16 October 2023

Katherine Mansfield died on 9 January 1923 at Fontainebleau, near Paris, from a lung hemorrhage brought on by the exertion of climbing the stairs in the old priory where she was staying. She’s buried in nearby Avon cemetery. For many years, her grave has been tended by M. Bernard Bosque, who leads the local branch of an association called Les Amis de KM. 

I already knew of Bernard through Redmer Yska’s Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to station, recently published by Otago University Press. Redmer calls him ‘Mansfield’s guardian spirit in France’, and dedicates the book to him (‘To Bernard, who opened all doors’). Today I had the pleasure of meeting Bernard in person when we were invited to join the final day of a conference convened by the Katherine Mansfield Society in Fontainebleau. 

A piper led us through Avon cemetery to Katherine Mansfield’s grave. In bright sunlight we listened as her words were brought alive by readers: a letter describing Menton, and her poem ‘There was once a child’. The mayor of Avon, Marie-Charlotte Nouhaud, and the president of the Katherine Mansfield Society, Anna Kwiatkowska, laid two colourful bouquets of flowers. Purple and yellow pansies were in bloom at the foot of the grave. Directly overhead, three white jetstreams ascended, writing criss-cross lines on the blue sky. 

With Bernard as guide, we visited the old priory in Fontainebleau (now private apartments and not open to the public). In Mansfield’s time this building and its surroundings were the site of George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Gurdjieff was a Greek-Armenian philosopher and mystic who had travelled extensively in Central Asia, Egypt and India learning traditional stories, music, ritual dances and shamanic practices. He had developed a system for self-improvement that he was introducing to the West. It utilised dance and music, alongside lectures and manual labour, with the aim of harmonising body, mind and spirit. Mansfield’s interest was piqued, and she arrived here from Paris on 16 October 1922 to join about sixty of Gurdjieff’s mainly Russian-speaking followers in a communal residency dedicated to the practice of Gurdjieff’s system. She pitched in as best she could, peeling a few carrots, for example, in the busy kitchen where meals were prepared from the community’s own livestock and vegetables. But the old priory was not a comfortable place for someone so sick. It was, for one thing, very cold. In Mansfield’s final weeks, she wrote a list of words and phrases for which she needed the Russian equivalent: ‘I am cold; Bring paper to light a fire; Cinders; Wood; Matches; Flame …’ 

Yet Mansfield also found contentment here. Her spirits were buoyed by the company and the bustling sense of purpose. ‘This is the place,’ she wrote to her husband Murry, ‘and here at last one is understood entirely, mentally & physically.’ 

We left the priory for nearby Fontainebleau forest, where Bernard – silently obeying some mysterious internal magnetic homing system –  led us beneath tall trees along bracken-lined and mushroom-strewn paths to the Katherine Mansfield rock. A plaque draws from a letter in which she declared that she loved life, and would ‘never get out of the habit of it – its [sic] always a marvel’.  A little further on, at the Carrefour Katherine Mansfield,  New Zealand writers Vincent O’Sullivan and Fiona Kidman planted cherry trees in 2006 to further commemorate Mansfield’s presence in this part of the world. Bernard was a quietly key figure on that occasion also. 

Mansfield spent the final three months of her life in Fontainebleau. It is astonishing, and somehow quite humbling, to witness how strongly the neighbouring towns of Fontainebleau and Avon have taken her into their hearts. Merci beaucoup Bernard, and others in the community, for looking after her so well.

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