Friday, 22 January 2016

To England's Farthest-Flung Literary Shrine

Yesterday I made my way to the Wellington suburb of Thorndon to visit Katherine Mansfield House, the author's birthplace and childhood home. Who could resist the allure of a house described by Mansfield variously as 'that awful cubbyhole', 'the wretched letterbox in town' and 'that horrid little piggy house which was really dreadful'? She also described it as 'dark and crowded'. Dark it still is, and crowded it must have been: in the five years the family occupied it, three generations lived together in what is a modestly sized two-storey Victorian mini-villa - Katherine (née Kathleen Beauchamp) and her two sisters (more siblings were to come), her banker father, her mother, her maternal grandmother and two young aunts.
 The house, built all of New Zealand timbers, was restored in the 1980s and returned to its former layout, with original features preserved or faithfully reproduced and some Beauchamp furnishings reinstalled, along with family possessions, pictures, and a Katherine Mansfield archive. The result is an all too convincing re-creation of the kind of gloomy domestic setting the rebellious, self-dramatising and artistically inclined Katherine would have found intolerably oppressive - though, as she left this house at the age of five, she can hardly have formed any very strong opinion of it at the time.
 She did, however, remember the house quite vividly, and images from her early years there crop up in her short stories, especially the later ones where she returns to - and to some extent reconciles herself to - her New Zealand roots. It seems you could take the girl out of Wellington - or rather she could take herself out as soon as she was able, helped by a generous allowance from her father - but you couldn't take Wellington out of the girl. The early years, the home ground, can never be entirely escaped, are always in some way fertile soil, however contemptible the setting might have seemed at the time. In Katherine Mansfield's case, it was the death of her beloved brother Leslie in the Great War that proved the catalyst, turning her stricken mind and imagination back to scenes from her early years in Wellington and inspiring some of her finest writing (At the Bay, The Garden Party, Prelude, etc). In these she took a very European form of short story, transported it to the alien soil of New Zealand - and created some of the most brilliantly effective stories of the 20th century. Reluctant Kiwi and eager exile though she was, you could say that with her writings New Zealand first became a locus of world, rather than provincial, literature.
 Katherine was very fond of flowers - her writings are full of them - and the gardens of her childhood home have been restored and replanted, very pleasingly, with 1890s favourites. When I came out of the house I walked round to the small back garden - and there was a Monarch butterfly, feeding on a tall Viburnum, looking every bit as exotic and out of place in suburban Wellington as the young Katherine Mansfield must have done.







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