“How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you – you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences…little rags and shreds of your very life…” – Katherine Mansfield, to Ida Baker, 1922
Katherine Mansfield first came to me on a shelf in the Chelsea Public Library in London. The collection of stories that caught my eye, New Zealand Stories, was particularly relevant at the time as I had just made a group of friends all hailing from Mansfield’s home country, as featured in the stories. I had the book sitting near my bed one night and a friend of mine picked it up and said vaguely, “Oh, I think I remember reading her in high school,” just as I might with Cheever or Carver or Poe.
However, truth be told, I never got around to reading the stories in London. Other writers and works – Bill Bryson and Stephanie Meyer, to name a few – took precedence and it wasn’t until I arrived in Wellington that I remembered my chance encounter with Mansfield well over a year ago. For, you see, her birthplace is in Wellington, and a house museum, named appropriately the Katherine Mansfield House, commemorates the writer’s early years before her family moved elsewhere when she was but the age of five.
And so one morning, feeling especially ambitious before my noon start at the restaurant, I packed a sandwich, grabbed my camera and set off on a hearty walk across the city to a historic suburb called Thorndon, where I planned to pay $5.50 and see what exactly it had to offer me in getting to know one of the most well-known of New Zealand writers.
There were a few markers pointing the way among a rather average looking neighborhood and I remarked to myself this was my first time in the suburbs of Wellington itself, not in the distant Hutt Valley. I came upon the house, and had it not been for a sign and a brass plaque noting it was a Wellington City Council Historic Building, I might’ve passed right by it. It was a lovely if simple house, its wooden exterior painted a pale yellow with a picket fence and a small green yard lined with various flowers.
Inside, the foyer server several roles, functioning as reception, admissions desk and gift shop in one. Greeted by no one, I meandered on my own through the drawing room, the dining room, and the kitchen, where a real Christmas tree seemed to play its part in the nostalgia of the place, giving off a scent of pine and evergreen. The house was furnished in the Victorian style in vogue in 1888, when Mansfield was born, from the furniture to the antique lamps to the silver tea service on the dining room table, and I read of how the initial plans of the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society, after they had first acquired the property, was to turn the house into a writers’ research center. It wasn’t until the start of the restoration and pieces of the original décor began to resurface that the vision transformed into returning the house to how it might have looked at the time of Mansfield’s birth.
As I passed a quote of Mansfield’s that was displayed in the servery between the kitchen and the dining room, I realized how much the place reminded me of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Although the two differ completely in the decisions behind their restorations – one decorated, one entirely empty of furnishings – they both feature quotes throughout each room from their namesakes. It led me to think on the fact that when you commemorate a writer, all you have is their words. Unlike a visual artist – a painter or a photographer, perhaps –a stack of novels is not the easiest thing to put on display as is a portfolio of images. When you go about establishing such a house, it’s as if to trace the writer’s inspiration and to look for real-life parallels.
After the house and grounds were finished and ready for the 100th anniversary of Mansfield’s birth, a Maori name was also acquired for the property, Te Puakitanga, or “The First Place of the Storyteller.” Reading of this, I thought of how vital our first places are in life. I myself still remember details of the “baby house” in which my parents lived after they were first married. The oak tree in the front yard, the mysterious organ in the living room, the cavernous – or so it seemed to me – attic, accessed by a door in my bedroom, graveyard of old playthings. Not vivid details that you might remember from houses you lived in at an older age, but those vague impressions of early childhood, the fleeting images and fragments that resurface from time to time.
And so when the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society claims its house as inspiration for such stories from the writer as The Aloe, Prelude, and A Birthday, I am not quick to disbelief. I can understand the way in which early impressions from the house might have remained in Mansfield until years later, when she began to draw on them for her stories. A replica of the childhood toy that supposedly inspired The Doll’s House sits in the kitchen of the house, attesting to the fact behind the fiction, much as Monet’s bridge in Giverny or C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe in Wheaton, Illinois, might do.
