Jeremy Clarke

Chatting up Katherine Mansfield

And chasing up the ghosts of Hemingway, Malcolm Lowry, Virginia Woolf and Jack Kerouac

Chatting up Katherine Mansfield
Text settings

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.