The life behind the art, Keith Maslen

A Shipboard Diary
Annie & Harold Beauchamp
Holloway Press, University of Auckland
$250.00 and $150.00
[no ISBN]

This modest work raises the endlessly fascinating question of the relation between life and art. The title-page explains that it was written “by ANNIE & HAROLD BEAUCHAMP on board R.M.S. ‘Ruahine’, Wellington to London, from 19 March to 5 May 1898, and sent home for their children on their arrival in England”, and continues “the Diary is now published exactly 100 years later on 19 March 1998”. These chatty circumstances are meant to remind us, like the rest of the typographical treatment, of the experience the original readers once had. They included Annie’s sister and mother, then busy supervising the family removal from the farmlet in Karori back into Wellington, and at least the older of the five  Beauchamp children, Vera, Charlotte (Chad), Kathleen, Jeanne, and “Boy”, aged from 13 to 4 years and a bit.

None of this would matter much today if Kathleen, the only child not mentioned in the diary, had not later renamed herself Katherine Mansfield, and made great art out of the family doings. Ian Gordon in the introduction argues that the obviously devoted couple of the diary are “not the Linda and Stanley Burnell of their daughter’s stories ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’.” This equation has been often asserted, although life is not art. However, correspondences can be traced, showing Mansfield’s literary portraits to have caught essential truths of family charades. Was it purely coincidental that the parents avoided the trauma of moving house? In “Prelude” the reverse move from town to “a place in the country”, grounded on the shift to Karori when Kathleen was four, is also managed by grandmother and maiden sister, while Linda, the mother, “lay before a crackling fire” and asked “‘Are those the children?'” Similarly, Annie in the diary repeatedly describes herself as “tired”, “worn out”, “prostrated”, and occasionally relies on her husband to write an entry.

Harold mainly offers hard facts. Outside Montevideo “the river was a deep orange colour caused by heavy floods, and the water looked so uninviting that nearly all the passengers omitted to take their morning bath.” Annie explains: “Hal wanted very badly to go [ashore], but when he saw how upset I was he said he wouldn’t think of it.” A considerate couple. Annie also writes, if less often, of having “Fun”, at tea-parties, a charade, and especially the Fancy Dress Ball: “I have not told anyone, but I am going as a New Woman, in my bloomers, waistcoat, shirt front, & blue serge jacket & Percy’s sailor hat”. When Hal could not attend, Annie went instead “as a little girl in short frocks”. It was her daughter who would break with convention. Annie, too, has a sharp eye for the foibles of her fellows: “Maude Fitchett is a funny production, a poor weak affected little creature, who tries not to laugh or be merry”; “that extraordinary parson has been playing cards for money ever since we left Wellington on Sundays & every other day”.

The execution of the work calls for praise. The well-judged introduction and notes by Ian Gordon are supported by facsimiles of diary entries. These demonstrate how responsibly, though not slavishly, the transcription renders the vagaries of Annie’s spelling, capitalisation and punctuation.

The first and most attractive of the three drawings by Caroline Williams depicts a shadowy and bespectacled girl (recognisably Kathleen) looking after a bare-masted steamer butting against wind and waves. Curiously, each double-page illustration is “interrupted” by several leaves of text, making only one page visible at a time. Was this to echo the way the voyage is reported one day at a time?

The design and printing by Alan Loney are noteworthy. The greyed ink for the text, reminiscent of the diary’s grey pencil, the pleasantly restrained use of red in the main title and blue for other headings, the hand-made paper, the cloth binding (decent rather than fine), all reveal a work thoughtfully made in traditional ways consistent with the text it presents. Text type is linotype Paragon set by John Denny at Puriri Press. The unit prices of $250 for the 50 signed copies on flax paper and $150 for the 130 unsigned copies on paper from the late Leo Bensemann are no doubt justifiable, given the high standard of accomplishment, and the requirement of full cost recovery. The discriminating employment of older cold and hot metal technologies may be considered a bonus. Overseas collectors of Mansfield and fine printing will not mind these prices.

Keith Maslen lives in Dunedin, and is joint editor of Book & Print in New Zealand (reviewed in the December 1997 issue).

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Posted in History, Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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