The new illustrated book Katherine Mansfield’s Europe by Redmer Yska is vividly pictorial, not only because its author has so effectively tracked down photographs from long ago, and taken many of his own, but because his writing matches the colour and excitement of his discoveries along the trail of Katherine’s comings and goings through Germany, France and Italy. Leaving out her life in New Zealand and in London, except when they unavoidably impinge upon this trail, means that what we have here is an incomplete ‘life’ but nonetheless one that gives a large and vivid impression of its subject’s personality and writing. It makes a lot of the writing about Mansfield seem rather pallid by comparison. We are with her, at her side, in her skin, seeing what she sees, feeling what she feels. That is an effect of her letters and journals, which are frequently quoted. But Yska’s writing enhances them. He is part scholar, part literary historian, but he is also a journalist of the highest calibre, who has gone to new, previously untapped sources.
One source in particular, Roland Merlin’s Le Drame Secret de Katherine Mansfield I have only once, in the course of several decades of Mansfield research, encountered before. Merlin doesn’t figure at all in the biographies of Anthony Alpers, Geoffrey Meyers, Claire Tomalin, and Kathleen Jones, and is dismissed in passing by Gerri Kimber in her Katherine Mansfield: The View from France. For Kimber, Merlin’s book is just another example of the sentimentalising misrepresentation of Mansfield that occurred in the 1930s and ‘40s – the making of ‘Saint Katherine’ whom Catholic France and its right-wing Establishment seemed to endorse, trying later to reject the truth-telling about her, especially about her sexual life. But Yska has recognised that Merlin’s book, sentimental and even nauseating as it may be at times, was based on real research and genuine discoveries. He calls it his “unreliable guidebook” to Mansfield’s France. He is right to be sceptical, but right also not to have dismissed it altogether. Florid writing and overstatement have to be taken for granted; but Merlin’s work was leading to new, previously untapped sources.
Yska’s Virgil in this passage through the Hell of Mansfield’s last years is Bernard Bosque, well known to, and appreciated by, the Katherine Mansfield Society as the guardian of her grave, and co-organiser of visits and conferences in her honour. The book begins at her death and burial, and returns to her grave in its final chapter. With Yska and the ever-present Bosque, we encounter, on a stone in the Fontainebleau woods, a mossy brass plaque quoting something Katherine wrote, shortly before her death, about how life never becomes a habit for her but is always a marvel; and then the plea “O VIE, ACCEPTE MOI!”
This is only the first of a number of memorial plaques, street names, and even a statue bearing her name, we are to encounter – just as Roland Merlin’s is only one of several French unauthorised books about her. We see the wooden staircase in what was George Gurdjieff’s ‘Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man’ where Katherine ran a few careless upward steps bringing on her last and fatal tubercular haemorrhage. And here we are detained by what is almost certainly untrue – or a myth, if that is a better description: that she did not die within minutes, as the biographers tell us, but was taken by ambulance to a local hospital where she “lingered in a ward for hours, maybe days, before finally dying”. If this “bombshell”, as Yska calls it, is untrue, why should we ‘linger’ with her? Only I suppose because this is the kind of life hers was – one which itself generated colourful stories. Mansfield not only wrote stories. Fiction seemed to be generated around her life as she lived it. In a way that is quite extreme, she is a living story, a ‘short story’ only in the sense that she died at 34. In that sense her life became a novella, but never a novel.
Now we are travelling backward in time to 1909 and the German town of Wörishofen where the young Katherine, having left the man she’d just married and didn’t love, and accompanied by her greatly displeased mother recently arrived from New Zealand, went bearing the baby her lover Garnet Trowell had given her. Here she would write the dark and brilliantly funny stories that made her first book, In a German Pension. The baby was lost, and though it has been supposed it was a miscarriage, Yska believes the timing as he has calculated it means the baby must have been delivered stillborn. Delivered by whom and in what circumstances is one of the many dark unsolved mysteries of her early life.
