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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With work on the notebooks more or less finished, I became interested in Murry's diaries. The Turnbull had just purchased these from his son Colin, and I spent a good many days reading them when they arrived, finding them fascinating. Murry's involvement in all the literary and many of the political events of his time, as well as the agonising story of his personal life (which includes many references to his years with Mansfield), his guileless confessional nature and his lifelong quest to understand, make his diaries endlessly compelling. Well, so I found them, anyway, though Colin Murry told me that he had typed out a number of extracts and hawked them around British publishers, but none of them were interested. I would dearly have liked to transcribe and edit them for publication, because I am sure they will eventually be seen as a historical goldmine, but so many of the literary and topical references would have to be researched in England that page 163I decided I was by then too old and too poor to risk taking it on. The handwriting was, of course, much easier than Mansfield's to decipher (but so tiny that it would challenge one's eyesight), and the material was altogether more orderly, chronological and accessible than hers.

For example, on 14 October 1931, which was her birthday, about eight years after her death, he wrote:

Katherine is complete, immortal — not personally mine. She gave me myself by leaving me. The shock of that bereavement was the one crucial happening of my life. Everything afterwards grows out of that.

I read by no means all the material but in what I did read there is much that is fascinating. An entry about D.H. Lawrence maintains that Lawrence knew nothing about sex: 'far less, even, than I'. Another, describing his association with Princess Bibesco (of whom Mansfield was jealously alarmed) is moving, palpably honest and exonerates him from blame.

Murry himself, I'm sure, thought his story so extraordinary that he wrote it with a readership in mind. I would greatly have enjoyed the work of editing this material, and even now I can't think of it without a pang. The diaries, however, contained a little present for me. In 1917 he had pasted into the current exercise book a charming photograph of Mansfield which was unpublished! I had never imagined such a gift for the frontispiece of my two volumes, but there it was and I obtained permission to use it. After publication a student wrote to ask for details of the history of the necklace she is wearing, but alas, I could not help.

Still, that was one lucky feature of my edition. Another was the cover used for the volumes. Devised and designed by page 164Margaret Cochran, it consists of a photograph of all the actual notebooks in their variety of shapes, colours and sizes, reproduced on a striking black background. The Turnbull's help was necessary for this because they have a rule that only three or four of the notebooks may be requested at a time and we needed all of them at once, and all removed from their protective folders. The result was marvellous and has occasioned much comment. Post-publication attention in New Zealand was disappointing, but in England extensive and prominent reviews in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement (which also had a large coloured cover portrait of Mansfield) were encouraging.

But there was a pre-publication flurry of interest, at least in Auckland's New Zealand Herald and Wellington's Dominion. On the day the Dominion piece appeared — a photograph and a story about the illegibility of the handwriting and my relative success with it — I had a phone call from a man who asked if I was the Margaret Scott mentioned. He was Des Schollum, employed by American Express, a collector of historic letters and documents. He had just acquired a book that used to belong to Mansfield and that had some of her scribble pencilled in the back. Neither he nor his colleagues could read a word of it. The newspaper article led him to me and he brought me the book.

Indeed it was a fascinating little item. It was one of the two volumes of Dorothy Wordsworth's Journal that were given to Mansfield by Murry (they were inscribed 'To Wig from Boge' in his hand) on 16 May 1918. They had been married on 3 May, after her escape from Paris where she had been trapped by German bombardment when she was trying to get home. She was desperately ill and exhausted, suffering from pleurisy on top of all her symptoms of tuberculosis, so, two weeks after their marriage, she had to leave him and go south to Looe in Cornwall page 165to try to get well. She went on 17 May and he gave her these volumes the day before she left. Clearly she had had this first volume with her on the train to read on the journey, and must have, for once, been without a notebook handy to write in, so she wrote in the back of the book — in faint pencil so it could be rubbed out later if necessary — a description of what she could see from the window of the train. There is a reference to soldiers: this was almost at the end of the Great War, and there were troops on public transport everywhere. There is also a reference to sailors on the street. Looe is on the south coast of England and no doubt sailors were often to be seen there. Unfortunately I am not entirely sure of the underlined word 'swooning' in the first line. For a while I thought it might be 'strong' but it looks more like 'swooning', though I don't have the conviction about it that I try to aim for. Des Scholium is rightly proud of this important little item and has given me permission to describe it here. Mansfield's notes read:

…women walking across the fields to their men, idling in the swooning light, the sun winking on the lunch billies. In the stillness the sound of birds — why hath the Lord not made bun trees? Grey houses red blinds white mousseline curtains & oh! the replica within! When the soldiers went to sleep their hair blew in the wind. This gave them such a defenceless innocent appearance.

I realised as I reached Cornwall that I had been here before. There came a smell of wood and something darkburnt out — & yet with a kind of glow still

The street so smooth and arched like the curves of the cheek and lip where there walked sailors very like flies carrying their eggs in the hot sun.

page 166

The trees at this hour look so full of leisure and inclined to the earth as though they were taken with the shapes of their own shadows.

This piece of casual jotting marks the end of my career in deciphering Mansfield's handwriting. I had long since finished the letters, then the notebooks and now nothing remained, so I was no longer tied to the Turnbull Library. Besides, I had turned 70, and three score years and ten sounded to me like the end of an era.