A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888 – 1903
Otago University Press, $40.00,
“There is a handful of writers” begins Vincent O’Sullivan’s introduction to a rare and illuminating account of the city in which Katherine Mansfield was born and grew up,
who at times seem to hold their admirers almost as much by the enigma of personality, or the curious weave of their lives, as they do by their first and sustained impact as writers … Each time we go back to a favourite story … there is that teasing urge to know what came before …
In a few elegant sentences we have outlined for us a literary study of riveting depth and focus that, in drawing together history, biography, lyrical essay and reportage gives us back, in deeper colours, the life and work of one of those whose story we continue to be drawn towards, who takes her place amongst the world’s key modernists, a leading practitioner of the short story form, and here, too, a young New Zealand girl.
In A Strange Beautiful Excitement, a study of Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington between the years 1888 and 1903, writer and historian Redmer Yska is making something strange indeed – rare and risking – of the standard artist’s biography. Keeping the focus on a narrow period of the city’s history, at a particular time of Mansfield’s life, he is making equally particular claims for the effects of place upon her sensibility, twisting around those straightforward ideas of context and background we’re used to having sit nicely in the margins of our writers’ “Lives” and having a city, instead, be a character in its own right. In doing so, he creates not just an account – beautifully researched and documented – of the Wellington which Mansfield both loved and loathed, left and returned to, endlessly, in the stories that most critics and readers regard as some of her finest. Yska’s project is also a kind of fiction of its own, heightened and darkened by his own intrusions and fancies and projections where his Mansfield becomes someone he feels so close to he talks to her as “You”. So he rummages in an old flat where he used to live as a student and finds vestiges of her aunt in empty rooms; walks down Karori High Street and follows the Burnell children of “A Doll’s House” to school, remembering his own violently inflected childhood as the son of immigrants, his lurching, fearful, primary years. Of a boy he’d known then, he remembers:
They prodded me to their camouflaged ‘bivvy’, half-heartedly tied me up, fired airgun shots around me. Let me go. I was 11 but not remotely frightened; said nothing to my parents. Next to my dad, Bruce was a kitten.
In looking for Mansfield’s Wellington, Yska comes up against his own.
This, along with a writing style that also vividly conveys the scents and sense of New Zealand at the end of the last century – in letters and civic pronouncements and his own translation of these – lends further drama and depth to his portrayal of a supposedly stable place as actually unreliable, threatening, dangerous, even. “This was a city already notorious for its shoddy infrastructure,” he notes. “Rather than build proper sewers, the council charged residents to have their excrement collected. Many preferred, however, to dump it themselves … .” Or, “After the Beauchamps returned to Thorndon in 1898, wind regularly turned their neighbourhood into a dustbowl. Brown clouds arose from the hills of dirt used for adjacent harbour reclamation.” Instantly, the genteel stuff of the Alexander Turnbull Library’s photographs and records, all those Victorian buildings and elegant looking boulevards, is transformed into a living, southerly-swept maze of streets and alleys and poisoned springs, where the lives of the poor – cramped and terrifying – push up against the wide lawns of the Edwardian bourgeoisie. “From an elegantly turned upstairs balcony, Katherine Mansfield could peer down at another world … eight cramped, rickety cottages on a patch of unstable land,” writes Yska in a chapter devoted to the “mixed use”, as it was known, neighbourhood of Thorndon. “The damp, unhealthy atmosphere clings,” he writes about the area now. “This absence of sun and warmth” that “despairing local residents still call the ‘Thorndon dark’ ”. All at once, it seems – that “Thorndon dark” – the facts we thought we knew about Mansfield’s birthplace look strange and skewed.
This sort of history – presented as a sort of psychic reality, as Yska writes it, that interweaves past and present, the horrors of “clear streams … running in filth”, seething and bubbling in gullies next to the refinements and lace wrought-iron balconies of Fitzherbert Terrace – works as profoundly in its effect upon our modern-day sensibility as he suggests it must have had upon Mansfield’s own. Wellington here is a site of transformations and perversions, of wind-whipped anxieties and deepening paranoia about the little outpost of Empire that felt far, far removed from “Home”. Britain, in this book, certainly feels like another country and, though Mansfield’s work seeks at every turn to trammel up that gap, between the here and the there, making of Tinakori Road a street in a German town in “The Wind Blows”, or of the Botanic Gardens Les Jardins Publiques in “Miss Brill”, the reality, as Yska shows us, was to be rooted in a much lonelier, emptier part of the world. “European arrivals … struggled with ‘the entangled and impervious forest’ along its shores,” he writes. “People kept passing through, never held these exacting landscapes as a prize … .”
