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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



Even when Kathleen was still of importance as “the baby” of the family—even then she often turned to her own duality for companionship—as Katherine turned, later, to Kezia. Her company in those days was with “the shadow children, thin page 74 and small”; or the cabbage tree with its hair out of curl:

“Never mind, cabbage tree, when I am taller
And if you grow, please, a little bit smaller,
I shall be able by that time, may be,
To make you the loveliest curls, cabbage tree.”

Later her sense of solidariness drew her very much deeper into a fantastic world. And then (as now, when she was small) her aloneness was closely connected with a certain fear: fear of wind, fear of night. From that earliest childhood she was haunted by fearful dreams that made her sleep poorly. In fact she preferred to go without sleep, at times—and trembled for the comfort of a candle in the hands of her mother or grandmother, when she was a child.

There were occasions when:

“The wind keeps going creepy-creep
And waiting to be fed.”


“Like an awful dog we had
Who used to creep around …”

The fear of the wind, when she was small, was joined in her mind with fear of the doctor's little dog,“Jackie,” who snapped at her bare legs when she was two. It was connected with her earliest memory, and it was a fearful one which lasted all her life. The horrors were perhaps the worst when they strayed from the companionable world of fantasy and betrayed her by precipitating her back, terrified, into the world of grown-ups for protection.

One of these strayed companions from her fanciful page 75 world watched her grimly as she said her solitary good-bye to the darkening house in Tinakori Road. This was later when she was five. But it was a characteristic episode of her early days:

“Her old bogey, the dark, had overtaken her, and now there was no lighted room to make a despairing dash for. Useless to call ‘Grandma.’ … If she flew down the stairs and out of the house she might escape from It in time. It was round like the sun, It had a face. It smiled, but It had no eyes. It was yellow. When she was put to bed with two drops of aconite in a medicine glass It breathed very loudly and firmly and It had been known on certain particularly fearful occasions to turn round and round. It hung in the air. That was all she knew and even that much had been very difficult to explain to the grandmother. Nearer came the terror and more plain to feel the ‘silly’ smile. She snatched her hands from the window pane, opened her mouth to call Lottie, and fancied she did call loudly, though she made no sound—It was at the bottom of the stairs, waiting in the little dark passage, guarding the back door—but Lottie was at the back door, too! ‘Oh, there you are,’ she said cheerfully.”

Even “the same old nightmare” that often came from the grown-up world: “… the butcher with a knife and rope who grew nearer and nearer, smiling that dreadful smile, while she could not move, could only stand still crying out, ‘Grandma, Grandma’ …” could not have been as terrifying to The Little Girl as those disembodied Ones that escaped to pursue her in the dark, and sped through her dreams at night.

The Grandmother was the link between the page 76 children and the grown-ups. After the birth of Gwen, her fourth child, the mother seems to have lived in the condition of aloofness in which she appears in Prelude, The Aloe, and At the Bay. The first six years of her married life had drained her energy; she was surrounded by her family. Her husband, with his continual need of her support, took what time and life she had to spare. The children flitted about her in the little box-like house. She would go out among the flowers, for which she had a passion: arum lilies and pincushions around the little square mat of lawn in the front garden; and to the wild gully, at the back—filled with green and tree ferns; beyond that, the world appeared unreal.

But the Grandmother was still in close touch with domestic life. There is work to be done in the New Zealand homes, where maids are few and inadequate. A succession of Alices,“Alice-the-hired-girl,” came and went, but the Grandmother, like all really good cooks, loved cooking, and by the time Kathleen was big enough to peel passion fruit for the little purple seeds to put in fruit salad, Vera was old enough to be a real help in the house.

Vera Margaret was everybody's favourite, and well she might be. She was one of those fortunate and contented children born to be “a comfort to her parents.” She had her mother's rather effusive manner without her mother's natural hauteur. They all had this manner, except the small Kathleen. The atmosphere was more that of an English than a Colonial home. The children were well-behaved—taught to say “Gran, Dear”;“Mother, Dear”; page 77 Father, Dear”; and they all addressed one another indiscriminately as “darling.” If, at times, Vera seemed to the younger children to belong rather to the world of grown-ups, it was doubtless because—being the oldest, and having her father's sense of responsibility—she felt accountable to the grown-ups for the younger ones.“To see Vera was to love her,” the Anikiwa cousins said:“to see Kathleen was to remember her.” Vera at eight was a tall, straight-backed girl (though she was threatened with curvature of the spine for a while); she had the high colour in her cheeks and lips that the Wellington wind whips into the faces of so many children. Her hair—brown like the mother's—was in long, neat plaits. All the girls looked like the mother; but Kathleen had her mother's colourless skin; the others had a touch of the father's ruddy colouring.

Charlotte Mary (“Chaddie” familiarly,“Marie” more respectfully) was a year and a half older than Kathleen, and apparently followed the course of the other two. She wore her hair in ringlets, at six, and walked with her feet turned out. She was a charming and affectionate child, easy and soft of speech.

All three of the little girls were dressed alike. They wore jumper dresses on week-days, and freshly starched pinafores on Sundays. If company came for tea, the Grandmother slipped a fresh pinafore over the play frock. They had small black sandals with short socks, and bare knees that needed frequent scrubbing.

