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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



To the girls who lived their circumspect existence in the chill grey of “Woodie's” boarding house, what must the invitations to No. 72 Ladbroke Grove have meant? What of romantic enchantment, what of “life” is revealed in their exotic memories of it! A world to itself, governed by its own laws; only those knowing the “Open Sesame” were admitted to its mysteries. Qualifications for initiation appear to have been “exceptional ability” and personal charm.

Kathleen Beauchamp was initiated very early in her career at Queen's. An Album entry for June 29th, 1903, gives some of the essential “ethics of living,” the understanding of which was necessary for entrance. She seems to have quickly mastered these. When she became familiar with the rites, she took for her symbol the white gardenia; and for her guide book, Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. No. 72 Ladbroke Grove was the home of Walter Rippmann, German professor at Queen's—“the professor” of Kathleen Beauchamp's memory of Queen's College. Young and ardent—while most page 206 of the professors, like the domestic personnel, were aged—he took a personal interest in individual girls and their activities.

Before Kathleen entered Queen's College his house had been shared by Mrs. Grier, and Connie Grier—one of his students, a Canadian girl of the delicate “Gibson girl” type—whom he later married. During Kathleen's first years he had a young journalist and an artist living in his house. It was doubtless the artist who devised those effects which so thrilled the girls coming from their grey lodgings—effects that would have been “modern” even some thirty years later. Then, they were so new that they took the breath. The rooms were decorated in what afterward became known as “modernistic” colour and design. In the evenings they were lit by candles placed to throw cross lights—to make strange geometric patterns of shadow; and the girls came upon unexpected objects which, in that atmosphere, made their imagination leap and stumble in a new manner, while they listened to “new music,” or to an Oscar Wilde play; at the colour teas, they seem to remember—in the pink-shaded light of more candles—rose-petals scattered over the hearth. In any case, their imaginations were kindled by a series of poses and attitudes, and by the charming manner of their host who later, as they looked back, became identified in their minds with Mr. Reginald Peacock (though he was not intended as the model for that versatile gentleman).

Of course the girls not included among the elect showed a certain jealousy. They couldn't gracefully accept the implication that they were neither more page 207 intelligent nor more interesting, nor prettier than some of the others. They, too, would have liked to be taken to cafés, and invited to teas, and plays, and musicals; and when Gladys Williams was driven from the very door of Queen's College in a hansom cab they felt with satisfaction that Miss Harper, standing rigid and tight-lipped, disapproved.

Yet there was much that merited her approval. Walter Rippmann, at that time, was working on a book which later gave him no little prestige : English for Foreigners. He was using simple verses and poems to illustrate the exercises, and having seen Kathleen Beauchamp's early poetry, he asked her to write more for his book. This was her first experience in almost reaching commercial success—(for ultimately Walter Rippmann discarded her verses in favour of classic quotations). But writing was not Kathleen Beauchamp's primary interest then; so she was not discouraged. She merely was given a new incentive for writing poems, and while those particular ones never were published (though they are said to survive), her collaboration with E.K.B. on a book of child verses, after she returned to New Zealand, may have been a direct result of this reawakened interest.

Obviously it was not through his German lessons that Walter Rippmann's great influence was chiefly exerted. The verses of Richard Dehmel, which Kathleen remembered, is evidence of his taste :

“Two lovers came and hid behind a tree and put up an umbrella—then they walked away, pressed against each other. It made me think of a poem that our German professor used to read in class.
page 208

” ‘Ja, das war zum letzenmal
Das wir beide, arm in arme,
Unter einem Schirm gebogen …
… Alles war zum letzenmal …'

“And I heard again his ‘sad’ voice (so beautiful it seemed, you know!) and I saw his white hand with the ring on it, press open the page.”

And Katherine's friends noticed that whenever she wanted to enact a very, very romantic part, she quoted German.

His great service to her was the essential one of imaginative liberation. He introduced her to that discriminating attitude towards experience of which Walter Pater was the hierophant—the attitude which was a revelation to youth at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the prose of the Leonardo essay seemed the ne plus ultra of timeless wisdom speaking the language of time. He introduced his circle to the critical scepticism of Wilde, the appreciations of Arthur Symons, the languid and despairing music of Ernest Dowson, the subtle simplicities of Paul Verlaine. He was the York Powell of a ladies' college. That it was Wilde who chiefly impressed them was not entirely his fault; it was inevitable that his young admirers should respond most readily to the showiest and the most specious. That is the way of youth. And if it be urged that the decadents were heady wine for adolescent girls, the reply is that if they had not been introduced to them by a brilliant Professor they would have found them—more furtively—for themselves. For the generation to which Kathleen belonged the decadents were the gateway to the imaginative life.

page 209

Soon after Kathleen Beauchamp returned to England again from New Zealand she wrote an allegorical tale which she simply called A Fairy Story. It was of a boy who set out “to find the world,” and a girl who set out “to find herself,” and the Wanderer who woke her from her sweet child's dream, to give her the key to the book of knowledge. There is little doubt that the Wanderer was based on Walter Rippmann.