We begin the story proper, insofar as A Strange Beautiful Excitement might fulfil that old notion of narrative arc, with the writer back in the Karori of his and Mansfield’s childhoods, also the setting for two of New Zealand’s and the modernist canon’s most well-known stories, “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House”, looking to begin his own narrative. “I’m out in the open, retracing the pent wind-corrugated streets of the Wellington you walked as a child”; “At dusk on a blustery Friday, I’m back at Karori School, visiting …”
This theme of walking and looking, seeing and thinking, underlies Yska’s account. In his words, an historical record becomes a living, breathing experience of discovery and recovery – as the author seeks to uncover the biography of his hometown, “the particular, singular barrenness of the place”, as Mansfield had it, that had so influenced not only her imagination but his own. “Playtimes were alive with threat,” he writes, of that same school he’s visiting and remembering. “I flung a stone up at the eye of a stalking Burnell”, as fiction and fact, author and subject, lock into one account: “Kathleen Beauchamp haunted this place …” The extra force this imperative adds to the story of Wellington and her most famous daughter – the need to tell, the need to show – powers the engine of A Strange and Beautiful Excitement. From the minute we stand by Yska’s Karori macrocarpa – “its tips sheltering your memorial”, as he addresses the young version of herself who stood beside it once as he stands now – we’re hooked.
Altogether, reading about one writer’s search for another in her city’s narrow streets – “I’m sure I caught a glimpse of you” – embedding the whole in the hard graft of fact and research, on-the-ground investigation and reportage, feels like a new kind of literary experience. It might be touched, perhaps, by the influence of books like Janet Malcolm’s study of Anton Chekhov. Or Joan Didion’s essays about California. But what is necessarily distinctive about this project – and, to the New Zealand reader, grippingly so – is its way of coming to Mansfield as a character in a story perhaps unknown to us until now. Someone who, as O’Sullivan reminds us, has attained our interest not just for her fiction, but for herself, and is now shown inhabiting, yes, the city of those stories of hers, but also having been infected by another sort of home. So she, the girl writer, the businessman’s daughter, the mother’s middle child, becomes part of the capital’s fraught project to present itself as … civilised. No matter what the cost. Writing about the death of Gwendoline, Mansfield’s infant sister who was a victim of the cholera that raged through the city that was too busy putting up its brave new buildings and roads to pay attention to sanitation and the needs of a rapidly growing population, Yska begins: “The tomb of Katherine Mansfield’s little sister looks out onto Bowen Street in central Wellington … .” Pay attention, he is saying. This happened. It’s part of our past. And I understand this, he also says, because I know about it, I live here, too.
None of this is to say, though, because this version of Mansfield’s life comes to us through the lens of Yska’s own biography, that he is out to prove anything for himself, or build up his literary reputation by creating some creepily constructed memoir of his own off the back of Mansfield’s early life. Indeed, when towards the end of the story he thinks he might be close to uncovering lost treasure in the Wellington Public Library, an unknown early short story of the young Kathleen Beauchamp, and is greeted by one of the world’s foremost Mansfield scholars in terms of unalloyed enthusiasm and encouragement – “if you could find that!!!” – we must go to the index to see who that scholar is – O’Sullivan, of course – and then “suddenly, wondrously” there is the story itself. “So there we have it,” he finishes, after, fascinated, we’ve read it all the way through. It’s a modest approach, indeed, when any literary find these days tends to be presented rather as being more in the gift of the finder – with all due obeisance expected and paid – than the writer who created the material in the first place; her quiet narrative lost in the heroics of its unearthing from the archive.
