Jeremy Clarke 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

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.

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