Kathleen's wavy dark hair was about her shoulders page 78 like Edna's in Something Childish, when she was very small. She was rather lumpish, and often called to the others:“Wait for me! I can't hurry. I'm too fat—-” One of the little Walter Nathans, of whom there were five, used to shout over the fence at her from No. 13:“Fatty! Fatty! Fatty!” To which she scorned to make reply.

Yet even when she was small, she cast a small black shadow of her father's temper. It was, she afterward thought, a little demon which possessed her—a “black monkey” :

“My Babbles has a nasty knack
Of keeping monkeys on her back….
“She comes and stands beside my chair
With almost an offended air
And says: ‘Oh, Father, why can't I?’
And stamps her foot and starts to cry—
“She throws about her nicest toys
And makes a truly dreadful noise
Till Mother rises from her place
With quite a Sunday churchy face….
“Never a kiss or one goodnight
Never a glimpse of candle light
Oh, how the monkey simply flies!” …

In many other respects she was her father's daughter. They were alike in the wrong ways, and different in the right ones. But there was a twinkle between them and the bond of the “jolly voice” in which children “expect to be talked to” and in which he so often did talk to her. Kass shared her father's humour as fairly as she shared his temper. The real bond between the Pa Man and the child was the True Original Pa Man, who had given page 79 them both their patrimony of wit. The children were brought up on his auctioneer's jingles as other children are raised on their father's old college songs. The small Beauchamps were veritably rocked to sleep on:“Ohau can I cross the river Ohau?” and

“On the banks of the Wamangaroa
They discovered the bones of a moa,
The largest I ween that e'er was seen
On the banks of the Wamangaroa.
Its back measured two feet by the tape, Sir,
And it was a most elegant shape, Sir—
And he dug his own grave by the bright rippling wave
On the banks of the Wamangaroa.”

When he was feeling “jolly” and had exhausted his father's repertory, the Pa Man occasionally tried extempore of his own:

“Orua away gently in a small boat
For you must beware of the Horowhenua afloat.”

Or he rolled off the pleasant greeting phrases that he and his father learned from the Maoris: Kanui taku aroka atu kia oke (Great is my love to you) … Kia whiti tonu te ra kirunga kiaoke (May the sunshine of happiness ever rest upon you).

These celebrations were usually over the dinnertable when the children were allowed to dine with the grown-ups.

Even when they were far too small to understand, the “jolly” voice rolled about them:

“‘Bread?’ Plain or coloured, Miss? Half a yard cut on the cross, I take it, with as little selvedge as possible.”
page 80

The whimsical spirit of The True Original Pa Man presided over some feasts:

“‘My father would say,’ said Burnell (as he carved), ‘this must have been one of those birds whose mother played to it in infancy upon the German flute. And the sweet strains of the dulcet instrument acted with such effect upon the infant mind …’.”

When, in after years, anything was “very Pa,” it meant (in Katherine Mansfield's private language), something with a style of its own, something which could withstand the current mode—something having individuality, vigour, flamboyancy.

There were the flashes when the father stopped for a twinkle with the children at home, and would draw for them strange and exciting dragons—“dragons with seven bellies”; and there were the brief and intoxicating visits to the strange place where he lived during the day:

“My father's office. I smell it…. I see the cage of the clumsy wooden goods lift and the tarred ropes hanging.”

On his desk was a little brass pig, with a bristly mat of hair for wiping pens. It always stood on a pile of torn letters. When she had to stretch on tiptoe to look over the edge of the desk, it had been the first thing she reached for: the darling little gold pig! With her delight in small quaint things, it seemed to her too, too lovely! What was its significance, of what was it a symbol?

When she went “home” to England for the last time it went with her. It stood on a pile of torn page 81 letters on her own desk all the rest of her life; and when she first knew she was to die, she said (among a very few other things):“Don't let anything happen to my brass pig. I'd like Vera to have it.” In her will, afterward, she bequeathed it back to her father. This was strangely significant because very few possessions—in the material sense—were precious to her. She had few treasures during her lifetime, and these few she was likely to give away, impulsively, to any who seemed to be “her people.” But this was a kind of talisman, a “sign” between the two of them—which meant, perhaps, that the bond could never be forgotten.

It had the same meaning between them—the same meaning for her, at least—as the little bunch of flowers that he left, years later, at the Casetta:

“And here on the table are five daisies and an orchid that Father picked for me and tied with a bit of grass and handed me. If I had much to forgive him, I would forgive him much for this little bunch of flowers. What have they to do with it all?”

The bond was there. And Kathleen believed that her father, who had his fortune to make, his own career to follow, and lived in a world beyond, was essentially, in his hidden self, of her kind. In her imagination, he was a child battling with giants; and she felt and suffered for him. She knew that behind the armour of the rising business man was the wincing and sensitive boy; and she was instant in sympathy with him. When on a visit to the Riviera, during which he came to see her at the Casetta, his money-wallet was stolen, she quivered in an agony page 82 of sympathy for his loss, as for a naked child in a winter storm:

“I really literally nearly fainted when this swept over me and I ‘saw’ him with a very high colour putting on a smile. I do hope to God people don't suffer quite as I think they do: it's not to be borne if they do.”

But the battle with giants was his life, as she knew it. He was the business man who left the children to the women of the family. There they were, and that was an end of it.

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