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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



“I lean out of my window. The dark houses stare at me and above them a great sweep of sky. Where it meets the houses there is a strange lightness—a suggestion, a promise.
“Silence now in the Mews below. The cry of the child is silent, even the chiming of the bell is less frequent, no longer so persistent. But away beyond the line of the dark houses there is a sound like the call of the sea after a storm. It is assuming gigantic proportions. Nearer and nearer it comes—a vast, incontrollable burst of sound.
“And in its essence it is the faint, thin cry of the very young child. It is the old, old cry for the moon that rises eternally into the great vastness …”

This first time she looked down over Mansfield Mews, it was mid-April. The smoky haze was like bloom on fruit : it had so much of purple and yellow—not mere grey, as she had supposed. New Zealand air was never like this : but keen and clear —or opalescent, tinged with rose, opaque.“Home,” London, was infinitely more exciting. And how strange to find seasons reversed : spring instead of autumn!

In the “novel,” Juliet, begun three years later, before she left Queen's, she described (with minor variations) her first hour at No. 41 :

“Juliet looked curiously around her room. So this was where she was to spend the next three years—three years. It did not look inviting. She noticed page 180 two texts ornamented with foxgloves and robins … and decided that they must come down. The three large windows looked out upon the Mews, below—the houses built all around in a square. She wondered who would share this sanctuary. Some strange girl, stiff and prim who would torture the walls with pictures of dogs and keep a hockey stick in the corner. ‘Heaven forbid,’ she thought…. How strange the night was. She was close in London—glorious thought. Three years of study before her. And then all life to plunge into. The others were actually gone, now. She was to meet total strangers. She could be just as she liked. They had never known her before —oh, what a comfort to know that every minute saw the others farther away from her! ‘I suppose I am preposterously unnatural,’ she thought and smiled. Then the porter brought in her large boxes, and behind him Miss Mackay hovered, and told Juliet she must have everything unpacked before bedtime. It was quite one of the old customs.
“Does the glory of England rest upon old customs? She rather fancied it did—when to start overcoats and when to stop fires—have boiled eggs for Sunday supper and cold lunches. She knelt down on the floor and unstrapped her luggage. From the pocket of her great coat, she drew out David's picture…. ‘Dearest and ever dear,’ she said…. ‘I feel that life is helping me write now.’
“… When she had undressed, she suddenly longed to write just a few lines of her impressions. So she slipped into her kimono and drew out her notebook.
“‘If I could retain my solitude,’ she wrote, ‘I should be profoundly happy. The knowledge that sooner or later I shall be hampered with desirable acquaintances takes away much of the glamour. The great thing to do is to start as I mean to continue— never for one moment to be other than myself, as I long to be—and I never yet have been except with David …’.”
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The “self” that she “longed to be” was not yet consistent, or constant, indeed, but undeveloped like the rest of her. Katherine at fourteen was not the lovely woman she was to become seven years later. As Juliet said of her face in the novel,“the impression which it gives is not by any means strictly beautiful”; but there were glimpses of future loveliness—in her changing expression; watching hazel eyes that altered suddenly from dreaminess to sparkling attention; and in a clean-cut, sensitive mouth. Her expression altered as frequently as did her handwriting. One who knew her well could instantly recognise her state by the appearance of her page : when she was happy, the letters leaped upright, tall and firm; when she was dispirited or ill, they crawled, indistinctly; when she wrote excitedly, they streaked across the page in curves like shorthand, the letters unformed; only when she was desperate or angry, she wrote with clear distinctness, small and sharp. Her handwriting, that first college year, and her notebooks, were the despair of her “sponsor,” Evelyn Payne, who wrote precisely, like printed script, while Kathleen's pen streaked across the page at lightning speed to keep pace with her thoughts, her principal mark of punctuation being always the dash. But Evelyn found herself unable to impress her cousin who was going her own way, evolving standards for herself—showing a scornful pride when these standards were threatened.

Consequently she was not popular. With her chosen friends, her manner was eager and precipitate, but from most of the girls she seems to have page 182 held herself aloof somewhat from the hauteur of her own family, and because she had become withdrawn even within its circle.

The impression which she created upon those about her varied considerably. Ida, when she came to know her, saw the promise of future loveliness; but “Mimi,” another of her friends, slim and quick—“her eyebrows raised, her eyes half veiled” saw her as “‘a stocky build’. Her appearance (she said in retrospect) did not attract me. She interested me very much, but that's different.”

Yet part of this aloofness was drawn from these very differences in temperament and attitudes of her acquaintances and friends. She exulted in watching the enacting of the play : far more deeply thrilling to her at that time to watch than to act. Just as in Carnation (her one story of Queen's College, though she had intended to write many, and though many of her later characters were based on the girls she had known there),“fanciful Katie” watched all of it whirling about her, making fascinating patterns : exotic “Eve,” who was Vere Bartrick-Baker (“Mimi”);“Francie,” Frances Maurice, grand-daughter of the Founder, who was for ever inking herself; Sylvia, her cousin, with her innocent, virginal look sheltered in her calyx of light reddish hair; Ida, about whom she “could write endless books.”

