Low life

Chatting up Katherine Mansfield

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

4 October 2014

9:00 AM

I like the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield, who according to Virginia Woolf smelt like a civet cat and had a hard, cheap face, and who was the only contemporary writer of whom she was remotely jealous. I like her writing and I like what I read about her short life. I’m not saying she was a great writer. I’m only saying that my imagination finds her writing voice oddly congenial. It strikes it as supremely impersonal, poker-faced and tart, with a quietly powerful undertow of sexual recklessness. But that might be just me. Funny things, writers’ voices. I suppose we meet them halfway and we either embrace them or we don’t. Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp and I embraced. My favourite short story of hers, and I honestly couldn’t say why, is an odd little thing never mentioned by critics called ‘The Young Girl’.

In 1916, she and her husband, the utter cad and weakling John Middleton Murry, went to Provence to write. They stayed at the Hotel Beau Rivage at Bandol, near Marseilles. They had a tiff and on the third day Murray returned to London. Shortly after that she was walking alone along a stone embankment that juts out into the sea and a chap came along and chatted her up. She recorded the conversation in her notebook. This was what it was like to chat up Katherine Mansfield. ‘You are alone, Madame?’ ‘Alone, Monsieur.’ ‘You are living at the hotel, Madame?’ ‘At the hotel, Monsieur.’ ‘Ah, I have noticed you walking alone several times, Madame.’ ‘It is possible, Monsieur.’ She says the man then blushed and put his hand to his cap. ‘I am very indiscreet, Madame.’ ‘Very indiscreet, Monsieur.’


A few weeks later, Mansfield found a cottage to rent, and Murray returned, and together they read and wrote and lived cheaply and for a few months found happiness together. The cottage was called the Villa Pauline. Last summer I visited Bandol for the afternoon and found the Villa Pauline up a side street. I leant against a hot wall and looked up at it, and screwed up my imagination and tried to see Katherine Mansfield looking out of the window at me from nearly a century before and calmly considering me. ‘You are alone, Madame?’

I’m a fool like that. After I read Under the Volcano, I visited the cottage at Ripe in Sussex where Malcolm Lowry drank himself to death, and I’ve been twice to Virginia Woolf’s surprisingly cramped house at Rodmell. I’ve spent the afternoon wandering around the Hemingway home at Key West in Florida. Here I noted that the prodigious number of pool laps he said he did every morning at that time were done in a pool about ten yards long. And in San Francisco the first thing I did was visit the City Lights bookstore and bar next door searching for an authentic whiff of poor Jack Kerouac. (I once met a newspaper snapper who when young was so enamoured of Kerouac that after reading On the Road he got a job as a brakeman in the San Francisco rail freight yards and stuck at it for a couple of years.)

But going back never works. Nothing lingers. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Even with a commemorative plaque on the wall, one is left only with a sense of vertigo at how easily all vestiges of even the recent past are obliterated and we move on. The small marble plaque on the wall of the Villa Pauline reads: ‘Ici Katherine Mansfield ecrivit “Prélude”. Janvier–Avril 1916.’ Bandol is no longer the genteel seaside resort that it once was. And while I looked, not one of the scores of holidaymakers coming and going from the beach with towels and beach umbrellas paid the house or the plaque the slightest attention. And one wonders whether, if I had drawn to their attention that a famously innovative New Zealand writer who died young had once lived in that tiny house for three months, they would have given two hoots. And I wouldn’t have blamed them if they didn’t.

Last week, I succumbed to my foolishness once again and visited another of her temporary homes, this one at atmospheric Zennor in Cornwall. She and Murry came here after Bandol. In the granite cottage next door were D.H. Lawrence and Frieda. There is an amusing or perhaps rather shocking letter written by Mansfield describing how Lawrence chased Frieda around the kitchen table and tried to beat her up. I experienced the usual excitement at having found the place. And then I experienced the usual disappointment when I stood and looked and realised that Mansfield and Lawrence are so completely absent from that place that they might as well have never existed in the first place. Lawrence’s cottage, I learnt from the lady at the B&B, is now occupied by the director of Tate St Ives.

