The untold story of Katherine Mansfield's childhood

by Jane Clifton / 27 August, 2017
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Photograph of Katherine Mansfield, 1917. From John Middleton Murry’s Journal 1913-1920. Ref: MSX-4147-65. Photographer unknown. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Colourised and enhanced by Harry Burgess for the Listener, 2017.

Historian Redmer Yska’s new work on Katherine Mansfield uncovers her first known published story and changes the way we should view her. 

Don’t spend too much of your life on the dreams of a Karori schoolgirl. So went the admonition from one literary lion, Frank Sargeson, to another, Vincent O’Sullivan, more than 40 years ago.

The Karori schoolgirl in question, Katherine Mansfield, has nevertheless occupied the lives of readers, scholars and historians the world over like few other writers. As O’Sullivan says, she’s not just a world-renowned New Zealand writer but one with the enduring mystique and allure of Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, among a very select band of literary lionesses.

Though we have as yet no Katherine theme parks or total immersion experiences, à la Jane Austen-mania, 94 years after her death, people still cannot get enough of her. New biographies arrive regularly, as scholars continue to scour her every recoverable word and dog her every documented step. To them, she’s primarily the prized flower of the Bloomsbury era, a first among brilliant equals of a dazzling creative step-change in Britain.

To Wellington historian Redmer Yska, Mansfield was, like him, also the product of formative years spent in a clearing in the misty totara forests in the wilds of Wellington, otherwise known as Karori. It was while excavating 65,000 pages of municipal minutes for his book Wellington, Biography of a City that Yska began to glimpse an untold story about Mansfield’s years there. He certainly didn’t have Mansfield in mind at the time he was dutifully devouring official accounts of the capital’s decidedly iffy plumbing and its years of mass death by sewage.

But serendipity tapped him on the shoulder. Fellow historian Malcolm McKinnon had to turn down an invitation to talk to the Katherine Mansfield Society, and Yska was asked whether he could stand in with a talk about what Wellington was like during Mansfield’s childhood.

That was when he made the first connection that would inform his new book, A Strange Beautiful Excitement. Until this account, all biographies have termed the move of the young Kathleen Beauchamp with her family from well-to-do Thorndon to the muddy, floody settlement of Karori as the lifestyle choice of her affluent parents.

“The assumption has always been it was a country cure, a nice retreat,” says Yska. “But I remembered the words of the medical officer of health from those old municipal records: ‘The public is panic-stricken’; ‘Families are leaving the inner city.’

“And, of course, the Beauchamps’ new baby daughter, Gwendolyn, had died of what was documented as cholera. Her uncle had died – people all around them were either dying or had bereavements from these terrible illnesses. I’d always assumed these awful epidemics that had killed so many Wellingtonians over those years were quite isolated events … but in fact they were continuous.”

Redmer Yska at the commemorative Karori birdbath. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

A dangerous city

What if, Yska wondered, Harold Beauchamp moved his family inland to escape what was nothing less than a galloping bacterial plague? The more he looked, the more clues he found in Mansfield’s stories – instances long seen as coded references to class consciousness. What if there was an alternative or companion subtext to her stories’ famous theme: “Don’t let little Kezia play with the washerwoman Kelvey’s little tykes”?

Yska says the reality wasn’t that the Beauchamps were snobs, but that at a certain point, they realised socialising with people from the poorer parts of central Wellington could literally kill them. For, as is ever the case, the poor succumbed to the plague first.

Almost 100 people in the newly minted capital died every year of sewage-related illness in the years around the turn of the century. It was only when researching the Mansfield Society talk that Yska realised this coincided with the period of Katherine Mansfield’s early childhood and the move to Karori.

In a population of 30,000, this death rate had a big impact. Some officials and politicians were seized with the urgency of sanitation, including the liberal and politically influential Harold Beauchamp. But it took a long time to muster the money.

“While the poor were dying off in the mean little houses off Tory St, well, that was a pity. But when it crossed the harbour and hit the rich … there was an exodus. They tried to keep it quiet. But the Governor’s family fled to Picton. And when he left [halfway through his term], there was quite a gap before we got another Governor. The word was out: this was a dangerous city.”

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At the time, the voting franchise was sparsely spread among wealthy land owners, and these very few taxpayers were reluctant to be burdened by the provision of heavy infrastructure such as sewerage. Many worthies resisted for years, leaving the authorities powerless to make meaningful improvements. Pipes and culverts were built as cheaply as possible, and prone to failure; waste was dumped or stored in people’s backyards for long periods as the night-cart service was beyond many people’s means. Thorndon was home to a reeking, toxic gully of rubbish and effluent.

There was also a lack of science-based understanding of what physically caused these illnesses. Whether it was typhoid, cholera, fever, influenza or the then-high rate of infant mortality that carried each person off was often not clear. As Yska now earthily sums it up, “The biggest problem was basically poos in the water.” It took time for this, rather than the prevailing wisdom of “miasma”, to gain official recognition. If you could smell nastiness, it was held, that was dangerous. But once the bracing fresh air broke it up, why then, this was a fine new capital city, with its fine new Parliament.