In Wörishofen Yska discovers that the spa rituals (the “overbody wash”, the “air baths”, the “gushes” and hosings) which Katherine satirised, continue in the present, and that the evidence of ‘Kathi Bowden’ [her married name], and even of the child she ‘borrowed’ for a time to allay the pain of the loss of her baby, are recorded in meticulous local records of the town’s arrivals and departures. Surnames that figure in her German stories – Brechenmacher, Binzer, Müller, Fischer – are still present, alive or buried in the town cemetery. And Yska finds ‘Katherine Mansfield’ herself still present, her photo-shopped face decorating a poster advertising local real estate. She has given her name to a square, the Katherine-Mansfield Platz; and a lovely little iron statue of her sits, reading an iron book, and looking out on a woodsy pond with a fountain, in one of the local parks. That there should be a statue of her in Lambton Quay is not surprising; that there should be this one, tucked away in a small German town, is another example of the curious radiance that emanates from her life and writing.
Forward in time now to 1914 and Paris where Katherine and her partner John Middleton Murry, who will not be able to marry until her divorce from Mr Bowden is achieved, have moved to live as writers. With them they have brought their furniture, some of it borrowed from Katherine’s life-long friend (“the slave”, “the mountain”, “the Faithful One” Katherine calls her depending on mood) Ida Baker. The transport of these items has cost them £25 (a lot of money in 1914). When the experiment of “being writers together” fails for want of sufficient income, they sell the furniture (“desperately and comically” Murry records) for £10. Meanwhile she has begun to find Murry’s French writer-friend Francis Carco, especially attractive. Like herself, Carco was born in the Pacific (New Caledonia) and has come to Paris, as she has come to London, to make a name as a writer. Their correspondence after her return to London become love letters. The war has started, and Carco is conscripted and assigned to the army postal service in the town of Gray where, if she is to visit him as he wants, she is going to need to fake ‘evidence’ of a dying relative to get her through the military check-points. This she achieves and records with surprising frankness in a story called “An Indiscreet Journey” not published until after her death.
Gray, it seems, is an omission in Yska’s travelogue, and as far as I can tell he goes there only in Katherine’s account. But he records that Bernard Bosque and the Katherine Mansfield Society held a conference there in 2015, and that a plaque recording the date and time of her arrival in Gray was unveiled at the railway station.
Her comings and goings at this time are complicated, and we are soon back with her in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Her account of the brief affair with Carco is warm and contains nothing to explain why, after only four days with him, she returned to Murry in London, “aggressively defensive” as he reported. She remained on warm enough terms with Carco to be able to use his flat in Paris at Quai aux Fleurs on L’Isle de la Cité; but she could not be enticed back to Gray, and it seems she vacated the flat when the concierge suggested that Carco might be returning. There seems to be nothing to support, or make probable, Bernard Bosque’s assertion that Carco “tried to drown himself [in the Seine] after Katherine returned to Murry.” This is the kind of sentimental invention one might expect from Merlin; but there’s nothing to suggest he is Bosque’s source.
Merlin’s book does however, supply Yska with entirely convincing descriptions of Mansfield as remembered in the 1940s (two decades after her death) by a long-time resident in the same Quai aux Fleurs building: “She was a secretive little thing, almost like a wild animal, a little cold in manner, quite intimidating really. She seemed to have a strong personality – that was very clear – and I thought of her more than any of the other tenants. […] She wasn’t one to start a conversation, even though she spoke French well – if we passed her on the staircase, she would just stroke my children on the head, with a smile for their mother, and then she was gone.”
This tenant had not liked Carco much but she has a convincing memory of him too: “He always came down the three flights of stairs by sliding down the bannisters, which never failed to give the concierge the palpitations, and he had hooligans come to visit him at night.”
Not a man to throw himself into the Seine because of a disappointment in love!
There were German bombing raids at this time and Kathrine saw the Zeppelin fly over, describing it as “the Ultimate Fish, flying high with fins of silky grey… the noise it made – almost soothing – steady – and clear doo-da-doo-da – like a horn.”
But it was here in Carco’s flat that she drafted “a huge chunk” of what she called “my novel” – which she seemed surprisingly to forget until she came upon it with surprise and joy a year or so later at Bandol in the South of France. This was “The Aloe”, later revised to “Prelude”, her first (and brilliant) venture into the lives of her family, renamed the Burnells.