Two of the rooms upstairs had not been furnished to resemble rooms of eras past. One held almost no furniture save for a table and two chairs in the center and a couple of side tables, on which were several copies of a book titled The Material Mansfield. What was instead the focus of this room were black and white photographs lining the walls in a single row – the images accented by simple white mattes and black frames. The photographs were part of a collection titled “A Sense of Living,” and under each picture was an excerpt from Mansfield’s writing – whether from letters, notebooks or stories, they were all her words. I found it placed her life in context and gave you insight into the importance of each face and place and their specific impact on Mansfield.
The other room was a video room, set with rows of chairs facing a television on which ran “A Portrait of Katherine Mansfield: A Woman and a Writer,” and it was here that I began to get a true glimpse of who the writer was. Although born in Wellington to parents dedicated to climbing the city’s social ladder, Mansfield and her sisters sailed to London in 1903 to continue their education at Queen’s College. Her time abroad changed her, and when she returned to Zealand almost four years later, it wouldn’t be for long. Biographers describe her as rebellious and persistent and she ultimately succeeded in securing herself a yearly allowance from her father before departing for London again at the age of nineteen – this time for good.
I was surprised to learn of Mansfield’s connections to a literary scene I was already familiar with – Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, and most especially D.H. Lawrence, with whom she and her husband, John Middleton Murry, were very close. In a notebook written in January of 1916, she writes, “I want for the moment to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the old world.” Perhaps it took the distance, the removal of herself from the world she’d always known to a world that offered her infinitely more artistic promise, to fuel this desire. Another excerpt, beneath a photograph of Virginia Woolf, is from a letter of Mansfield’s to her close friend – “I wonder if you know what your visits were to me – or how much I will miss them. You are the only woman with whom I long to talk work.”
In a way, Mansfield seemed almost to me like a prodigal daughter of New Zealand, leaving her home country at such a young age and embracing the art and culture and creative opportunities of London and Europe. And although she never physically returned home before her death at 34, the older she grew, the more she began to turn her focus back to New Zealand, especially in her writing; the more she seemed to acknowledge what New Zealand had to offer her. In Mansfield’s own words, in a letter to her father, she writes in 1922, “Thank God I was born in New Zealand. A young country is a real heritage, though it takes one time to recognize it.”
But what I found most intriguing to learn from the video was the way in which Mansfield continually moved around at the end of her life, in search of a suitable climate for her health after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1918. Even from the first time she was pregnant, she was sent to live in Bavaria – only to miscarry after trying to lift a suitcase – where she subsequently wrote In a German Pension. What she has produced gives evidence to how each environment functioned as a stimulus for her work. Though the correlation between environment and work is an important one in any writer’s life, never before have I seen it so directly as in Mansfield’s writing. Indeed, as her health continued to decline, the volume of stories she wrote continued to grow. Italy, France, Switzerland – in each place, a plaque notes the house or apartment she lived in, and a collection of stories inspired by her stay is as an even more important marker of the time she spent there.
The mission statement of the Katherine Mansfield House is “to acquire, preserve, restore, maintain, and reuse, for the benefit of all New Zealanders, the Birthplace of New Zealand’s most internationally famous writer.” Brochures and websites alike extol her as a “short story writer of world renown,” describing the new literary territories and techniques forged by her writing, but I began to wonder that if such was the case, how it could be that her writing was then not included more often on the required reading lists of English classes, as often are the works of her contemporary counterparts. So though somewhat skeptical of the acclaim given to her by the Birthplace Society, I found myself willing to acknowledge the particular significance Mansfield holds in the literary history of New Zealand, a country not often in the world’s spotlight when it comes to new books or authors.
But as I signed the guestbook of the house before leaving, I noticed an entry from a certain Masemir from Qatar: “I never imagined that one day I will see her birthplace.” Well there you go, I thought, feeling very much put in my place. Perhaps it wasn’t so much Mansfield’s irrelevance as my ignorance. I thought the writer herself would be quite pleased to see the length at which her words had traveled, at just how far her “undiscovered country” had truly leapt.