Kathleen Jones began her life of Katherine Mansfield with a description of Wellington’s weather. Obvious and sensible! As I re-read the short stories – not read since the early 1980s I’m struck by the sentences about the weather. This is especially true of the stories set in New Zealand but not necessarily always.
‘It was the early afternoon of a sunshiny day with little winds playing hide-and-seek in it.’
‘All that day the heat was terrible. The wind blew close to the ground – it rooted among the tussock grass – slithered along the road, so that the white pumice dust swirled in our faces – settled and sifted over us and was like a dry-skin itching for growth on our bodies.’
‘It was a delicious day, warm and sunny with a little wind that seemed to leap at Kitti like a friendly dog, ruffling and tumbling her.’
‘Over all bulged the grey sky with black web-like clouds streaming.’
‘The sun hung in the faded blue sky like a burning mirror.’
I’m grateful for Jones. Reading her life spurred me to pick up Mansfield’s prose again. I’m loving her stories. Also her poetry. Indeed, late November, early December 2010 can be seen as a Mansfield phase in my reading life. I’ve read Ida Baker’s memoir as well. Normally, I have several books on the go at once. For once I’ve not had beside my chair a separate poetry collection for dipping into for sanity’s sake. At present Mansfield’s adjectival pieces suffice.
As a young man I’d read a few of her stories in a haphazard way. ‘At the Bay’ and ‘Prelude’ stuck in my memory. So I fell with glee upon the collection of her New Zealand stories which Ian Gordon brought out in 1974. It lived up to anticipation.
The big Alpers volume ‘Stories of Katherine Mansfield’ which I’m reading steadily through again I gave to Anne for Christmas in 1984. I read it then. But I recall I got bogged down a bit in the early London, German and Belgian stories.
Since then I’ve been to Germany and Belgium. I will not say I’m wiser but I am more mature. I appreciate pension and spa life in a way I didn’t then. And I have time – time to savour the skill, style and passion of the narrative. I understand the feminist perspective better. Those early stories reflect a woman's lot at the beginning of the 20th century in both Europe and the colony.
Since then I've also read the Letters and Notebooks. Now, I live more in solitude than I did in 1984. I read a story and sit and reflect upon it before beginning the next one. When Anne's around we'll discuss it and its companion pieces.
I’ve long argued (not really, but facetiously) that Jane Austen is too good to be wasted on the young. In a very different way the same could be said about Mansfield. So once again, thank you Kathleen Jones for your re-introduction. In my dotage I’m loving reading her.
WORDS with Douglas McLennan
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