Welling­ton’s land­mark writer

Kather­ine Mans­field is well re­mem­bered in the city of her birth

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SU­SANNA SMITH

Af­ter strolling through Welling­ton’s bustling Har­bour­side Mar­ket, I no­tice a con­crete sculp­ture lean­ing over the har­bour em­bla­zoned with words by New Zealand au­thor Kather­ine Mans­field. “Their heads bent, their legs just touch­ing, they stride like one ea­ger per­son through the town, down the as­phalt zigzag where the fen­nel grows wild … the wind is so strong that they have to fight their way through it, rock­ing like two old drunk­ards.”

The sculp­ture is part of the Welling­ton Writ­ers Walk and the quote, from Mans­field’s short story The Wind Blows, re­minds me how much of her rev­o­lu­tion­ary work dur­ing a short life (she died in France, aged 34) was inspired by her home town.

Mod­ern Welling­ton blends old and new with great style. Bold min­i­mal­ist ar­chi­tec­ture sits com­fort­ably be­side well-pre­served colo­nial build­ings and even though the so-called Cap­i­tal of Cool has moved with the times, the town where Mans­field grew up is still recog­nis­able. The Welling­ton land­scape, with its in­ces­sant wind, steep hills and pas­tel-coloured Vic­to­rian tim­ber houses, ap­pears in many of her sto­ries.

A de­scrip­tion from Daphne de­scribes Welling­ton so well that I recog­nise many streetscapes more than a cen­tury later: “It’s a small town, you know, planted at the edge of a fine deep har­bour like a lake. Be­hind it, on ei­ther side, there are hills. The houses are built of light painted wood. They have iron roofs coloured red. And there are big dark plumy trees massed to­gether break­ing up those light shapes, giv­ing a depth — warmth — mak­ing a com­po­si­tion of it well worth look­ing at.” I make my way up the hill past the New Zealand par­lia­ment build­ing (fa­mously known as The Bee­hive) to the Kather­ine Mans­field House and Gar­den at 25 Ti­nakori Road, Thorn­don. I am warmly wel­comed by guide Sue, who quizzes me on my knowl­edge of Kather­ine Mans­field.

“She was a mod­ernist writer and a con­tem­po­rary of Vir­ginia Woolf,” I of­fer. “Yes, they were friends but also ri­vals,” Sue replies, adding that Woolf once called Mans­field’s work “the only writ­ing I have ever been jeal­ous of”.

Mans­field was born Kath­leen Mans­field Beauchamp in this house, in 1888, and spent her first 15 years in Welling­ton be­fore she was sent to board­ing school in Eng­land. The house has been faith­fully recre­ated to cap­ture her child­hood dur­ing the Ed­war­dian pe­riod. Some of the items are orig­i­nal be­long­ings of the fam­ily, in­clud­ing the ta­ble and chairs on dis­play in the din­ing room over­look­ing the front gar­den. The grounds are planted with bushes and flow­ers pop­u­lar dur­ing Mans­field’s life­time.

I make my way through to the scullery where a replica of the doll’s house Mans­field de­scribes in her story The Doll’s House takes pride of place. I re­call the char­ac­ter Kezia (a thinly veiled ver­sion of the au­thor) keenly ob­serv­ing the so­cial bar­ri­ers that pre­vented her from play­ing with the work­ing-class Kelvey chil­dren.

I ven­ture up­stairs to “the birth room” where Mans­field was born, an event she fic­tion­alised for her short story A Birth­day. It is not hard to imag­ine her fa­ther, the tale’s nar­ra­tor, anx­iously wait­ing to find out if he has a son and heir af­ter the birth of two older daugh­ters.

I walk to the Botanic Gar­den at the other side of Thorn­don, where Mans­field spent days read­ing, walk­ing and think­ing. Her story In the Botan­i­cal Gar­dens is a sym­bolic vi­gnette about a young woman who goes off the path here. I take the down­hill path­way past the Aus­tralian gar­den and some of the small me­an­der­ing paths that lead to pleas­antly sur­pris­ing places such as the rock gar­den and the fern­ery and I soon un­der­stand why Mans­field drew so much in­spi­ra­tion amid the green and calm.

As dusk closes in I take the ca­ble car from the Botanic Gar­den down to the lower city and walk along Lambton Quay where Mans­field has been im­mor­talised in Vir­ginia King’s stain­less-steel sculp­ture Woman of Words (2011-2013). The im­pos­ing piece fea­tures the writer look­ing to­wards the quay she would have walked along; her long dress has been laser-cut with words from her jour­nals and sto­ries, and at night it be­comes what King de­scribes as “a lan­tern of words”, lit from within so the letters read in sil­hou­ette. Her im­me­di­ately iden­ti­fi­able bobbed hair­style is cre­ated from words on a shop­ping list found in her jour­nal from 1922: “Ink, rice, cake”. Ac­cord­ing to King, “El­e­gant mu­si­cians’ hands ref­er­ence Mans­field’s early years as a cel­list. The face mask refers to her let­ter to (pi­o­neer psy­cho­an­a­lyst) Sylvia Payne: ‘ Don’t lower your mask un­less you have another mask pre­pared be­neath, as ter­ri­ble as you like, but a mask’.”

Walk­ing away, I hear a trav­eller tell her com­pan­ion: “We’re stay­ing close to the statue of that lady with the words on her … it’s our land­mark.” I can’t help but think that Mans­field would be proud.

• kather­ine­mans­field.com • welling­ton­writ­er­swalk.co.nz • vir­gini­ak­ingsculp­tor.com • welling­tonnz.com

New Zealand au­thor Kather­ine Mans­field’s house, now a mu­seum; inset above,

statue

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