‘I salute you with tangerines’: happy solstice from Menton

22 December 2023

In December 1920, Katherine Mansfield walked a short distance along the Chemin Fleuri outside the Villa Isola Bella. She could see women doing laundry in the gardens of houses below, washing linen in ‘great tubs of glittering water’ and draping it over orange trees to dry. Imagine, sleeping later between those orange-and-sunshine scented sheets. 

I see KM standing there in the lane, leaning on her stick as she gazed at that scene. She found it, she wrote in a letter to her husband, ‘supremely beautiful’. The Menton winter sunlight must have given the tableau a gorgeous sheen, but it wasn’t just the light she was responding to. It was also the women’s muscularity and vigour, the health and ease of their  mobility: ‘these women lifting their arms, turning to the sun to shake out the wet clothes …’  

Today, the shortest day of the year, we walked through Menton and, just as in KM’s 1920 December, the sky was blue, the sun a dazzling ball, the sea sparkling. In gardens everywhere, citrus trees shone, laden with lemons, oranges and tangerines (albeit none of them covered in bedsheets). In the centre of Menton, the streets are lined with tangerine trees, and in this season they are festooned with bright orange fruit, surely the prettiest ever Christmas display. 

“It is winter now – many trees are bare, but the oranges, tangerines and lemons are all ripe; they burn in this clear atmosphere – the lemons with gentle flames, the tangerines with bright flashes and the oranges sombre.”

Katherine Mansfield, letter to Dorothy Brett, 22 December 1920.

We wandered around the Christmas display at the Jardins Publique. There’s a rural theme to the decorations this year, and some interesting interpretations, the model fox for example that shares the same enclosure as some sheep and a miniature cow. But this is not the first fox to dally at this park which, back in the days before the bandstand was replaced by the Casino, was the setting for KM’s story ‘Miss Brill’. In that story, Miss Brill wears her old fox fur (‘little rogue’) wrapped around her neck, ‘biting its tail by her left ear’, to ward off the ‘faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip.’ 

There was no chill, faint or otherwise, today in Menton. As dusk began to draw in, the tangerines faded back into the foliage, and the official Christmas lights came on.

We walked the twinkling streets back to Garavan, arriving just in time to appreciate Menton’s next trick of the light, a sunset of blazing reds. 

In December 1920, KM wrote from Menton to her friend, the artist Anne Estelle Rice. ‘I salute you in tangerines,’ she said. And that seems a perfect greeting from Menton today. Happy solstice, summer and winter, à toutes and à tous.

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