Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 16 March 2017

I went in search of the Menton of my literary heroine and found a minuscule pair of knickers

Low life | 16 March 2017
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After circuiting Spain by train, I went east to Italy, stopping on the way at the French border town of Menton. Until the first world war, Menton hosted an English colony of 5,000 residents, two Anglican churches, a lending library and an English-language newspaper, the Monaco and Menton News. The dry, sheltered climate also attracted writers, artists, valetudinarians and the tubercular. Cannes is for living (so the saying went), Monte Carlo for gambling, and Menton for dying. The Yellow Book illustrator Aubrey Beardsley breathed his last at the Hotel Cosmopolitan and is buried in the atmospheric cemetery overlooking the town, and W.B. Yeats passed through the veil up the road at Roquebrune. And 31-year-old short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, dying of TB, wrote against the clock at her rented house, the Villa Isola Bella. She wrote ‘The Young Girl’, ‘Life of Ma Parker’, ‘The Lady’s Maid’, ‘Miss Brill’ and ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’ in six months — not a bad output considering how ill she looks in the photos taken of her at the time.

While at Menton, I visited the Villa Isola Bella. The letters Mansfield sent from there to her philandering husband, glorifying the house (‘You will find Isola Bella in poker work on my heart.’), the town (‘The finest thing I’ve seen.’), the maid (‘…a superb type’), the scenery (‘Heaven from dawn to dawn.’), the food, and even the wasps, are fervidly sentimental to some, unforgivably snobbish to others. But their pathos and that crystal-clear voice have made them stick in my mind. I was under no illusion, however. A literary pilgrimage is a fool’s errand in so many ways. Nothing stays the same. But I am a sucker for Katherine Mansfield, and if nothing else, I hoped I might experience the same sea breeze and the same sunlight that she raved about, and see the view, and perhaps be annoyed by a distant ancestor of one of the mosquitos that bit lumps out of her. From the old town I walked along the prom towards Italy and found the house up a side road, overlooking the platform of Menton-Garavan railway station, on which four armed French policemen were patrolling for illegal immigrants.

The Villa Isola Bella is perched on the side of a steepish hill and my first clear sight of the property was from the sunken lane below. The villa’s basement — a self-contained writer’s retreat belonging to the Katherine Mansfield Society — was locked and barred, and sprouting weeds made the place feel deserted and neglected. The finely elaborate wrought-iron gate and boundary railing looked original, however, and I was pleased to imagine Katherine Mansfield’s hand on the gate as she let herself in and out. Then I walked on up the hill until I was level with the main part of the building, which was a handsome, well-kept, classic Provençal villa with tall shuttered windows and a balcony. The only discernible alteration since 1920 was that the house was painted peach instead of yellow.

In front of the villa, a tidy and spacious ground-floor terrace and driveway were secluded from the lane by double electric gates and a fence. The elegant porticoed front door was wide open. Through one of the ground-floor windows I could make out the flickering screen of a large wall-mounted TV. The faint yet unmistakable sound of a studio audience going bananas drifted out through the open door. Presently, three little hairy dogs bounded out of the house, yapping dementedly. And then this laid-back, attractive blonde came out. She was wearing a loose, hastily thrown on shirt and nothing else, not even any knickers, and her face was creased and sullen with sleep. She followed the dogs out on her lovely, tanned, sporty legs, and, bending low with her back to me, she placed two bowls of dog food on the ground in front of them. Now I saw that she was in fact wearing knickers, only they were minuscule and had ridden up into the crevices. She looked up and saw me standing there gawping like an idiot, and she stared right through me as if I were a ghost. Then she slouched back inside the house and I saw her pass by the TV screen and flop down out of sight.

And it was somehow gratifying to think that life at the Villa Isola Bella goes on as it has always done, and that if this current tenant chose to write everything down, the result would probably be every bit as interesting and fervent as Katherine Mansfield’s letters and journals. But she probably hasn’t bothered, and has thereby saved herself a good deal of time and trouble.