Have the Germans forgiven Katherine Mansfield?

by Redmer Yska / 09 January, 2018
Katherine Mansfield at home in St John’s Wood, London, in 1916. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Katherine Mansfield at home in St John’s Wood, London, in 1916. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

In a German pension and a French cemetery, there are still traces of New Zealand’s first world-famous writer. 

Have the Germans forgiven Katherine Mansfield? Her first book, a 1911 collection of short stories entitled In a German Pension, was set in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Wörishofen, and poked fun at their obsession with food, their fixation with bodily functions and their general weirdness.

In the opening story, Germans at Meat, guest Herr Rat “wiped his neck and face with his dinner napkin and carefully cleaned his ears”. The Frau in the dining room in The Baron laments that “my omelette is empty – empty – and this is the third I have tried!”

So the vibes were not promising when I passed through tiny Bad Wörishofen at the tail end of the European summer. When the writer’s name came up, the folk at the information centre shook their heads. They printed off a piece of paper describing Mansfield, troublingly, as Australian. A plaque marking her stay here before the outbreak of World War I was said to be stored in the local council works depot.

Sebastian Kneipp’s therapy drew many visitors to the spa town of Bad Wörishofen, pictured in 1897.

Refuge from London

My voyage into corners of Mansfield’s European world provided poignant glimpses of the streets, pension hotels and landscapes she saw a century ago. It was also a chance to gauge how the people occupying those places remember her in 2017.

For the writer, Europe was a refuge from cold, gossipy London. She could never get enough of its varied nations and cultures, and shared the view of her second husband, John Middleton Murry, that “once across the English Channel, inspiration will run free, thought be profound and word come back to the speechless.”

It was in Germany that she first set foot on the Continent, in 1903, when she passed through Frankfurt during her chaperoned London school years. She was then a saucer-eyed 16-year-old, the Edwardian equivalent of a Kiwi backpacker treading the cobblestones, inky notebook in hand.

She would return to Germany, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland and, as we know, repeatedly to her beloved France, especially the warm south. There she’d regularly stay and write and she made a final pilgrimage to Fontainebleau, a small town an hour by train southeast of Paris.

What a difference six years make. When Mansfield returned to Germany in 1909, she had married and separated (on the same day, no less) and was six months pregnant to another man. Unsurprisingly, she was in deep strife with her mother, Annie Beauchamp, who had just arrived from New Zealand.

Bad Wörishofen, well off the beaten track, was their destination, in the heart of Bavaria, 80km west of Munich. Bad, which means “bath” in German, signifies towns that have health spas and it was here that Roman Catholic priest Sebastian Kneipp invented and popularised his famous Wasserkur (“water treatment” or hydrotherapy) in the middle of the 19th century. His regimen, which included being hosed down with ice-cold water, particularly in a process called thigh affusion, a vegetarian diet and barefoot walks in the morning dew, attracted thousands to the town.

Mansfield and Beauchamp checked into the Kreuzer, the town’s most luxurious hotel. Within a few days, however, Mrs Beauchamp ditched her daughter, leaving for England and heading for home. Soon after getting off the boat at Wellington, she instructed a lawyer to cut her daughter from her will.

A high-pressure hosing process known as thigh affusion.

A high-pressure hosing process known as thigh affusion.

An ear for detail

What was a 20-year-old to do as she waited to have her baby? Mansfield hung around for six months, staying at four separate addresses, observing in minute detail the other guests at the spa, listening to their conversations about their fixations and their discussions about portraits of the Kaiser. She, too, walked barefoot before breakfast in the woods, though in the stories, she mocked the practice.

So are the guests still coming here for the Wasserkur? Bad Wörishofen seems strangely quiet as my cousin, Redmer Baierl, noses his people mover through the town’s tidy cobblestoned lanes on an early September weekday. He lives and works in Ravensburg, another picturesque 1000-year-old south German town. It’s barely 100km away, but he knows almost nothing about our destination. Nor has he (or my teenage daughter Rosa) much interest in this piece of the Mansfield jigsaw.

We sit at an outside table at Rossini’s, an Italian restaurant in the heart of the tree-lined pedestrian zone, as a throng of older, wealthier types pass by, several limping on crutches. The town has 42 hotels, luxury spa complexes, a fun park and a casino, and people continue to flock here for visits generously subsidised by the national health system. The lifestyles of wellness and raw food that Mansfield once happily skewered are today mainstream.

The five-storey Kurhotel Kreuzer still dominates Kneippstrasse, the leafy promenade graced by Kneipp’s statue, where we stroll after lunch. In the 1960s, a biographer unearthed the old hotel ledger, showing that in 1909, Mansfield, fluent in German, checked in as “Kathe Beauchamp-Bowden, Schriftstellerin [writer], London”. The human comedy she saw and captured during her stay was the making of the writer she became.

Barefoot walks in the morning dew. Photo/Alamy

But today, the Kreuzer’s great glass front doors are closed. The hotel is at the centre of a tug-of-war between rival Munich tycoons, one of whom wants to convert it into the hub of his business empire and make Bad Wörishofen a mini-tax haven for rich investors. We are surrounded by a huge, booming economy.

