Train whistle blowing

13 December 2023

Trains chug through Katherine Mansfield’s stories, from ‘The Little Governess’ to ‘Marriage à la Mode’ to ‘The Journey to Bruges’ to ‘An Indiscreet Journey’ and beyond. They chugged through her real life too, carrying her on adventures, or journeys of hope, and bringing people to visit when illness kept her tied to whatever bedroom in France or Switzerland she was currently trying to recuperate in.  

In fact, Mansfield first arrived in Menton by motor car, not train, having been driven across the Italy-France border from Ospedeletti in January 1920. Her cousin Connie, concerned at Mansfield’s cough and her frailty, had organised a rescue. Connie owned a convalescent home in Menton, and at first Mansfield was deeply relieved to be warm and cared for there. Within days, though, she was expressing irritation with the meals and the ‘ugly’ people – by which I think she probably meant ‘frighteningly ill people’, tubercular like herself. But one thing she liked immediately about Menton, and continued to like, was its proximity to the railway. ‘Nevertheless, thank God I am here,’ she wrote to her husband, ‘in sound of the train, in reach of the post.’ It’s easy to imagine how much being ‘in sound of the train’ must have meant to her. Trains represent so many things that Mansfield was losing control over at the time: connection to others, movement, choice of destination, escape.

In September that year, Mansfield moved into the Villa Isola Bella in the Menton port suburb of Garavan. She could not have chosen an address more ‘in sound of the train’. The Isola Bella is right next to the railway line, so close it can seem that trains are about to pass through the house – or so I’ve sometimes thought if I’ve been writing in the Memorial Room beneath the villa and look up to see a train at the window. The steam trains of the 1920s must have produced quite a lot of sound, and would have dragged dirty plumes with them. I feel for Annette (the cook) and Ida, trying to keep the house clean and clothes and linen from being besmirched. 

These days electric trains go through roughly every half hour on this track. It takes eleven minutes to get from Menton Garavan to Ventimiglia on the Italian side of the border, and it’s only another fifteen minutes to San Remo (Mansfield’s first port of call when she came south to get away from the English winter in 1919). Both are scenic harbour towns with labyrinthine medieval centres to explore on foot. Ventimigilia’s Friday market is popular for fresh produce and clothing. In the other direction we’ve jumped on at Menton Garavan and been whisked off for day trips to Monte Carlo, Cannes, Nice, Antibes, Grasse and – up in the Alpes Maritimes behind Menton – the mountain village of Tende. Stretching our railway wings a little further, we travelled with ease by high speed train to Paris and on to Frankfurt. And last week we got on at Menton Garavan and disembarked, only a few changes later, in Florence.

I’m with Mansfield: it is indeed agreeable to live in sound of the train.

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