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Wellington's Storied Past

Writer Katherine Mansfield's home celebrates her legacy.

April 21, 2002|CAROLE VAN GRONDELLE

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- Virginia Woolf once wrote that the only writer she was ever jealous of was her friend and fellow Bloomsbury Group member Katherine Mansfield. D.H. Lawrence memorialized her as Gudrun, one of the sisters in "Women in Love."

Considered one of the 20th century's finest short-story writers, Mansfield was born and reared in this small colonial city at the turn of the last century. Although she fled at age 19 for the bright lights of London, her memories of Wellington stayed extraordinarily vivid. Some of her most luminous stories--"At the Bay," "Prelude," "The Dolls' House" and "The Garden Party"--were drawn from her childhood in Wellington.

The British, Japanese and French embraced Mansfield's writing long ago; many Americans are now discovering its haunting beauty. Like most New Zealanders, I was raised on Mansfield's stories.

After recently returning to Wellington from abroad, I felt a need to reconnect with the capital city's most famous literary export, so I decided to visit the places that played a role in her life and stories.

It's possible to trace much of Mansfield's early life in Wellington in a day. Although a sizable slice of Thorndon, the fashionable central-city suburb where she was born and spent most of her childhood, was cleared for a freeway in the 1960s, many of the places mentioned in her letters, diaries and stories still stand. They include two of the houses she lived in; schools she attended; and houses, gardens and buildings she visited, including the magnificent downtown Edwardian Bank of New Zealand headquarters (now a shopping arcade), where Mansfield's father, Sir Harold Beauchamp, was chairman.

Mansfield's family was a prosperous and conventional one. Her father was a self-made man whom she described as "thoroughly commonplace and commercial." Her mother was beautiful and socially ambitious but aloof and often absent from her children.

As the awkward middle child of four sisters and a brother, Mansfield was a rebel from the start. Overweight and bespectacled, she was known as the difficult one, an outsider intense in her feelings and given to outbursts of jealousy and fury.

Her childhood was not unhappy, however. She did not lack for anything, including large dollops of loving care from her mother's mother, Granny Dyer, who lived with the Beauchamps. And her father's riches provided a wealth of early experiences that Mansfield later captured with deep affection in her writings.

I began my tour in Thorndon, went next to the western suburb of Karori, where she grew up, and ended up in Muritai and Days Bay, where the Beauchamps spent their summer holidays. You can take the freeway to Days Bay, but I decided a more interesting and authentic option was to travel as the Beauchamps would have and take the ferry across Wellington Harbor from Queen's Wharf.

"It's a small town, you know," Mansfield wrote in "Daphne," "planted at the edge of a fine deep harbor like a lake. Behind it, on either side, there are hills. The houses are built of light painted wood. They have iron roofs colored 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."

Thorndon

My first stop was the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace at 25 Tinakori Road, five minutes' drive from the central city. It was here that Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born on Oct. 14, 1888. (She was called by many names--Kass, Katie, Katiushka--but was known by most as Katherine.) The square, two-story timber house was built that same year by Mansfield's father, then a young merchant. He was later knighted for his services to commerce and banking.

The birthplace, today painted cream with a red iron roof, has been meticulously restored and furnished with antiques and replicas of the original wallpapers and furnishings. You also can watch a 50-minute documentary on Mansfield's extraordinary life. It celebrates her brilliance but also makes plain the high price she paid for her "new woman" ideals--an unplanned pregnancy, miscarriage, a gonorrhea infection and TB, which killed her at the tragically early age of 34 in France.

Katherine spent her first five years in this house. On the front lawn calla lilies grew wild, and the upstairs bedrooms looked out over the breakwater of the harbor. In "Prelude," Kezia is standing at an upstairs window when "the day flickered out and dark came. With the dark crept the wind snuffling and howling. The windows of the empty house shook, a creaking came from the walls and floors, a piece of loose iron on the roof banged forlornly."

Walking around the corner from Mansfield's birthplace, I came to Fitzherbert Terrace, in many ways the heart of Mansfield's life in Wellington and the place where she began her writing career. She attended school here, and it was her last home in New Zealand.

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