Helen Watson White
A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888–1903 by Redmer Yska (Otago University Press, 2017), 271 pp., $39.95
In his prologue to A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888–1903, Redmer Yska recalls Graham Greene’s idea that childhood is ‘the fiction writer’s credit balance’. In this regard, he says, Mansfield as daughter of a millionaire businessman ‘would leverage [her] stock to the maximum’. Wellington with its ‘ridgy, clasped terrain, its mobile weather’, and the ‘frontier’ experiences that shaped the girl Kathleen, were – in a different metaphor – ‘the seedbed, the blood and bone fertiliser of everything that came later’. Wellington-born himself, and growing up in Karori, Yska is well qualified to describe the streets walked by the writer in her time, the atmosphere she sensed, the world she knew.
As a journalist and social historian Yska has covered some of this ground before, particularly in his Wellington: Biography of a city (Reed, 2006), commissioned by the Wellington City Council and spanning the years 1839–2005. Although that volume is packed with more than usual interest for an official publication, this four-part work is more personal for both writer and reader, and actually more complex, layered like a midden with explorations of different locations and relations at certain very specific times.
Yska is looking at Wellington through the lens of Mansfield’s fiction, while also looking at the fiction through the lens of the city’s development; he then considers all this through the lens of his own Wellington experiences, some old, some recent, some defining. We see at first hand the biographer’s process of shuffling objects in search of subjectivity, and can enjoy that it’s happening in a present we can share. For instance, in relating the shift of the Beauchamp family back to Thorndon and Tinakori Road – after six years in the wilds of Karori – he needs to reconstruct the grand house at No. 75 for, unlike Kathleen’s birthplace at No. 11, and the family’s Karori home Chesney Wold, that building is no longer standing:
To understand how the house and surrounds shaped her, I assemble maps and plans with yellowing bits of Sellotape stuck to them, photographs flung in a filing cabinet, faded pamphlets crossed by silverfish and piles in library stack rooms. Here is the reliquary of a white-painted, fine-boned, slender-pillared two-storey house, set well above the road, surrounded by shiny-leaved taupata, purified by sunlight and salt breeze. ‘It was high, it was healthy; the sun poured in all the windows all day long,’ Katherine Mansfield wrote later.
By the time we reach this romanticised picture of her third Wellington home, the word healthy in Mansfield’s notebook entry denotes for us the tip of an iceberg – or rubbish pile – of unhealthiness, suggested often in her writings about this period and made very clear in Yska’s story of her life so far. In his research for the earlier city ‘biography’, he had laid the groundwork for an excoriating critique of nineteenth-century habits in regard to sanitation, finding in the town records that ‘during 1890, 77 residents of the city died from infectious diseases such as typhoid and cholera’. He sets the same WCC photo of children paddling in the harbour waters (possibly around the city’s sewage outlets) that faces a section in Wellington – named ‘A jubilee of night-soil’ – into Chapter Four of A Strange Beautiful Excitement, entitled ‘Something rotten’. It’s a topic on which he’s uncommonly well informed.
On the basis of extensive research, Yska concludes that the flight of the Beauchamps in 1893 from 11 Tinakori Road to then-rural South Karori was, at least in part, a shocked father’s response to the city council’s inaction on the unsanitary conditions in their locality. More specifically, Kathleen’s younger sister, Gwendoline, had died of cholera at 11 weeks in 1891 – one of 104 who died that year from a barely acknowledged epidemic. Again, a photograph of the dead child Gwen in her grandmother’s arms, a special ‘mort’ or mourning portrait, speaks potently of the event and the emotion it aroused in the family. Mansfield, it is said, kept a framed copy of this image beside her bed ‘for the rest of her life’.
Although this was not the only epidemic-related death in the Beauchamps’ society and family, the ‘connection between the move and the epidemic’ has not hitherto been made. The indications in Harold Beauchamp’s 1937 memoir Reminiscences and Reflections could not, however, be clearer: the shift, he writes, was made ‘for the benefit not only of the children’s health, but also of my own’.