We have now arrived at the crucial event, her brother’s death in the war. She had been very close to Leslie (or “Chummie” as she called him), and the enormous shock propelled her back to New Zealand and childhood memories. But she had already been there in “The Aloe”, which showed her exactly where she was to go next as a writer, and would release the enormous talent so far revealed in letters and journals, but never quite at full stretch in her fiction.
Yska takes us now to l’Hotel Beau Rivage in Bandol in the South of France, and then to the little Villa Pauline, where “the two tigers”, as Mansfield and Murry called themselves, were to live what would seem to them both, on later reflection, their loveliest time, a sort of idyll of two writers, working together, struggling on an insufficient income but loving the little house, the town, the Mediterranean locale, their work and their conversations about work, and one another. Murry wrote of it in his autobiography, “It was perfect: the best we were ever to know.”
We have to understand that by the ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Europe’ of his title, Yska means her continental Europe; so just as he has skipped over the crucial exchanges that happened with Chummie in London before his death in the war, so he now skips over the Mansfield-Murry failed adventure with DH and Frieda Lawrence in Cornwall which cut short the Bandol idyll. Her stays in Gower Street and Chelsea, and her dealings with Virginia and Leonard Wolf who published an edition of “The Aloe” are also passed over. So a few more years pass before we have her back in Bandol, alone, once again at l’Hotel Beau Rivage, her illness much advanced, keeping up her daily letters to Murry in London, and reporting on February 28, 1918, “It is 3 am I have just finished ‘Bliss’. God Knows I have been happy writing it” – words which Yska finds, translated into French and inscribed on “a pitted old marble plaque” in the hotel. Can she have imagined that as she moved from place to place she was leaving in her wake these markers for the future?
Writing the story “Bliss” gave her such pleasure; even more intense was the experience of drafting “Je ne Parle pas Français”, which Mansfield scholars, including Yska, have read as a devastating representation of Carco. It may well be that the story is “a cry against corruption” as she described it in a letter to Murry when she was only beginning it; and it may be, also, that she had Carco (his physique, his dandyism, his self-regard) partly in mind; but she had been re-reading Dickens, admiring how he could impersonate his characters; and this negative reading of “Je ne parle pas Français” misses the degree to which, as she writes her way into its male first-person narrative, she becomes – indeed joyfully enacts – the character, so the final effect is not just a representation of the cynical Raoul Duquette, but very nearly a celebration of him. Any alternative to this reading can only put a sentimental focus on the character of the young woman, Mouse. Can that have been her intention? Clearly Murry thought so, and others have followed him. But if it was, I think the inner monitor governing her writing was more sophisticated, and sturdier.
If “Je ne parle pas Français” is indeed in part an attack on Carco, he was to have his revenge by depicting her in his novel Les Innocents as Winnie Campbell, the predatory English writer, exploiting personal relationships for copy. Later again, after her death, he would make the most of their fondness for one another, adding his fame to hers and making a profit for both reputations in France.
There were mixed-race soldiers coming through Bandol at this time on their way from Algeria to the battle-front, and Katherine shocks Yska by appallingly racist comments about them. He mentions that she has been commended for her empathy and respect for Māori, and is puzzled. There is not much to be said about this except that it belongs to its time. It comes in a letter to her mother, and the Beauchamp family has always seemed to me a Tory lot whose values Katherine largely inherited and didn’t inspect closely. The tone is jokey: “If I were Queen they would never be allowed to escape from their cotton fields and coconuts” – which one can almost imagine coming from the mouth of Barry Humphries’ Dame Edna Everidge.
Ida Baker, uninvited and at first unwanted, came to visit her, and then surprisingly found herself needed and welcome when Katherine, for the first time, coughed what was clearly arterial blood from her lungs which had been increasingly painful. She had been just two months in Bandol and now decided she must return to London via Paris. Her divorce from Bowden had come through and she and Murry could be married. But the war made travel for foreigners difficult, so we must be detained with her and Ida in her beloved Latin Quarter, while shells from the Germans’ long-range ‘Paris Gun’ fell night and day at 18-minute intervals. Sometimes they sheltered in the night in the hotel basement, and sometimes risked remaining in their rooms, Ida sleeping on Katherine’s floor so she could be looked after as need be. Ida reports that during this period of hiatus in Paris Katherine once went out alone to meet “someone she feared to see”, and came back with “enough money for their tickets home.” Ida was not told who the benefactor was, but believed it was Carco. And meanwhile they queued, and queued again, waiting for those essential stamps in their passports. When they got back to London Katherine was so depleted Murry could hardly recognise her.
