaving all doors open for it to come in. On this occasion, page 158carrying a plate and cup through to the kitchen, I 'saw' the word come in. I dumped the crockery, rushed back to look and there it was. The word was 'wizard' — '…clamps cold fingers about her heart — it is the wizard London'.

It rang a tiny bell at the back of my memory, so I searched the other material written around this time, and in a companion notebook found a poem she wrote some weeks before the camping trip, about how there is a lot going for New Zealand, but … Here are the last two verses:

I know the bush is beautiful
The cities up to date
In life, they say, we're on the top
It's England, though, that's late
But I with all my longing heart
I care not what they say
It's London ever calling me
The live long day.

When I get back to London streets
When I am there again
I shall forget that Summer's here
While I am in the rain
But I shall only feel at last
The wizard has his way
And London's ever calling me
The live long day.

Clearly she thought of London as a wizard who had put a spell on her that she was powerless to resist. When she is revelling in the beauty of the bush the wizard reminds her, like a wave of cold air, that she is under a spell and not free to give herself to the page 159happiness of the moment. All this shows a significantly different picture from the one we have been encouraged to believe in: of the person who couldn't stand New Zealand and thought it was all too ghastly for words. It makes sense, too, of her constant creative revisiting of New Zealand for material for her best stories.

My talk about this was printed in the Turnbull Library Record and elicited a response from Dr Margaret Orbell, the distinguished literary historian and scholar of Maori texts, who wrote to me with another suggestion about the wizard, which I liked:

I'm interested in something which you have no doubt considered, and may in fact be taking for granted in your article. When Km goes to the door of her tent and looks out over the riverwith 'mist over the whole world'the wizard London clamps cold fingers about her heart. But why at that particular moment? Surely because the cold misty river brought London fog vividly before her? Fog would, too, be a most appropriate environment for a wizard; perhaps the wizard evolved because the fog suggested him?

A word about the aforementioned Professor Ian Gordon, because he was important to me when I was doing this work. When I came on the scene he was, so to speak, the king of the Mansfield manuscripts. He had helped to ensure that New Zealand bought them in the first place, and when they arrived he examined them and wrote a detailed and seminal assessment of them for Landfall. A difficulty for him and for those who worked with him was that he held two main prejudices: the first was that academics know better than non-academics, and the other was that men know better than women. I was well aware of this and so my heart sank when he approached me and enquired about the work, page 160clearly with the kind intention of guiding and overseeing me. And as a female non-academic, I had a bit of a rough ride with him to begin with. But I knew that my readings of Mansfield were more sensitive and accurate than his and so, from the beginning, I stood firm where I needed to, pointing out that in the places where he assumed I was wrong I believed I was, in fact, right. It didn't take him long to come to respect my judgment and to develop a close interest in the project.

In this long, slow, isolated work, Ian's keenness, willingness to discuss it, and encouragement and praise meant an enormous amount to me. Even though he was by then living in Auckland, we were able to communicate by email, and I could send him large hunks of transcription on floppy disks. He gave up many hours to this, and a couple of times, when I was stuck, he could see what the word was before I could. He was by that time in his late 80s and his eyesight was deteriorating rapidly, but his interest didn't flag, and this greatly helped me to sustain my own.

There is another anecdote to recount here. It is out of its chronological place, but its significance did not become apparent until I was working on the notebooks. It occurred when I was a teenager, still at school. During some of those years my father was overseas at the war, and my mother was running her house, garden and five children by herself. I was the oldest, apparently a difficult teenager, and up against my mother's disapproval most of the time. When she acquired a Gentleman Caller, someone who was not away at the war because he was a pacifist, as she was herself, I was suspicious of him. I think he and my mother probably behaved in an entirely upright manner, but I was missing my father very much, and this man seemed to me a usurper. I could not bring myself to be friendly towards him, partly because I knew my mother used to tell him how unsatisfactory I was. As my 17th birthday approached I think he must have said to her, page 161'I would like to get Margaret a birthday present that would really please her. What do you suggest?' And I think my mother must have said, 'Well, anything to do with Katherine Mansfield seems to be what interests her at the moment.' It happened that Murry's The Scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield had just been published but I was unaware of it. He gave it to me, wrote in it 'To Margaret for her "seventeenth" ', and I was bowled over. I would like to think that I summoned up just enough grace to say how pleased I was, but I can't be sure that I did. More than half a century later, deciphering the notebooks, I needed The Scrapbook as a reference tool, but it had long been out of print, and it might not have been possible to find a second-hand copy. But there was my present from the Usurper, still on my shelves, and I sent him a long-overdue thought-message: 'I'm really sorry I wasn't nicer to you when I had the chance. Your birthday present was perfect.'