Wellington’s landmark writer
Katherine Mansfield is well remembered in the city of her birth
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,