It is hard to know whether Katherine Mansfield would have been delighted, amazed or appalled at the industry that has evolved since her death, at the academic careers she has sustained, at the strangers whose lives have come to revolve around hers. Almost every aspect of her life has been exposed to scrutiny – her stories, her private letters, her journals. We have them all, edited, selected, annotated and dissected. We also have the birthplace and the centennial diary, complete with photos of the National Library building in Molesworth Street and the Bandol railway station in France. We are well-KM’d. Almost KO’d, some would say. Now we have a new entry – the book of the making of the book.
Margaret Scott has spent most of her adult life working on Mansfield’s manuscripts, letters and journals. The first paragraph of her book acknowledges her debt: “When I was nearly the same age [as Mansfield when she died] I suffered a catastrophe that might have drowned me, but for the Mansfield raft which carried me to dry land and to a later life she herself was not allowed.” The catastrophe was the death of her husband Harry while she was pregnant with their third child, an event which snapped the keel off her life. So, despite its title, the book is not just about recollecting Mansfield. It is also about recollecting Scott. Sadly, the story of the pursuit of Mansfield’s letters is far more interesting than the details of Scott’s private life.
Harry’s death was indeed a tragedy. No family deserves to lose a husband and father in such circumstances. Fortunately, Scott was not without support. Her parents were on hand and in the space of four or five pages, she lists no fewer than ten people, all men, who supported her, either directly or indirectly – Charles Brasch, Lawrence Baigent, Antony Alpers, Winston Rhodes, James K Baxter, Denis Glover, Maurice Gee, Eric McCormick, Dan Davin and Graham Bagnall.
Antony Alpers disappeared abruptly from the scene, apparently miffed after Scott rejected his offer of marriage but Brasch remained. He supported Scott financially, emotionally and professionally while he was alive and left her an annuity on his death. He was a good and generous friend but she treats him badly in this book. Her discussion of their sexual relationship and Brasch’s sexuality is distasteful. Not only does it seek to credit her with enabling Brasch to “explore other [sexual] situations”, it also assumes that this information is something the reader wants or needs to know. It feels disrespectful to Brasch and out of place in a book that is ostensibly about recollecting Mansfield.
In fact, a great deal of the book focuses on men and Scott’s ability to attract them. As well as Brasch, we have Janni the purser on the ship that took her to London, Alf the con man, Monsieur Lorenzi in Menton and Andrew Packard, a physiologist at Edinburgh University. Men give her gifts and want to marry her. She enjoys their attention. With the exception of Lauris Edmond, who appears late in the book, she appears much less well disposed towards the women she encounters. Ida Baker, who, it must be acknowledged, was a difficult and complex character, is dismissed for, among other things, her lack of intellectual stringency. This is in contrast to Dan Davin, who is praised as “intelligent, knowledgeable and precise, far beyond the usual capacity of a publisher”. (I am sure this is not meant to be faint praise.) She finds Jeanne Renshaw, Mansfield’s sister, “exhausting, with her constant need for attention and her determination to see only what she wanted to see.” Dorothy Brett missed “the wit and subtlety” of Mansfield’s letters to her and was “clearly not on the same wavelength as Mansfield”. Scott concludes, rather condescendingly, “One does have to feel sorry that Mansfield had such difficulty finding friends to match her.” If only Scott had been around.
Her obsession with money is also discomfiting. It is difficult raising three children as a single parent, but Scott was better off than most. She had a house, her children were in boarding school and as well as Brasch’s annuity and an interest-free, non-repayable second mortgage, she received numerous grants, gifts and legacies. The latter included money from an uncle, whose wife, a “sort of Presbyterian dinosaur”, disliked Scott and chose to give Scott’s money to her sister and “some cousins who certainly didn’t need it”. Fortunately for Scott, her generous sister handed over some of her share. She was also able to sell a McCahon, which had given her “everything it could, visually and emotionally”, but was still good for $36,000. Her lack of awareness of her relatively privileged position and her judgement of others are not endearing characteristics.
On the positive side, the sections of the book describing her professional work have much to offer. Her writing about the Menton experience is fascinating and fresh, as she seeks out the letters, struggles to survive as a foreigner in a foreign land, deals with the attentions of Monsieur Lorenzi and endures the visit of the ghastly Count Potocki. Ida Baker, too, comes to life through a series of detailed anecdotes, as do Mary Murry, the Mansfield sisters, nephews and nieces and various librarians and collectors. This part of the book would have made a fine article in a literary journal, although perhaps without the ill-directed swipe at Vincent O’Sullivan.
Autobiographies are most satisfying when they record a life of great personal or public achievement or a life that captures the flavour of a particular time or group of people. They have a shape, a social context, the sense of a journey completed, obstacles overcome, goals achieved. They are usually reflective and self-aware. Scott’s book doesn’t fit these categories, partly because it depends so heavily on her work with the manuscripts of KM and partly because her own story is simply not strong enough. Indeed, there is little evidence of her having any life outside her KM work. Halfway through the book, Scott remarked that Ida Baker should have written her book about Mansfield 30 to 40 years earlier and had a freer and happier life. It would be ironic if the same came to be said about Scott.
Alison Gray is a Wellington writer and researcher with an interest in personal stories and issues of identity.