One of the more surprising attractions of Wellington, New Zealand’s small but perfectly formed capital city, is what might be described as England’s farthest-flung literary shrine — the Katherine Mansfield House. The author’s birthplace and childhood home, this modest house in the relatively plush suburb of Thorndon is open to the public — and who could resist the allure of a building described by Mansfield as ‘that awful cubbyhole’, ‘the wretched letter box in town’ and ‘that horrid little piggy house which was really dreadful’?
She also described the place as ‘dark and crowded’. Dark it still is, and horribly crowded it must have been. In the five years the family occupied it, three generations lived together in this two-storey Victorian mini–villa — Katherine (née Kathleen Beauchamp) and her two sisters (more siblings were to come), her banker father, her mother, her maternal grandmother and two young aunts. Visiting now, it’s hard to imagine how they all fitted — and all too easy to share Katherine’s claustrophobia.
The house, built of New Zealand timbers, was restored in the 1980s and returned to its former layout, with original features preserved or faithfully reproduced, and some Beauchamp furnishings reinstalled, along with family possessions, pictures, and a Katherine Mansfield archive. The result is a convincing recreation of the kind of gloomy, cramped domestic setting the rebellious, artistic, self-dramatising Katherine would have found intolerable.
Images from her early years there crop up a lot in her short stories, especially the later ones where she returns to — and to some extent reconciles herself to — her New Zealand roots. It seems you could take the girl out of Wellington (or rather, she took herself out as soon as she was able, helped by a generous allowance from her father) but you couldn’t take Wellington out of the girl. The early years, the home ground, are always in some way fertile soil.
In Mansfield’s case, it was the death of her beloved brother Leslie in the Great War that turned her stricken mind back to scenes from her early years in Wellington, which inspired some of her finest short stories (‘At the Bay’, ‘The Garden Party’, ‘Prelude’, etc). In these works she took a very European form, transported it to the alien soil of New Zealand — and created some of the most brilliantly effective stories of the 20th century. Reluctant Kiwi and eager exile though she was, you could say that in her writings New Zealand (and Wellington in particular) first became a locus of world, rather than provincial, literature.
Katherine was very fond of flowers — her writings are full of them — and the gardens of her childhood home have been restored and replanted, very pleasingly, with 1890s favourites. When I emerged, blinking, from the house, I walked round to the small back garden, loud with the chirring of cicadas — and there was a Monarch butterfly feeding on a tall viburnum. The majestic butterfly seemed every bit as exotic and out of place in suburban Wellington as the young Katherine Mansfield must have done.
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