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  • Fenton!

    according to Virginia Woolf smelt like a civet cat and had a hard, cheap face

    To judge from this picture she had terrible, old-man eyebrows. I can overlook almost anything (and believe me, I’ve had to), but old-man eyebrows are a bridge too far. Especially on a girl.

    • Wessex Man

      you’re too picky!

      • Fenton!

        That’s why I’m with Hubby, W. Man. No man has been everything to me. No man has been everything that I am. I love the best I can, knowing I have never met my match.

        • gerontiusredux

          You have obviously not met Flashman – yet.

          • Fenton!

            That was Kitty. She seems to have revived, as well. Kittiusredux.

            You are quite correct. The man I wanted does not exist. Therefore I’ve given up looking for him.

            My first long-term boyfriend — I only had one, before marriage — was sexy but lacking in the soul and intellect — and class — department. He was bright(ish) and norty as all get out, to use a phrase. But vulgar and deffo not right for me.

            My hubby was soulful and sometimes dreadful and handsome in the face but not the least bit sexy at all. Oh dear. But he’s still my best friend in life and always has been.

            The great passion of my life (absurd though it is) involved a thrice-married person of high reputation and great distance and you can guess how that turned out — both times. (Yes, I stupidly fell in love with him twice, ten years apart.)

            Others have been long on distance and short on the ability or willingness to deliver. All talk no trousers, you might say.

            And you wonder why I’m caustic about men!

          • gerontiusredux

            I just came to reply – I was also being discreet.
            I remember your sentiments rather than your precise words.
            People only have the capacity to fall madly in love once in a lifetime, I think. It takes naivety to trust another person so much and once that’s lost, it’s lost for ever.(You can of course go for a replay, as you found out).I’m still in touch with my first real girlfriend but I’m careful not to meet her: I’m scared I’ll remember things I don’t want to remember.
            After that, well, mostly we get what we need from whoever we find. We live our lives in compartments to a degree. My closest friend is a woman and if we hadn’t already been married to other people, we probably would have married each other, but friend is the role she fills. (I’m not convinced that she is good wife material anyway!)
            Hey, but life is good, mostly.
            As for the celibacy. I don’t doubt your sincerity for a moment but I hope you don’t mind me saying that it strikes me as slightly out of character.
            I’ve decided to shut down for a bit – I’ve been causing more trouble than I’m worth.
            I’ll seek you out when I return – you’re easy to spot!

          • Kitty MLB

            No, I am leaving as of now..you never cause trouble..and have been unfairly burdened with
            someone elses issues and have been treated
            unforgivably and relentlessly…and now a lovely
            man is being driven away…..this is too much
            its…

          • Damaris Tighe

            Why do I get the feeling I unintentionally intervened in a soap opera yesterday?

          • gerontiusredux

            What happened yesterday?
            I’m losing the will to live and want to turn into a small furry animal.

          • Damaris Tighe

            No idea. I’m as bemused as you. But don’t despair. The trouble with disqus is we have no idea what’s happening in the lives of other commentators & must try to be patient.

          • gerontiusredux

            You are wise beyond your years.

          • Kitty MLB

            She’s sly beyond her years and I am foolish and
            far too naive but always honest.Thanks for the
            Loyalty old blogging chum.

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh you have a troll dripping poison in you ear,
            how lucky for you..and our easily you listen
            to someone you barely know. You reep what
            you sow.

          • Kitty MLB

            And its rather creepy how ‘Damaris’ has latched
            on to you all of a sudden..be careful if I were you..Adios..I need to give myself time to heal
            and can’t here.

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh you again…how strange..and very forward
            and noisy.

          • Kitty MLB

            Sorry, just a little emotional whilst waiting for
            hospital results and for being rude..stay healthy
            old chap..thanks for being so understanding..

          • Kitty MLB

            Sorry for butting in..He thinks he’s been causing
            trouble..never! He has been treated dreadfully..
            One of those ex blogging chums I mentioned and the most….well he knows…why him.
            My husband and surgeon said it was unwise to
            blog..just utterly ashamed..that’s it now.

