Capital Times

6 August 2023

An invitation to a reception at Government House on 4 August 2023 to honour the centenary of Katherine Mansfield’s death was a particularly fine reason to visit my former home town of Pōneke Wellington.

Sue Wootton at Katherine Mansfield House, Wellington on 4 August 2023

Before the evening event we enjoyed a delicious afternoon tea at the beautifully refurbished Katherine Mansfield House and Garden. Late in 2020, somewhere in those golden freedom months between lockdowns, Doug and I were passing through Wellington and decided to take the opportunity to visit the house. In fact, at the time I was secretly wondering if an afternoon at the Thorndon house might end up being the sum total of my opportunity to be physically present anywhere once occupied by KM. We walked from Oriental Bay to Tinakori Road in pouring rain and arrived bedraggled on the doorstep. In the hallway Cherie Jacobson welcomed us warmly and was so delighted when I tentatively introduced myself as the ‘current’ Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow that I started to believe this might indeed be a fact. Three years later it was truly special to return to the house for orange cake and tea, this time with tickets to France booked and our suitcases out of storage ready to be packed.

Katherine Mansfield loved Life, which she like to spell with a capital L, declaring it ‘always a marvel’. During the years 1906-08 she was an impatient Wellington teenager, chomping at the bit to get back to London. I didn’t know this about her when I was seventeen, a school leaver in 1970s Wellington, desperate to start my own Capital L Life – Capital A Anywhere Capital E Else. I had a writing notebook. My poems in it are Capital E Excruciating. But I also wrote out extracts from other people’s writing, writing that spoke to my seventeen-year-old’s sense of being confined against my will in a life that wasn’t my own, and that assured me of an independent Capital L Life to come. I copied out scraps of lyrics by musicians like Billy Bragg, Joni Mitchell, Little Feat, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan, alongside passages from Shakespeare, ee cummings, Steinbeck, Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Plath and, of NZ writers, James K Baxter, Vincent O’Sullivan and Katherine Mansfield.

The KM quote I copied must have spoken to me especially directly at the time because I have given it a whole double-page spread in my notebook (although later I scrawled across the bottom of that page a quote from Woody Allen: My Lord, my Lord! What has thou done, lately?). It’s a well-known KM quote, probably the original Mansfield bumper sticker. Here is some of it:

By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love … I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be a child in the sun. Warm, eager, living life – to be rooted in life – to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want.

Moved though I was, at seventeen, by those words, the name ‘Katherine Mansfield’ evoked for me an historical figure. I have to admit that although I liked the stories I had read well enough, I thought of her work as pertaining to an old-fashioned and conservative patriarchal British-inflected past. I think this is because the image I had absorbed of Katherine Mansfield was an amalgam of what survives of her visually: a handful of faded black and white photos of a serious, unwell-looking woman, still and mute.

It really would have startled me if I’d done the maths and realised that had she lived the ‘full adult living, breathing life’ she yearned for, she would have got to hear songs by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. She would have read The Second Sex and maybe even The Feminine Mystique. She would have lived into the transformational biomedical era of antibiotics and vaccinations and birth control. She certainly would have written many more stories and works of literary criticism, and many interviews and encounters with her would have been recorded. We would have known her in full colour and at full tilt, so to speak.

Perversely I must thank the Covid-19 pandemic, because between me being awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in 2019 and finally almost packing to go I’ve had four years to think about Katherine Mansfield, and – most enrichingly – to read her. I’ve read her journals, her diaries, and her stories. And I’ve been as astonished as her contemporaries must have been to be hit with the impact of such a livewire mind, to feel the electric jolt of vividly observed, sensual life: wit, perception, sex, desire, the whole world in motion; the sea, trees, flowers, weather, seasons, people – and playing over everything, in constant dance and change, the light. She’s superb on the human condition, on the different stages of life from childhood to old age, on personalities and temperament, on power and vulnerability, on class, on gender dynamics, family dynamics and marriage. On manners and masks. On the interior life and on the physical world. Her dialogue is scalpel sharp. Time and light infuse everything, and everything is immediate: now, now now.

Just four short examples from four different stories, and you can hear it, Mansfield the writer magician, swiftly and physically plunging the reader into the heart of a scene:

From ‘Prelude’:

It was warm in the kitchen. A blowfly buzzed, a fan of whitey steam came out of the kettle

From ‘Life of Ma Parker’:

It was cold in the street. There was a wind like ice. People went flitting by, very fast; the men walked like scissors; the women trod like cats.

From ‘The Woman at the Store’:

All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground; it rooted among the tussock grass, slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces, settled and sifted over us and was like a dry-skin itching for growth on our bodies. The horses stumbled along, coughing and chuffing …

From ‘The Wind Blows’:

‘Matilda. Matilda. Come back im-me-diatley! What on earth have you got on your head? It looks like a tea-cosy. And why have you got that mane of hair on your forehead?’

‘I can’t come back, mother. I’ll be late for my lesson.’

‘Come back immediately.’

She won’t. She won’t. She hates mother. ‘Go to hell,’ she shouts, running down the road.

What a voice. It resonates still, a century on. She pulled it off, amazingly, the girl who sat dreaming on the Tinakori Hills over a hundred years ago is here now and in perpetuity, a child in the sun, marveling at Capital L Life.

More about Sue Wootton