“What’s so sad is that all these people had come from the dark satanic mills, from pestilential inner-city London, to find here in the new world it could be just as bad, particularly for the poor.”

Above: Sir Harold and Lady Anne Beauchamp with their children – from left, Charlotte, Leslie, Vera, Jeanne, Kathleen (Katherine), c1897. Photo/ATL

Above: Sir Harold and Lady Anne Beauchamp with their children – from left, Charlotte, Leslie, Vera, Jeanne, Kathleen (Katherine), c1897. Photo/ATL

The Mansfield-istas push back

As Yska drew more threads together, he began to believe that Mansfield’s Wellington childhood had a much stronger and darker influence on her work than other scholars have previously allowed.

Death had stalked her family and all those around her since the day she was born, it was in the background discussions of the household from her earliest consciousness and it fed the depression and despair that afflicted many relatives and acquaintances of the Beauchamps’ circle. It was also a rather shameful and shaming fact of Wellington life, one to be hushed up if possible.

“Here’s this little girl, this bookish rather plump child, processing all this,” Yska says. “And it seems to come out time and time again in her stories years later.”

Yska would go on to make what O’Sullivan calls a further “stunning new strike” in Mansfield’s history. But meanwhile, the budding Katherine-ite had to negotiate some pushback. Mansfield-istas are understandably guard-doggy about her legacy, and some proved sniffy about this parvenu. He’d become unexpectedly excited about his opportunity to share his findings with the Mansfield Society but noted with dismay his reception there amounted to merely “polite applause”. He gave a further talk on his nascent theory, which he’d dubbed “Flight to Karori”, but was again met with muted interest. “Oh, we knew that,” one aficionado said offhandedly.

“But I was really buzzing by this stage. I know that every single word of Mansfield’s is sort of preserved in amber … and while I’d read her work, I’d never been a buff. And there are all these revered experts in the field. But still, I was pretty sure I was onto something.”

Yska emailed O’Sullivan for guidance. Then New Zealand poet laureate and a long-time Mansfield scholar, O’Sullivan had no hesitation in encouraging him to forge ahead. “He has brought such enthusiasm and freshness to our perspective on Mansfield,” says O’Sullivan. “His book is so different from the usual academic tracts. Some people ‘take up’ a writer for career reasons … but Redmer has come to this out of pure curiosity and enthusiasm. And he has come up with new material that would be the envy of any scholar.”

He suspects previous biographers had been deterred from further exploration of Mansfield’s New Zealand background because Antony Alpers’ 1980 book broke so much ground there. But aside from unearthing precious new material, he says, Yska brings to the Mansfield story a vivid extra dimension as a fellow Wellingtonian familiar with the climate, atmosphere and localities. As he says in the foreword to the book, the new material and the richly detailed account of her childhood environment “tilt the angle we may see her from”.

One such tilted perception is that she actually grew up in an earthy, rough and ready Wellington and was not sequestered from it or from different social echelons. For all the “flight to Karori” quarantine, the Beauchamps still mixed freely with Maori, Jewish and Catholic friends and acquaintances, and their children were not particularly sheltered from the daily realities of the impoverished – unusual liberalism for parents of the time. O’Sullivan says Mansfield’s observational gifts of people were not just honed by a cosseted middle-class life, as can be seen in some early stories about what we might call the underclass, such as The Woman at the Store and Ole Underwood.

Vincent O’Sullivan at home in Karori about 10 years ago.

Discovering her first published story

At the time he became engrossed in Mansfield’s childhood, Yska was studying in Victoria University’s fiction course under novelist Emily Perkins and had been all set to embark on his first novel. The new book started life as his master’s thesis. But Kathleen Beauchamp and family having so thoroughly intervened in his head-space, he decided, with O’Sullivan’s encouragement and Perkins’ support, to follow his instincts fully and write about not just Mansfield’s Wellington but also Wellington’s Mansfield.

It was thanks to Wellington City Library librarian Gábor Tóth that Yska then made an electrifying discovery: an unknown Mansfield story, tucked away in a little-remembered periodical. Tóth thought some useful social context might be found in a rare collection of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies’ Journal, an Auckland weekly popular with middle-class ladies around the turn of the century. Mansfield’s lost school essay A Sea Voyage has long been a holy grail of Mansfield-ologists, but what Yska found in the journal is as coveted a prize, and perhaps the more so for having been unknown: Mansfield’s earliest known published story.

It was there among screeds of accounts of parties, events, visitors and grandees in this women’s mag prototype. It’s well documented that Kathleen read everything she could get her mitts on, but Yska hardly dared hope she might have been a Ladies’ Journal habitué. He decided to read the entire collection for the context, details and tone it would add to his project. What his librarian mum used to call “the library angels” were reading over his shoulder.