Mansfield’s retrospective realisation of the extent of illness, contagion and death around her in early life means a dark, sometimes bitter tone recurred in her letters and notebooks, and especially in her fiction. Yska points, for instance, to Wellington being characterised as ‘a hole of a town’ in ‘Prelude’ – from which story, on the other hand, comes his title quotation, A Strange Beautiful Excitement. There also, a discussion between women about Karori being far away from any social life ends with the dry remark: ‘at any rate it won’t kill us’.
Although, as Yska writes, ‘alarm in the capital eventually abated’ and the health crisis passed, the theme of the city’s sordid underside never really leaves his story, even after the family in 1898 returned to Tinakori Road to a house ‘purified by sunlight’, as he describes it. That is because the dark tone was given permanence in Mansfield’s stories, based as they are not only on the geography of her Karori but also of her Thorndon. While she insists in one story that in Karori ‘there was not a breath of wind’, in ‘Prelude’, which is set there, Yska points out the wind ‘takes on the qualities of a bogeyman’ for her character Kezia: ‘She was frightened … But IT was just behind her, waiting at the door.’ The ‘snuffling and howling’ presence she has described, says Yska, is ‘the wind Katherine Mansfield met as a toddler in Tinakori Road’.
The author provides a walking map of both Karori and Thorndon, tracing probable routes of the Beauchamp sisters from their two so different homes to their three very different schools. Then he walks these paths with us, imagining how the girls, full-skirted and leather-booted, were affected by things along the way. While the unsealed Karori Road put up a good few mud barriers in winter, there was a downside even to Karori School once they arrived; its classrooms were cramped and unventilated, and the incidence of illness probably no better than in town: ‘The logbook records that in 1893 the school closed for weeks after an outbreak of measles.’
The town walk of course lacks Karori’s bush and birdsong, the scent of gorse and the ‘thick buttercups at the road edge’, but we are reminded constantly that Thorndon was very close to the sea. That meant sailors, lodging houses and pubs, as well as schoolchildren swimming at the baths on the Esplanade: ‘Did she pine for rural Karori? I suspect not,’ writes Yska. ‘Rough, bustling, gritty Thorndon, traversed daily in her school days, offered an apprentice writer peeps into other worlds.’
Despite her (and therefore Yska’s) extreme sensitivity to weather and climate, with close observations of topography, domestic spaces and of nature alive, it is the social landscape that is most important in Mansfield’s writing. The rest, as in Dickens – to whom, incidentally, both writers refer – is metaphor. When you read this book (as you must), be prepared for some surprises in the girl Kathleen’s acting-up and acting-out, and the exposure of sly resentments, especially in relation to fellow pupils’ achievements and, inescapably, their social class.
Molesworth Street, ‘lawless, even libertine’ will come alive to you, erupting in oyster bars, billiard halls, brothels, breweries and ‘noisy saloons’. Your sense of smell will be taxed to the utmost, your sense of hearing intrigued, your commonsense appealed to, your appetite piqued by talk of ‘changing balls, licorice buttons, bullseyes and other treats held in tall glass jars’. The contrast between the grand mansion at 75 Tinakori and the ‘mean little dwellings’ across the road is designed to haunt you – and it will, because of its indelible impression in Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’. It now has another kind of permanence, a commanding presence, because Yska has provided for it a solid context and backstory.
Yes, he’s also uncovered a juvenile piece written six years earlier than the one we all thought was the first. He’s had his reward for that, but he should be rewarded for all the other discoveries in this highly original mystery of a history. Layer upon layer, it gives us facts and fictions, all richly relevant long before the reader reaches the book’s closure. And you can always go back … Wellington, and Mansfield, will never be the same again.
While working as a university tutor and lecturer, library assistant and editor, HELEN WATSON WHITE has published short stories, poems, articles, photographs and, since 1974, a wide variety of theatre, art, opera and book reviews. Married for 30 years to lecturer/actor/pianist John Watson, she is now a lay preacher, pastoral worker and advocate in various Dunedin communities, and one of the panel of judges for the Dunedin Theatre Awards.