So to those who first made her acquaintance, Kathleen Beauchamp seemed very reserved. Few “knew” her. She was still living a life of which they could guess nothing; for she did not immediately become attached to London in spite of the page 183 fascination it had for her. At times, in those first months, she turned ardently back toward New Zealand,“the little Colonial” again :

“April Ist.—To-day the weather has been very dull and gray. I woke this morning at four and since then I have heard nothing save the sounds of traffic, and feel nothing except a great longing to be back in the country, among the woods and gardens and the meadows and the chorus of the Spring Orchestra. All day during my work, I have found myself dreaming of the woods, and the little secret nooks that have been mine and mine, only, for many years. A girl passed under my window this morning, selling primroses. I bought great bunches of them, and untied their tight chains, and let them stretch their poor little tired clamped selves in a sky-blue dish that had been filled with primroses every year. But they were not like country primroses. As I bent over them, their weary, pale faces looked into mine with the same depth of wondering, strange, fearful perplexities that I have sometimes seen on the face of a little child. It was as though Spring had entered my room. But with her wings broken, and soiled, and her song quiet— very quiet. This evening I have sat in my chair with my reading lamp turned low, and given myself up to thoughts of the years that have passed. Like a strain of minor music they have surged across my heart, and the memory of them, sweet and fragrant as the perfume of my flowers has sent a strange thrill of comfort through my tired brain.”

It is too deliberately romantic, too manifestly a chosen attitude to be itself evidence of more than indulgence in a mood. But since all save one of her stories in the College magazine have New Zealand for their setting, the nostalgia was real beneath the artifice of the writer to be.

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Concealed somewhere within her, Ida had a fund of unfocussed ability; but it always needed some personal devotion to call it forth. Because she had been at Queen's for six years, she had been allowed to compete for the Professors' scholarship, although she was in fact a year too young to be eligible. Evelyn Payne, remembering the fascination which questions on the Doomsday Book had for Professor Cramb, the examiner, reminded Ida of this subject. The expected questions were asked, and Ida won the scholarship by three marks. That was the exploit of a prodigy. But Ida's abilities were real. That they lapsed into a kind of dream under the spell which Kathleen was unwittingly to exercise upon her was a charge made against Kathleen in her college days.

Kathleen herself was to ponder this matter on more than one occasion, in later years, for it had been she who made the first direct advance—she who suggested that they choose each other.“Let's be friends,” she said, and for the moment startled the dreaming Ida out of her void.

Be friends!” thought Ida.“But you can't just be friends. A friend is something you become!”

For a long time she hadn't known Marie and Kathleen Beauchamp apart. They dressed alike : both wore the big soft black velour hats, flowing ties, and blue nautical coats They were “the Paynes' cousins.” Her friend was Marian Creelman, a Canadian girl with a fund of keen humour; and Ida,“looking for the perfect thing,” thought to find it in her—until Marian returned to Canada. There had been a few indefinite “signs”; a book of page 185 verse which she found upon Kathleen's bed and remarked upon; a glimpse that Kathleen had of her ardour over the cool leaves unfolding above ivy-twined trunks in the Square. But she took less for granted than the Beauchamp girls did, until— meeting them on the stairs one day, during the next term, she realised their casual acceptance of her when Vera said sweetly, a propos of friendship,“But we are your friends. We're friends already.”

Even so early the girls adopted the names by which they were to be known in after years. As they sat on either side of their name-carved wooden desk Kathleen passed to Ida a slip with huge leaping letters—inches high : Katherine Mansfield.“My grandmother's name,” she added,“and my nom-de-plume.” She did, in fact, sign many of her Queen's College stories (appearing each term in the Queen's College Magazine) K. M. Beauchamp. And Ida kept the slip until after that name had become universally known. Ida's mother had been Katherine Moore, and Ida had thought to adopt this name herself; but Kathleen, having chosen Katherine, found for her another—Lesley— which suited her, and did as well; so she became thereafter “L. M.,” to Kathleen and her friends.

It may have been that New Year—it may have been another—when the two girls, Kathleen and Ida, roamed over London to find a church holding a midnight service, because Kathleen longed to go. The mysticism which burned in her, later, with so fine a flame was then crudely flaring. She was drawn by the mystery of Christianity; a crucifix hung between the two Watts prints over her bed.

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The New Year, itself, had always a poignant significance for her. She felt that if a friend wished her “a happy new year,” that happiness was sure to follow. She felt that when the bells rang, a gate opened—and she could nearly—just walk away. With her keen awareness of the elusive and intangible, many things came to have for her this “special” significance of good or evil Like “holding thumbs” for luck, when something was at stake; like the evil of Wednesdays, and the danger of Octobers. But the mystery of the New Year she could—and did—share with Ida during the early years:

“The ghost of L. M. ran through my heart, her hair flying, very pale, with dark, startled eyes.”

And there were New Years later when she shared the mystery with her husband.

This first New Year at Queen's College she made —as she always made the New Year—a turning point in her consciousness. The same night, after the service, she wrote of it; but she already was living beyond the immediate event :

(Jan. I, 1904)“It is twelve o'clock. All the bells in the village churches are pealing. Another year has come. Now, at the entrance of this New Year, my dearest, I propose to begin my book. It will not be at all regal or dramatic, but just all that I have done. You who are so far away know so little of what happens to me, and it is so selfish of me not to tell you more. I have just returned from a midnight service. It was very, very beautiful and solemn. The air outside was cold and bracing, and the Night was a beautiful thing. Over all the woods and the meadows Nature had page 187 tenderly flung a veil to protect from the frost, but the trees stood out, dark and beautiful against the clear, starry sky. The Church looked truly very fit for God's house to-night. It looked so strong, so hospitable, so invincible. It was only during the silent prayer that I made up my mind to write this. I mean this year to try and be a different person, and I wait at the end of this Year to see how I have kept all the vows that I have made to-night. So much happens in a year. One may mean so well and do so little.
“I am writing this by the light of a tiny peep of gas, and I have only got on a dressing gown. So decolleté. I am so tired, I think I must go to bed. To-morrow is the first of January. What a wonderful and what a lovely world this is. I thank God to-night that I am.”