The gold seam came in the unlikely form of Cousin Kate’s Children’s Pages. Yska discovered the young Beauchamps striving, along with other young “cousins” of the day, to win the red satin badge prize for published letters and stories. “Cousin Kathleen” Beauchamp received one badge for a newsy but artfully ingratiating missive, preternaturally skilfully couched to press Cousin Kate’s buttons as a wholesome contribution, worthy of publication. Her first known published letter.

The angels delivered again. In another edition: her first known published story, His Little Friend. It concerns a lower-middle-class man who gets into the habit of helping a street urchin and taking an interest in his welfare. It shows a precociously nuanced grasp of argot, distinguishing the little boy’s childish and uneducated pronunciation and phrasing from his literate benefactor’s. Most resonantly, Kathleen treats poverty and illness among the poor as ambient factors in the story’s realm, with no need of explanation by the narrator. It ends with the child’s brave and heartbreaking death in his helpless benefactor’s arms.

As Yska says with an affectionate grin, it’s hard to miss that Kathleen’s head was full of “Little Nell” at the time. But it also seemed to him a further pointer that Mansfield’s consciousness was well stocked from infancy with the arbitrary bleakness of aspects of life, including a keen, but hardly inaccurate, sense of her own mortality.

The young Mansfield succumbed easily to chest infections, later documenting her health in Mary, in which a father laments over “poor old Mary’s bark”. Yska quotes a doctor who knew Mansfield: “She’s doomed … You know how often pleurisy spells TB later on.”

Yska in Karori in about 1955.

The psycho-geographer

A Strange Beautiful Excitement roves beyond a historian’s strict brief, in that Wellington takes an equal starring role with the budding writer, and Yska takes the risk of weaving his own childhood into the story of his discoveries. Yska says he has been extremely impressed by the work of historian Richard Holmes, who favours literally following the footsteps of one’s historical quarry to get a more vivid sense of them. While chortling at the description, Yska doesn’t shrink from the term psycho-geographer. He believes a place has a huge effect on a person.

It helped that Yska shared Mansfield’s verdant, often dark Karori, a “village” still heavily hemmed by trees and farmland in his childhood. Lowering macrocarpas dripped on both the muddy-hemmed Beauchamp brood and Yska and his rowdy mates as they enjoyed venturesome and lightly supervised childhoods there. Unlike the Beauchamps, Yska did not risk being mown down by hurtling livestock in the streets, and the drains kept the mud and floods in reasonable check. But the environs and even some of the settlement houses were remarkably unchanged.

Though uninterested in Mansfield when a youngster, he never forgot the rather forlorn river-stone birdbath by the tennis courts above Karori Rd, inscribed to the memory of “Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp who commenced her education at this [Karori] school”. Same school as Yska. Same “wheezing pines” making a dank canopy over the uplands, their needles lying in brown drifts underfoot. Sadly not, however, the same bright local kakariki, which the landowners of Kathleen’s day got rid of to protect crops. “And used the feathers to stuff mattresses,” says Yska with anguish.

Sparingly dealt with in the book are his own “pocket demons” experienced growing up in the then still-reasonably-wild wilds of Karori: family violence, the oppressive fear adults can wield over children, and bullying. He offers this not as a parallel with Mansfield but to locate himself in the subsequent era of “her” Wellington.

Still, it’s intriguing to see some parallel with Mansfield’s youthful plunge into bohemia, which severely scandalised those back home, and Yska’s own rocky distant past. She became pregnant to one man, married another, lived “in sin” with a third, was often impecunious and generally ran with what was, certainly on these shores, considered a fast, loose-moraled and altogether scurrilous bohemian set. Her furious mother disinherited her early on.

At a comparable age to Mansfield’s when she struck out for adventure, Yska dropped out of university, worked as a council rubbish collector, got involved in the drug scene, served prison time after being convicted of drug-related offences, launched his journalistic career as a copy boy on the then-notorious Truth and, after an 80s stint as a Beehive aide in the office of Health Minister Michael Bassett, also a historian, ended up in rehab.

Unlike Mansfield, however, he was restored to health – and respectability – and has stayed there.

As a prodigious walker as well as a multi-published local historian, he was bound to encounter the ghost of young Kathleen sooner or later. As he says, wherever he treads, there are vestiges of many past lives and a curious blurring between historic and modern.

For instance, he speculates, Mansfield would have revelled fearlessly in social media, given her unabashed penchant for using identifiable people from her past to stock her stories. We are, he notes, experiencing some similar social conditions to the young Mansfield’s: a rapidly growing population, controversially overstretched infrastructure, environmental degradation and a concerning gap between rich and poor.

And as he awaited the book’s publication, Yska spotted, newly restored through conservancy, kakariki in his and Mansfield’s beloved scrubby uplands.

A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888-1903, by Redmer Yska (Otago University Press, $39.95)

This article was first published in the August 12, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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