But everything about Yska’s approach is subtle in this way, shaded. It’s as though the subject so stands before him – the wind-bent, ambitious little colonial city that was such an influence upon the young writer, straining always towards the Northern Hemisphere, while held back to its dark roots and bush by the southerly winds that kept it stuck fast in the South Pacific – that he doesn’t expect ever to get past it. There’s a poet’s feel for language and its compressions, a lyrical understanding of the way sentences themselves can come to sound for a place, for its rain-soaked shadows, its empty, wind-ravaged streets, that describe a writer not so much concerned with presenting an argument, building a case, as one who is involved in the tremulous, uncertain, even dangerous act of discovery: “The light and dark of Thorndon”.
And through all the wondering, the walking and the writing, Yska has Mansfield’s own words stiffening his paragraphs and sentences, adding drama and passion and detail – “With the dark crept the wind snuffling and howling”; “The fence of these gardens was built along the edge of a gulley … and the people had a wretched habit of throwing their empty tins over the fence” – marking the whole with her own particular brand of social awareness, empathy, and literary rigour: “When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and for what they might catch.” It’s another form of the biographer’s modesty, that the author would let his subject’s voice sound, in the end, clearest through the pages – an idea held to be at the centre of the biographer’s art, but one that is all too often traded for the easier rewards of historical revision, scandal, or fresh quantities of research.
Instead, this biography hesitates, propositions, worries at the edges. Danger lurks. Imagining Mansfield and her sisters out in the streets on their own, Yska writes, “Unaccompanied children on the quieter edges of Thorndon were not always safe, even in daylight.” Then, “We’re back on Tinakori Road now, on the homeward stretch.” Still following the girls, as though they are there near the intersection of Hobson Street and just ahead of him, he adds, “It was here that Annie Clark, an unmarried 25-year-old, fired a bullet through her ‘bare bosom’. ” All the time, the writer is acknowledging his sources, his history, but also the degree to which his imagination must cover the gap between the fact and the proposition. “At 75 Tinakori Road, the Beauchamps mount the concrete steps,” he finishes. “Kathleen often returned to the esplanade”, though, he adds, a kind of postscript. Someone he speaks to “spied her there, ‘looking out to sea longingly’. ” Might it be another story, then, to follow? Might there be more to tell?
When, in many accounts, this approach might cloy, here it satisfies. Because the work from the outset has been projected as one of imagination and open-ended question – with the reader brought right inside the psycho-geography of hills and harbour, racks of tin roofs and gullies and fetid streams – we are happy to lash our experience of the place to the writer’s own. We’re in this together, this book says, quietly, from the outset. Anything can happen here. Who knows where we’re going. Where we’ll end.
What more for the reader of Mansfield, of her stories and her life, than an invitation such as this! Not to know, but to feel ourselves, as she herself put it, in the midst of “this little island” – the world opening up around us with every sentence, every idea. This is what Yska gives us in his strange and beautiful book. And excitement?
Well, as he’s shown us, places do matter, they come to tell on us, steal up behind. Mansfield’s life in the London and Paris and South of France that she constructed for herself was one of careful sophistication, as careless in appearance as she could manage, full of period rooms and flowers, manners, society. But the other quiet, dark and private space at her back, in the city of family and childhood, of poisoned waters and a sea that could, at times of high wind, rise up and threaten to overwash the entire place her family called home, is what we have been given here. Yska’s work is like a form of access to the engine-room of the writer’s imagination; a way in to that particular world of the past which powered her art. A number of years ago, the United Kingdom poet and publisher Michael Schmidt said something to me that I was reminded of reading this book. “I’ve just been to your Wellington,” he said. “It made me think about you.” At once, at his words, I felt a rush of vulnerability, of having been exposed, known, as though I’d been read right through. In the next few seconds, though, followed a sort of exhilaration. Of relief. Inevitability. Fate. Home. So, Wellington. A Strange Beautiful Excitement tells exactly of that kind of place, of the secret that was the beginning of Mansfield’s thinking, and imagining, and is an ending, too, that keeps starting up, nevertheless, out of the dark, all over again.
Kirsty Gunn’s collection of short stories, Infidelities, is published by Faber and Faber; My Katherine Mansfield Project, a book about home, identity and writing, was published recently by Notting Hill Editions.