Mansfield quit the Kreuzer a few days after Annie Beauchamp’s departure, moving to the more modest Villa Pension Müller run by the Stiegelauer family on Türkheimer Strasse, several blocks away.

Mansfield’s biographer, Claire Tomalin, writes that she came to love the quiet setting “with its little garden boasting a lilac bush, summer house and an arbour where guests might take coffee in their dressing gowns”. She also feasted on what she encountered in the dining room: “mealtime conversations in which the company exchanged details of the bodily functions, its changing guests all curious about one another’s symptoms, histories and social status”.

It was in the Pension Müller, alone in her room, that Mansfield famously and tragically miscarried as she lifted her suitcase to the top of a cupboard. We can only imagine how she bore the loss alone. In the story Frau Fischer, the narrator writes that she considers childbearing “the most ignominious of all professions”.

Mansfield would eventually leave the Pension Müller to take rooms in private homes, first that of the woman who ran the lending library in the post office building on nearby Kasinoweg, and then on Kaufbeurerstrasse with the family of Johann Brechenmacher. In typical style, she’d use the family’s name in the story Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding.

Katherine Mansfield. Photo/Getty Images

We go hunting for the Pension Müller, wandering the sunny footpaths along green Türkheimer Strasse, past an upmarket bicycle shop and another, more expensive Italian restaurant.

A large carved white crucifix of the sort common in this part of Germany, and probably dating from the 19th century, stands by the roadside. My daughter trails behind us, sending Snapchats to New Zealand, updating her friends on the extraordinary tedium.

So what, if any, trace remains of Mansfield? The cost of real estate in central Bad Wörishofen seems to rule it out as a heritage enclave; few old buildings still stand. Has Mansfield’s presence, too, been obliterated?

We turn the corner. There, across the road, is a busy construction site bearing a green sign saying “Wohnpark Mansfield”. My cousin translates: the site of the Pension Müller will host the town’s latest, most luxurious residential estate, aimed at the older buyer. A complex of architect-designed, ecologically friendly apartments with sunny garden terraces is emerging, each priced at €500,000 ($839,000).

Later, I investigate the Wohnpark Mansfield online. The prospectus sets out the place’s deep-green and “behindertenfreundlich” (disabled-friendly) credentials. Mansfield is at centre stage, with a full-page biography and portrait.

In later life, Mansfield wanted to draw a veil over Bad Wörishofen. A venereal disease contracted here following the miscarriage had enduring consequences and she had become ashamed of her first book, despite its runaway success, viewing it as immature and dated.

But in 2017, the town is giving Mansfield a makeover. It’s probably understandable that the old pension had to go. But more perturbing is what local property developers have done to a well-known portrait of Mansfield in her twenties. It is an image showing her elusive, always agitated spirit, but deft digital wizardry has given her a flaxen perm and firmed up her chin, the better to sell apartments: her eyes are swept clear of angst and she has the poise of a head girl. The little spa town with the people she had so memorably depicted as ghastly was having the last word.

Redmer Yska and daughter Rosa at Mansfield’s grave in Avon cemetery. Photo/Redmer Yska

Redmer Yska and daughter Rosa at Mansfield’s grave in Avon cemetery. Photo/Redmer Yska

And so to France

France, by contrast, seems happy to embrace the writer just the way she was. We step off a train at Fontainebleau-Avon. It was here that she came in 1922, close to death, in search of her own kind of cure, and it is the second stop in our brief journey.

Avon is a small town with an opulent history: the palace that once served as summer home to French royalty is here. Traces of Mansfield seem to pop up everywhere in and around the town, even deep within the famous, ancient Fontainebleau forest, one of France’s largest.

Bernard Bosque, France’s best-known authority on Mansfield and the leading light of Les Amis de Katherine, a local wing of the British-based Katherine Mansfield Society, has offered to show us around. Bosque has devoted years to studying the author and retracing her European footsteps, and he involves himself in such practical activities as ensuring a supply of fresh flowers for her grave in the town cemetery.

Les Amis de Katherine are well-connected, meet regularly and organise commemorative events, often with partner towns elsewhere in France that have Mansfield connections. The New Zealand Embassy in Paris keeps a benevolent and appreciative eye on these activities.

Mansfield.

Avon is the setting for arguably the most poignant part of the Mansfield story. In October 1922, two days after her 34th birthday, she arrived, grievously ill with complications linked to chronic tuberculosis and fed up with painful irradiation treatment. She’d been accepted as a disciple of the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, a spiritual community established locally by the controversial mystic George Gurdjieff.

She came seeking healing through his brand of spartan outdoor living with echoes of Bad Wörishofen. “[It is about] helping others,” she wrote, “about carrying a light and so on, it seems false to say a single word. Let it be that. A child of the sun.” Within three months, she would be dead. Our afternoon tour is to begin at the Avon cemetery. The charming Bosque, a teacher by day, obligingly comes to our hotel. He has salt-and-pepper hair, natty hiking clothes and very little English. As we set off by car, one of the group, Helen Peacock, a local Kiwi resident and fluent French speaker, bridges the gap. Even my daughter perks up.