In London the “two tigers” were married, the diagnosis of TB was confirmed, and she was told that only confinement in a sanatorium could save her. She would not have that, so another escape to the Mediterranean was embarked upon, this time to Ospedaletti in northern Italy. Murry accompanied her, found her a villa to rent, the Casetta Deerholm, when the hotel she had booked for would not let her stay because of her illness. This achieved, he left her in the care of Ida. Yska’s account makes it clear that by this time Katherine was addicted to the drugs she had been taking, mainly opiates to alleviate the persistent cough. The darkest and most terrible of her journal entries are written at this time. She has horrors, visions, resentments (often of Murry) and hatreds – especially of poor loyal long-suffering Ida who was closest at hand. She had a revolver for self-protection, and practised with it in her garden. She imagined Ida had died and felt exalted. Her brief and dark sojourn there was memorialised 90 years later with the construction by the San Remo council of the ‘Belvedere Katherine Mansfield’, with seats and a view of the sea.
Rescue from this corner of her hell came from her Beauchamp cousin Connie and Connie’s friend Jinnie, Catholic ladies who were living just across the border in Menton. Their kindness gave her moments of piety when she even thought of joining the church. This was not to happen however. Nothing so finite could match her need. What she would seek, if there truly was no medical cure for her, was a larger, vaguer, more universal and comprehensive ‘spirituality’: in other words, the Occult.
In the meantime, however, Yska conducts us to familiar territory – Menton’s Villa Isola Bella with its memorial room and garden under the balcony where Ida took photographs of her friend and tormentor. This place has become familiar to a number of New Zealand writers who have worked there (some have even lived in the room, though that was not intended by the Mansfield Fellowship) and have spent time absorbing the atmosphere of the Côte d’Azur which, though more over-run by tourists than in Mansfield’s day, has retained much of the magic it had for her.
She wrote reviews there for Murry’s Athenaeum, and a handful of excellent stories. Ida recalls her writing “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” in three or four hours without a break, and then calling, at 3am, “Celebration – with tea!” Another written at Menton was “Poison”, one of her very rare stories with a male first-person narrator, which Murry at first did not like, but after her death decided was “a masterpiece”.
In 1939 Katherine’s 50th birthday was celebrated by the Menton authorities, and there were attempts by the New Zealand embassy in Paris to elicit a matching enthusiasm for her work in New Zealand, and perhaps money to buy Isola Bella; but these efforts were less than successful, and it was not until 1970 that Wellingtonians Sheila Winn and Celia and Cecil Manson (whom Yska doesn’t mention) established the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship in the town of Menton and attached to the memorial room.
But was the humid Mediterranean climate the value to TB sufferers it had been thought to be? Menton’s Protestant graveyard is full of sufferers who had gone there for the relief of a warmer climate, and died – including William Webb Ellis, the man credited with inventing rugby simply by picking up the football and running with it. Tubercular patients now were frequently committed to a sanitorium high in the mountains where they were thought to benefit from the clean, clear air (as in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain). So Yska conducts us next to a brown wooden chalet among the pines of the Swiss mountains, where Katherine did indeed get a period of seven months relief, and managed to write some of her best work, including the extension of her Burnell family fiction begun in Carco’s flat in Paris and continued during that idyll in Bandol. Murry and Ida were both with her in Switzerland, and not far away was her cousin and admiring friend Elizabeth von Armin, author of the best-selling Elizabeth and Her German Garden. It all seemed, and was briefly, perfect; but the disease and its symptoms and rigours did not go away, and what she wanted was the impossible – a cure. She soon moved on, but leaving behind the inevitable street name or memorial plaque (Yska’s account does not make quite clear which, or whether it was both).
Katherine moved now back to the Victoria Palace hotel in Paris (lavishly illustrated in Yska’s book), where she enjoyed hot baths and excellent meals, and, with Murry, had a meeting with James Joyce. Katherine listened while Murry and Joyce talked knowledgeably about Ulysses. She had not liked it but did not say so, and Joyce took away the impression that she knew more about it than her husband did. This encounter led to the bar in which the meeting had taken placed being named, subsequently, the Jim and Kat bar.
