Menton: Villa Isola Bella

12 September 2023

On 13 September 1920, Katherine Mansfield and Ida Baker arrived from London to take up residency in the Villa Isola Bella in Garavan, Menton. KM was enchanted by the town, the climate, the people and the house. The view, she wrote to her husband John Middleton Murry the next day, ‘is surpassingly beautiful. Late last night on the balcony I stood listening to the tiny cicadas and to the frogs and to someone playing a little chain of notes on a flute’. She loved the garden, its ‘big silver mimosa showering across’ the path from the gate, the date palm below her bedroom balcony and a magnolia ‘full of rich buds’. There were artichokes and marrows, all ready to eat, and a tangerine ‘covered in green balls’. It was hot. ‘One can wear nothing but a wisp of silk, two bows of pink ribbon and a robe de mousseline’, declared Katherine.

Almost 103 years to the day, we arrive in Menton and find the Villa Isola Bella. It’s the middle of the day and blazing hot as we stand in Rue de Katherine Mansfield and peer through the gate at the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Room. This former gardener’s shed (or, some say, a lapinière – a room for raising rabbits), situated on the lower terrace under the house itself, has been a New Zealand writer’s studio since 1970. I am the 50th New Zealand writer to have the opportunity to live and write in Menton for a few months, and after the formal Key Ceremony (this coming Friday) will be able to use this room myself. In the nine months she lived at the Isola Bella, KM worked hard at her reviewing and her writing, completing the stories ‘Poison’, ‘Miss Brill’ and ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ while also undergoing treatment for her TB. Some of these therapies, like the course of iodine injections, and the regular lancing of a tubercular gland in her neck, must have been terrible ordeals. She did enjoy the heliotherapy prescribed by her doctor though, which involved lying on her bed upstairs in the Isola Bella, letting the Menton sunshine wash over her thin body.

We don’t have a wisp of silk or a muslin frock between us, and not even one pink ribbon to share, but we have our maillots, so after taking a few photos to mark the completion of our long pilgrimage from New Zealand to Menton, we head to the beach for a dip in the buoyant blue Mediterranean to cool off. I swim out a way and lie on my back looking over my floating sticking-up toes at the houses of Garavan. I think of KM, who would have adored the freedom and the luxurious sensation of swimming in this warm water, but who could not have walked this far from the house, let alone manage the stony strip between the esplanade and the sea. She was so ill when she arrived at the  Villa Isola Bella that, as she wrote in another September 1920 letter to Murry, ‘I rock when I walk’. Instead, from her bed and her couch at the Isola Bella she watched and listened, feeling her consciousness pierced by the ‘absolute radiance’ of the weather, her view of ‘the whole sky’ and ‘the light on the water’. It’s no wonder she was moved to write in her journal of September 1920, ‘Isola Bella: How shall I buy it?’

You can find more about the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship and past recipients here.

More about Sue Wootton

1 Comment
    1. Excellent presentation ( From A permanent resident of Menton from Timaru NZ 2018 to 2023

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