In contrast to Bad Wörishofen, signs of Mansfield are unmistakable as we pass through the streets of Avon. We drive along a street identified with a distinctive blue-and-white sign on a lamp post as Rue Katherine Mansfield; nearby there’s a sign for the tree-lined Square Katherine Mansfield.

We reach the gates of the cemetery, a flat, parched expanse. Its original walls are buttressed with blue metal fencing, its stone paths lined with pot plants and a few exhausted trees. The summer has been dry here. We walk the 100m to her tomb in the small VIP section, where the space allocated is four times larger than that given to other occupants.

Bosque apologises that her grave is not bedecked with flowers. He has plans for a permanent garden. Gurdjieff’s grave, with its distinctive obelisk headstone and adjacent stone bench, stands 1m away. He died in 1949, and is forever known as the man who killed Katherine Mansfield.

In the Basses-Loges priory. Photo/Redmer Yska

Storied terrain

We are treading a storied terrain. Mansfield’s constant friend, Ida Baker, flung marigolds on the coffin; husband John Middleton Murry then famously forgot to pay the bill for the plot, so his wife’s casket was initially buried in a pauper’s grave, then moved – possibly twice – before it settled in its current resting place. Several kilometres away, in rolling parkland on the fringes of Fontainebleau forest, lies Le Prieuré des Basses-Loges, a former monastery, where Gurdjieff’s institute operated in the 1920s.

We approach along an avenue lined with ancient trees, flanked by sweeping lawns and a dry fountain. We park in the ornate courtyard.

The priory had been converted to a private mansion by the time Gurdjieff turned up here in 1922, having wandered for years with dozens of followers and family members after escaping the Russian Revolution. The palatial three-storey chateau has long been converted to modern apartments. There’s a nightclub and supermarket across the busy adjacent road.

We are ushered through the great doors into the place where Mansfield kept a comfortable first-floor room in her final, wintry months here. Here she participated in communal activities, including mass dancing and peeling carrots in the kitchen. Following Gurdjieff’s advice, she often slept in rougher quarters, including the cowshed.

The priory has been extensively renovated, but one resonant original trace remains: the carved wooden staircase on the ground floor where, on January 9, 1923, Mansfield suffered the haemorrhage that killed her. Murry had turned up that same day, and she’d run up the stairs, excitedly. Biographer Tomalin sets out the events that unfolded on the stairs we are now climbing:

“As she went up the stairs, she began to cough. Murry took her arm to help her. In her room, the cough became worse and [as Murry writes] ‘suddenly a great gush of blood poured from her mouth. It seemed to be suffocating her. She gasped out, “I believe … I’m going to die.”’ Murry put her on the bed and rushed for a doctor.”

We climb back into the cars in silence. Next comes our walk into the heart of the forest. Bosque knows the way, guiding us past stands of ancient oak, beech and pine, giant ferns, along rough unsealed paths torn up by the tusks of wild boar in search of roots.

After half an hour, we reach the Carrefour Mansfield, the Mansfield Crossroads, again clearly marked, this time with a sign set into a pine trunk.

That’s not all. We are lifted out of our gloom. Here, in wonder, we contemplate a plaque fixed to a moss-covered rock in 1939, on the eve of war. Erected by Les Amis De La Forêt, a precursor to Les Amis de Katherine, it quotes Mansfield at her most inspirational: “Life never becomes a habit to me. It is always a marvel. O vie, accepte-moi.”

The church register at St Luke’s in Fontainebleau.

Place of pilgrimage

Many New Zealand writers, including Vincent O’Sullivan, Karl Stead and Fiona Kidman, have come here to plant memorial trees, but the saplings have not survived the conditions. Several replacement trees, American oaks, are now flourishing behind a wire shelter.

We conclude an unforgettable day with a visit to tiny St Luke’s Church on Boulevard André Maginot, one of the avenues crisscrossing the old, virtually unchanged heart of Fontainebleau. Again, Bosque has called ahead and the young female vicar smiles as she opens the church doors to us.

It was in this Anglican church, on a Friday afternoon two days after her death, that Mansfield’s funeral service was conducted, in French. And it was from here that two black horses wearing funeral plumes carried her cheap white coffin to Avon cemetery.

We walk through the well-used church common room, where community notices are pinned to the walls, and into a small, dimly lit chapel with rows of wooden pews, an organ in the rear and tall windows of stained-glass letting in pale yellow light. The air is close, musty. Bosque says it has barely changed in a century.

Then comes a final, unexpected surprise. From a shelf, the vicar takes down the original church deaths register (Décès, 1913-1930), a slim, green-edged ledger that really should be in an archive. She turns to the entry relating to one “Katherine Middleton Murry”, described as “une femme de lettres”.

My thoughts go back to another ledger entry, the one at Bad Wörishofen, where in 1909 she’d scratched in German her dream of being a “Schriftstellerin”. Mansfield had certainly achieved that goal by 1923, and here, on a midwinter’s Friday in France, they’d put it on the record.

Redmer Yska is the author of A Strange Beautiful Excitement, Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington, 1888-1903, Otago University Press, 2017.

This article was first published in the January 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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