But she was in Paris now to receive a very expensive treatment for her disease, which the Russian, Dr Manoukhin, promised he could cure with his machine that bombarded the patient’s spleen with X-rays. Twice a week for 15 weeks she tolerated this bogus treatment which made her feel burned, and “like a beetle shut in a book”. When it was over she returned to Switzerland, where she made the famous will, so full of ambiguous instructions (“destroy all that you do not use” and “destroy all that you do not wish to keep” and “leave all fair”) he was right to believe she had authorised him to publish whatever he thought should be preserved for posterity; (and it needs to be said that all Mansfield readers and scholars should be grateful that he did).
But now, still uncured, Katherine put herself into the hands of another magician, the Armenian/Greek George Gurdjieff whose mystic theories were promoted by Katherine’s former New Age editor and friend Arthur Orage. So Yska’s narrative brings us back, via London and Paris, once again to Gurdjieff’s ‘Institute’ at Fontainebleau-Avon, where she submited herself to the rigours of early rising on frosty mornings to sweep corridors, helping in the kitchen, watching the ‘spiritual’ dancing after dinner, and at times sitting in a specially constructed cow byre where she could breathe health-giving bovine exhalations. Finally, after a few weeks, comes a visit from Murry, that dash up a few steps of the wooden staircase, and the fatal haemorrhage.
But that is not all. How could it ever be with Katherine Mansfield? After the funeral Murry, who would soon be living rather well off her royalties, neglected to pay for the burial site ‘in perpetuity’; and so, in the French manner, her remains were dug up after a year or so and re-interred, first in the pauper’s cemetery, beyond which they were destined for the ‘common fosse’. In 1924 cousin Elizabeth visiting Fontainebleau-Avon, and unable to find the grave, reported the fact to Murry. Harold Beauchamp (now Sir Harold) was informed and arranged for a tombstone and the return of her remains to its proper site. This was done in 1929. On the stone was carved “Katherine Mansfield, wife of John Middleton Murry, died at Avon, 1888-1923” and then a quotation from Shakespeare about plucking “from this nettle danger this flower safety” – no suggestion that she was a writer or that she came from New Zealand.
I first learned from an article by Christiane Mortelier, a French-born scholar and lecturer at Victoria University, that the sexton at the Avon cemetery, M. Bontemps, who oversaw Katherine’s exhumation and reinterment, had reported to our florid memorialist, Roland Merlin, that the corpse was astonishingly intact, uncorrupted after six years in the ground. It was this, Mortelier wrote, which had advanced the (French Catholic) idea of her saintliness. If you don’t go in for magic, religious mysticism, or necromancy, either M. Bontemps, or M. Merlin, ‘made it up’; and if they did not, then Yska’s Bernard Bosque must be right that the coffin they dug up (the lid broken in the course of retrieving it so the corpse was revealed) must have been one much more recently buried, and not Katherine’s.
In 1960 the mayor of Menton, M. Francis Palmero (whom I met when I was Mansfield Fellow a decade later) asked that Katherine Mansfield be disinterred again and reburied in Menton where a suitable memorial site would be found for her; and in 2017 the Mayor of Wellington made the same request so she could be buried in her home town. If either of these requests had been acceded to, it would have set in motion the same questioning that has gone on since the end of World War II, when the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats was exhumed from the common fosse in Roquebrune for re-interment in Ireland: did the new memorial grave in fact contain the right honoured guest? And the same question might hover now over the grave at Fontainebleau-Avon.
Yska’s book does not suggest the question is ever officially asked, and we all carry on paying our respects as if it is she in there. But the New Zealand Embassy had become concerned, as her literary fame increased, that her homeland was not mentioned. So in 1957, immediately after Murry’s death, they sought, and received, permission to add another headstone (vertical this time) to the horizontal one, the new one adding to “wife of John Middleton Murry” the fact that she was “born at Wellington, New Zealand”. Better of course, but why still no mention of the most important fact, the one that she would have cared about most, that she was a writer? That is the gravestone we see in Yska’s photograph, with the original mossy one just visible at its feet.
Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to station by Redmer Yska (Otago University Press, $50) is available in bookstores nationwide.