          • Kitty MLB

            Fenton, you are Flashman (woman) you have been using your charms across blogosphere,I see.I tried it once and him above said I should
            get a refund from the Flashman evening classes
            for ladies.
            I think I might change my moniker, not only
            have I created many new blogging enemies but
            my private health issues have become an embarrassing public drama, I am mortified to say I have even received a post from Australia from a stranger about myself..doctors said stay
            away from blogging and I now know why.
            some never learn, I even broke my violin in a temper and that cost a small fortune.

          • Fenton!

            Oh dear. Well there’s nothing wrong with changing your moniker if that will give you some more breathing space. They can guess but they won’t know….

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh it’s you.The only chap who can juggle a gin
            martini and Gina Lollobrigida whilst waltzing with Flashman snapping at the heels.
            I attended the Flashman evening classes for women and
            was expelled.But will be doing a 8 week crash
            course on Isle of Man on understanding men.
            And I won’t be back before then and I won’t be
            recognised….
            Behave everyone and you too..
            by the way…the new addition to the name..
            sounds like acid reflux.. bye xx

          • Kitty MLB

            Oh I forgot.When I return (unknown) new, lively and fresh at Christmas I hope the whiffy, miasmic dung beatles like dado are gone, open
            the Speccie windows and stay away hedgehogs
            their urine can cause diseases as I recently discovered. Adios , comrade.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I don’t think, I really don’t think, you should believe a word Virginia Woolf says. Her snobbery knew no bounds.

    • Sam Martini

      The Bloomsberries were a vile crowd.

    • gerontiusredux

      “Her snobbery knew no bounds.”

      Probably no worse than most others of her class,time and talent.
      Have you ever visited Charleston, the house where the Bloomsbury set up home? Nice house, but everything in it strikes me as second rate

      • Fergus Pickering

        Why should her talent make her snobbish? Surely it would make her less so.

        • gerontiusredux

          I was suggesting that it was their lack of talent.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Oh come. That is your own prejudice speaking. Or so I think.

          • gerontiusredux

            Oh I agree that I have lots of prejudices (and remarkably little talent!). It’s just that in this life I have noticed that those who are least secure in a talent on which they depend, are the most snobbish of all people.

          • Fergus Pickering

            I am amazingly talented and not snobbish at all. Nor do I note snobbery in the great Joe Root. Cricket reference.

          • Kitty MLB

            I’ll second that my old beansprout, you are awfully talented, not snobbish in the slightest and know your way around a cricket
            ball and you have a decent beard ( or so you say)
            PS I hope I’ve been missed here, and they were pinning for me, I am better now fter an industrial size antibiotics and anti inflammatory drugs for a germ( Weil’s disease- nasty germ that was caught by contact with urine of wild animals- plays havoc
            with major organs) And No Fergus we cannot give it socialists
            that wouldn’t be cricket.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Welcome back my dear Kitty, woman much missed!

          • gerontiusredux

            “I am amazingly talented and not snobbish at all”
            There! – you make my case for me.
            A man of your talents would not sink to snobbery.
            The bloomsberries on the other hand…..

          • Fergus Pickering

            How charming you are. I couldn’t possibly disagree.

          • gerontiusredux

            I took the liberty of upvoting your post – I’m not sure if that is really cricket.

          • Fergus Pickering

            It certainly is. I shall do likewise

  • Guest

    Ghastly Virginia Woolf, a wolf in sheeps clothing? I with my sublety
    will say more like an American hillbilly goat..of course I jest.
    Not too fond of her writing either, we have had so many excellent
    European writers without those from ‘The New World’.
    And she was an outrageous snob.

  • Munna Bhai

    Can I interest you to visit George Orwell’s crumbling birthplace in Motihari? It just might excite enough interest to save it from total ruin if you wrote about it.

  • Tim Gilling

    Katherine Mansfield’s sister lived in the Cotswold village of Duntisbourne Rous. I knew her when I was a child. The organ in the church is dedicated to KM. You might not find echoes of the writer there but it’s a beautiful church and village and well worth dropping in.

  • WPW1

    “we tore through the black-and-gold town like a pair of scissors tearing through brocade”. Lovely story. Never has a coat fallen open so tenderly.

  • Sam Chafe

    The essence of the article is the romance, and the nostalgia of romance. That is the power and the uselessness of the reflection. But that is the way we are.

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