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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In London, where I couldn't stay long because of the cost of the hotel, I met the Oup people, although Jon Stallworthy, alas, had moved on by then so I never met him. I also renewed an old friendship with expatriate poet Basil Dowling, another person from my life with Harry. Basil was teaching at a school in the East End of London — Raines Grammar School on Commercial Road — and was supporting his wife and family in Rye, so he was very hard up. He would save bus fare by walking the long distance to my hotel in the West End, once, nevertheless, carrying a bunch of daffodils.

To Oxford, then, where Dan and Winnie Davin kindly put me up. I had started to get to know Dan a couple of years earlier when he was in New Zealand for the Otago University Centennial celebrations and he took me to lunch in Wellington. He was Academic Editor at Oup, and knew a lot about Katherine Mansfield. He had read everything, had written about her, page 47lectured on her, edited and published a selection of her stories. His many references to her in his other writings show that he was unusually understanding of and sensitive to her particular kind of colonial angst and to her other difficulties. His conception of the nature of the Collected Letters was intelligent, knowledgeable and precise far beyond the usual capacity of a publisher. For years I had it in mind to state in the first published volume that Dan Davin was 'the onlie begetter' of the edition, but here the fates conspired against me. Winnie, too, was refreshingly knowledgeable about Mansfield, and both the Davins were warm, welcoming and extremely helpful to me.

They lived in Southmoor Road, Oxford. The tall, narrow, cold house had a bedroom right at the top (miles from the nearest bathroom) with a large comfortable bed in which, Dan told me, Dylan and Caitlin Thomas slept when they stayed over. He was acquainted with John Middleton Murry's widow, Mary, and was aware that I would need to meet her. He rang her, told her who I was and arranged to take me there on a certain day. Mary and her companion-secretary, Ruth Baker, lived in Thelnetham, near Diss in Norfolk, not far from Tristram Cary, a son of the novelist Joyce Cary, and his family. The Carys and the Davins were old friends (Winnie was Joyce Cary's literary executor), so Dan arranged to borrow an Oup car for me to drive us all to Norfolk on Saturday. Neither of the Davins drove, and the car made available was much bigger than anything I had driven before, so I felt rather like a character in a Joyce Cary novel, bowling along through the English countryside in a hearse-like vehicle with my two highly entertaining companions. The car and I stayed overnight at the Murry house while the Davins were taken on to spend the night with the Carys.

John Middleton Murry was Katherine Mansfield's husband until she died, and then seems to have been thrown off balance page 48enough to marry, quite quickly, Violet le Maistre, a young woman who, like Katherine, died of tuberculosis, leaving two small children. Murry then made a disastrous marriage to the women he employed to keep house and look after the children. This third wife, Betty, was a violent, unhappy, uneducated and bewildered woman who, nevertheless, gave Murry two more children. He struggled for years to make the marriage work, and was somehow unable to see that it was doomed until he, she and the four children had had years of excruciating suffering. By the time he met Mary Gamble he was pretty much a broken man. But she gave him a haven of restfulness and peace and quiet, for which he felt able to leave Betty; she eventually died and Murry married Mary. They knew each other for the last 20 years of his life though they lived together for only the last 15, and were married for the last three.

Ruth Baker, who lived with Mary Murry, had been her lifelong friend. They were both, now, middle-aged, pleasant-looking women. When Mary and Jack were talking about joining their lives Mary told him that some sort of accommodation would have to be made for her friend Ruth Baker. Jack, so Mary told me, groaned, and said, 'Oh my God, not another Baker!' But Jack had now been dead for about 14 years and Mary and Ruth lived well in that comfortable house. The first thing one noticed in the dining room was a very large portrait on the wall. I said, 'Oh, what a marvellous portrait of Katherine!' Mary said, 'Yes. Everyone thinks it's Katherine at first, but it's Violet — painted by Richard' I was astonished. I had always known that Violet le Maistre, Jack's second wife had modelled herself as much as possible on Katherine in order to ensure his love but I had no idea the likeness was so striking. There were also other large paintings of Richard's on the walls. Richard (born Arthur but renamed Richard by Mansfield) was an artist, and Jack's brother.

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I did not set out, on this first visit, to do anything other than explain to Mary and Ruth what was involved in collecting and editing the letters, and give them a chance to assess me and decide whether they wanted to trust and help me. I did, however, attempt to discover something on behalf of somebody else. An American woman, Charanne Kurylo, working on the Chekhov influence on Katherine Mansfield, had been corresponding with me, for some long time, in my capacity as the Turnbull librarian in charge of Mansfield manuscripts. When she heard that I was hoping to meet Mary Murry she asked if I could possibly find out whether Mary still possessed the 'little green Chekhovs' that had belonged to Mansfield and, if so, whether I could check them for annotations. So, at bedtime that night I put the question to Mary and she said, 'Oh yes, they're here — take them to bed with you if you like.' I found that they did indeed contain some significant notes by Mansfield, and Mary gave me permission to tell Charanne about them.

So contact with Mary was now established, and in the morning Dan rang to arrange for me to meet them at a local pub for a Sunday morning drink before lunch back at the Carys'. It was a sunny day in springtime, and the pub atmosphere was peaceful and pleasant. Tristram Cary was there, and his two grown-up sons, together with the Davins. Lunch, with a large number of people, some of whom had come to see the Davins, was a marvellous Kiwi roast dinner — leg of New Zealand lamb with mint sauce. Later in the afternoon my two passengers and I got back into the car and returned to Oxford, making it, in accordance with Dan's instructions, by Opening Time.

Winnie encouraged me to telephone Jeanne Renshaw, Mansfield's youngest sister, who lived in the Cotswolds, not too far away. Jeanne turned out to be a small, spry 79-year-old who went horse-riding every day and had been told by her doctor (not page 50quite accurately) that she would live to be 100. On the telephone she was effusively welcoming and insisted that I must come and stay with her and her daughter, Anne Bennett. I said I had only a couple of days but would arrive late morning on a certain day, if that suited. Apparently it suited perfectly, and so when the taxi deposited me at the Old Rectory on the appointed day I had with me all the luggage I had brought from New Zealand for the year, including the portable typewriter. I crammed it into the little entrance hall while Jeanne expressed herself overjoyed to meet me, and Anne, more muted, took me into the dining room. Over lunch — sole véronique, cooked and served by Anne — Jeanne asked me what time I had to catch my bus or train and where I was headed for that afternoon. I was not self-assured enough to say, 'Oh, I thought I was staying here', so I just said I had no definite plan but would probably spend the night in Winchester. When I got to know Jeanne better, I realised that she would not have remembered inviting me to stay. She later came out to New Zealand and stayed with me for a few days. Once, when something went wrong with my car, she insisted on paying for the $50 repair. She told me that, like her sister, she had had a fascinating life, and a much longer one. It would make a good biography but she was no writer — would I write it for her? Even if I had been free to do it, it would have been impossible — Jeanne was so full of exuberance that she was constantly interrupting herself, going off at tangents and losing her thread. No anecdote was ever completed. She was also exhausting, with her constant need for attention and her determination to see only what she wanted to see. Every situation in the world was coloured black or white by her prejudices. I did sometimes wonder whether Mansfield might have become like that if she had grown old, but I think it unlikely.