“They were twelve years old when the Wanderer came … and brought with him two great cases of books … the Girl, peering out of the window, heard him singing softly as he worked, ‘Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough.’ He must be very hungry, she thought sympathetically.
“At this time she had read all Shakespeare and ‘Lycidas,’ and ‘Paradise Lost,’ and Dickens, and ‘The Lady of the Lake.’ Her mother had read to her ‘You Never Can Tell,’ ‘The Doll's House’ and ‘Aglavaine and Selysette.’
“The Boy was reading ‘What the Moon Saw,’ and worshipping the ground she trod upon.
“One afternoon the Girl walked into the Wanderer's room….
“‘Well?’ he said sharply, as the Girl stood by the door.
“‘I want to look at your books,’ said she.
“He glanced at her curiously …
“‘I'm—I'm quite exceptional,’ she said, hastily. ‘I'm very advanced.’
“‘Oh, are you?’ said the Wanderer.
“‘Don't think of what I look like; as Mr. Shaw says,“You Never Can Tell” .’
“‘Hang thee, sweet wench,’ said the Wanderer, ‘come along here—you know the “Open Sesame” and I'll show you the books.’
“And two hours later, they were both sitting on the page 210 floor—and he was reading her Omar Khayyam, and she was looking into Arthur Symons.
“Then a new life began for the Girl. She, too, weeded carrots, and ate leeks and brown bread, and talked to the Wanderer. And he told her of London, of Spain, of Paris, of Brussels, and again London.
“And he taught her his ethics of life, and that unselfishness signifies lack of Progress—and that she must avoid the Seven Deadly Virtues. And she printed a little text, and hung it above her washstand —‘The strongest man is he who stands most alone.’
“When the bracken was turning golden … the Wanderer packed his knapsack and left them.
“But he gave the Girl his books, and with them a little card bearing his name and address.
“‘When the time comes,’ he said, ‘this will always find me.’
“She did not understand, but she sewed the card inside her pocket, and kissed the Wanderer on both cheeks.
“… She had begun reading seriously….
“And the Wanderer did not forget her. He sent her a postcard of Maxim Gorki, and a little book, ‘The Virgins of the Rocks’; she did not understand it, but it gave her beautiful dreams. One night, the following summer, the Girl sat on the doorstep watching the stars, and the Boy, beside her.
“‘Boy,’ she said, ‘What are you going to do?’
“‘I am going to find the world,’ he cried…. ‘And you, Girl?’
“‘I am going to find myself,’ the Girl answered. She put her hand into her pocket, and pressed the Wanderer's little card….”

What all this reading had revealed to the eager Colonial girl is only to be discovered in her diaries of those days. Of course, her aloof air, her composure (which began now, to be studied), her withdrawn, almost haughty manner when in a group, page 211 was deceptive. Who would have guessed the fire beginning to flare fanned by the emotions which turned back deep into her? For the other girls of sixteen, the decadents may have been safe enough, deflected by ignorance, or, at most, flowering from shallowly turned soil. But in Kathleen Beauchamp nothing flowered from a shallow place : whatever mattered to her was taken in until roots touched bottom.

Partly, at least, her introduction to Wilde, and in particular to Dorian Gray with its doctrine that life was something to be consciously explored, came through her friend “Mimi.” She first lent Kathleen the book—an old number of Lippincott's Magazine—which had been lent to her by one of the teachers in the College school, with many injunctions to secrecy. From “Mimi” also came the notion of the emblem of the white gardenia. But probably it was the complete version of Dorian Gray which Kathleen's room-mate, Eileen Palliser, remembers as beneath her pillow at night and with her during the day. Eileen came upon her once, in her cubicle, reading a German book. Kathleen, a second senior, had studied German all through Queen's, and Eileen, several years younger and a junior, had only taken it for two or three terms; but she leaned over to see the book. To her surprise Kathleen snatched it away and closed it without stopping to mark the place. She merely said,“That's not for you!” But afterwards she kept all the books she was reading hidden from Eileen.

Kathleen's reading notes for that year (and for the two years following, when she was back in New page 212 Zealand) are filled with passages and epigrams copied from her reading. Wilde predominates, and his maxims were taken and absorbed into her, accepted as ethics, as the gospel of living. She said in those days,“I would rather have the highest heights and the lowest depths—anything rather than the placid middle line of life.” In her first introduction to literature, she gave herself utterly to absorbing from it what she believed was “experience of life.”