The Post

War and loss triggered Mansfield’s best work

October is not only Katherine Mansfield’s birthday month, but this year is also the centenary of the death of her much-loved brother, writes Nicola Saker.


WORLD War I changed everything for everybody, and Katherine Mansfield was no exception.

During its four-year span she lost the one member of her family she was close to; for better or for worse, she married John Middleton Murry; and she was diagnosed with the tuberculos­is that killed her.

Of its wider impact, she wrote to Murry: ‘‘I feel in the profoundes­t sense that nothing can ever be the same – that, as artists, we are traitors if we feel otherwise: we have to take it into account and find new expression­s, new moulds for our thoughts and feelings.’’

The effect of the death of Leslie Beauchamp (known as Chummie) on her life and writing cannot be underestim­ated.

Her other family relationsh­ips were, at best, fragile.

Annie Beauchamp, her mother, viewed her with mistrust and disappoint­ment, especially after hearing of Katherine’s racy year in London following her return there in 1908.

Cutting a child out of a will is an undeniably aggressive and vengeful act, and that is just what Annie Beauchamp did in 1909.

With her father, she veered between distaste for his philistini­sm and a longing for his approval and embrace.

Her three convention­al sisters bored her. Only with Chummie did she enjoy a close sibling bond.

During her last months in Wellington, she wrote in a letter: ‘‘He and I mean to live together – later on. I have never dreamed of loving a child as I love this boy. Do not laugh when I tell you I feel so maternal towards him. He is intensely affectiona­te and sensitive.’’

They were reunited in London in February 1915. Soon after, he lent Katherine some money, purportedl­y to allow her and Murry to travel to France to do some war reporting.

This was a lie she spun him to enable her to meet up with her French lover, Francis Carco.

This expedition took Mansfield into the heart of war-torn France and she experience­d first hand the difficulti­es and privations of its citizens.

The story An Indiscreet Journey is very much based on her experience.

The amorous rendezvous lasted all of four days and she returned to London, Murry and Chummie.

He was based in Aldershot, training to be an instructor rather than for the front, and would visit her in London whenever he got leave.

At that time, she and Murry were living at 5 Acacia Rd in St John’s Wood. It had a garden with a pear tree (surely the inspiratio­n for the one in Bliss) and was one of the more attractive of the many houses she and Murry had lived in.

She and Chummie would sit in the garden and play games of ‘‘Do you remember?’’ evoking their shared childhood in Wellington.

On September 22, 1915, Chummie left for France. She wrote to him from Selfridges: ‘‘This isn’t a letter, just my arms around you for a moment.’’

O‘This isn’t a letter, just my arms around you for a moment.’ Mansfield note to her only brother, Chummie

N October 11, he was killed when a grenade that he was demonstrat­ing blew up in his hand. These particular grenades were the cause of untold numbers of unnecessar­y deaths because of their faulty design.

The death of her brother was the trigger that impelled Katherine Mansfield to write her most famous stories as a memorial to him and their childhood:

‘‘Oh I want for one moment to make our undiscover­ed country leap into the eyes of the old world. It must be mysterious, as though floating – it must take the breath . . . all must be told with a sense of mystery, a radiance, an afterglow because you, my little sun of it, are set. You have dropped over the dazzling brim of the world.’’

She was as good as her word. At The Bay, Prelude and The Garden Party are all a part of her own, particular war effort.

Anzac of the Year Louise Nicholas recently opened the exhibition In My Very Bones: Katherine Mansfield’s War at Katherine Mansfield House & Garden, in Wellington.

This exhibition, curated by the director of the house, Emma Anderson, with assistant curator Rebecca Nuttall, is extraordin­arily rich and interestin­g. Using a timeline, it traces the developmen­t of the siblings’ relationsh­ip.

Objects borrowed from Alexander Turnbull Library, such as Leslie’s medals and childhood books, add depth and poignancy.

JUST as Mansfield maintained that the war required ‘‘new expression­s, new moulds’’, so did the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society when asked for a nomination for the 1915 Anzac of the Year Award.

The patron of the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society is the Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, and the award is his to give.

It wasn’t immediatel­y obvious to the board of a literary heritage institutio­n, with its namesake dead 92 years, who it could or should nominate.

When the suggestion of Louise Nicholas was put forward, the response was unanimous.

It was decided that Louise Nicholas not only embodied the Anzac spirit, but that of Katherine Mansfield as well.

Mansfield was intensely aware of the vulnerabil­ity of women.

Many of her stories, often referred to as the femme seule suite, deal with this and the predatory nature of men (and, being Mansfield, sometimes women as well).

The board’s submission said: ‘‘The framing of the nomination is (perhaps because of its historic and military pedigree) maleorient­ed.

It would be salutary if, in 2015, a female version of comradeshi­p, compassion, courage and commitment was honoured by this award.’’

An inspiring, overarchin­g similarity between both women is their transforma­tion of grief and harrowing experience into something larger and more emblematic than themselves.

Nicola Saker is president of the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society.

Katherine Mansfield House & Garden is at 25 Tinakori Rd and is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10am-4pm, and the exhibition In My Very Bones: Katherine Mansfield’s War is on until January 29, 2016.

 ??  ?? Both Katherine Mansfield, shown in a painting above, and Louise Nicholas transforme­d their grief and harrowing experience into something larger and more emblematic than themselves.
Both Katherine Mansfield, shown in a painting above, and Louise Nicholas transforme­d their grief and harrowing experience into something larger and more emblematic than themselves.
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