'Pocket demons of my own'.
The day I began reading Redmer Yska's A Strange Beautiful Excitement, the President of the United States took to Twitter. Pundits on National Radio were expressing consternation at the President's tweet, in which he defended his reputation by describing himself as 'a very stable genius'. He added as proof: 'I went from very successful businessman ... to President of the United States (on my first try)'. Donald Trump was retaliating against Michael Wolff s portrayal of him in Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, a damning journalistic assessment of his presidency and character. In the same tweet, Trump labelled this book a product of 'Mainstream Fake News Media'. As National Radio critics pointed out, Trump's claim to have entered the presidential race only once is untrue. But in an an era some have described as dominated by 'post-truth polities', the truth, it seems, is negotiable at the highest levels of Western society. Facts, fake news and Twitter fabrications... These may seem to bear little relation to the book I was reading that day: Yska's study of the way colonial Wellington shaped Katherine Mansfield's childhood. Yet questions of truth and fact in relation to biography determine the focus of Yska's book, and are woven adroitly into its structure.
How does a city make a writer? Yska, a Dutch born New Zealander, with several history books to his name already, poses this question in his prologue and answers it in the form of a literary hybrid. A Strange Beautiful Excitement eschews neat categorisation: it is partly a history of Wellington, partly a biography of Mansfield's experiences in the city, and partly a journalistic reportage with an autobiographical edge. Kathleen Jones' 2011 biography Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller provides a precedent, perhaps, for more structurally creative ways of delivering the Mansfield story, but Yska's book, in its amalgamation of genre and subject, attempts something altogether new.
Yska presents himself as a character in the narrative, where he plays the role of biographer, historian and indefatigable sleuth. In the prologue he explains his position as a native of Karori--the suburb where Mansfield lived and returned to in fiction--eager to understand the role of his hometown in the life of the earlier writer:
I grew up in the same valley in the 1950s, around half a century after Katherine Mansfield did. My family lived behind the Mobil service station on Karori Road. Yet we pupils knew little about her, other than that she was remembered with a birdbath, an unlikely tribute, by the tennis court above Karori Road [...] I'm out in the open, retracing the pent wind-corrugated streets of the Wellington [Mansfield] walked as a child, (pp. 13-15)
Thereafter we follow him into libraries, offices, archives and graveyards, as he pieces together the Wellington that shaped Mansfield: 'I head down Park Street to Tinakori Road [...] I'm on the top floor of Wellington City Library'. His detective work twice involves a cartographical retracing of Mansfield's footsteps, when he follows the route she took to school in Karori, and walks the streets of Thorndon she knew:
May Street is up in the air, a grey ribbon of bitumen flying above the Thorndon motorway. Today it's thick with cars, no longer the quiet residential by-street where Kathleen Beauchamp ambled to school. Nor are there any traces of the spreading cedar tree she passed at the corner where May Street joined Tinakori Road, and that dropped a soft coat of greenery on the pavement, (p. 197)
This method of framing Mansfield's biography in terms of his own experience means that Wellington is evoked through multiple temporal frames. The history of Chesney Wold (the house occupied by the Beauchamp family between 1893 and 1898) which Yska gives in chapter eight is written in this palimpsestic way, as if to remind us how the past shapes the present. He begins the chapter by leading the reader with him into the modern home:
I'm outside Chesney Wold at 372 Karori Road, dinging the electric bells [...] Current owners Sean Rogers and Julia Rowling open the door. They escort me to the rear of the house [...] We drink our coffee in the open-plan north-facing room at the rear: state-of-the-art stainless-steel European kitchen in one corner; low-slung seating, white carpet and plasma TV in the other, (p. 103)
He then describes the various tenants and owners of the house over one hundred and fifty years, from the time it was built until the time of writing. Yska uses Mansfield's fiction to connect his wanderings through the house to hers, as when he draws from 'Prelude': 'I'm able, for example, to pinpoint die front door Kezia Burnell enters' (p. 106). And he ends the chapter with an imaginative little cameo: 'As I leave I note the staircase of polished native timber, a feature of the latest, more austere makeover. Yet I can just make out Katherine Mansfield sprawling on a chaise longue' (p. 115). At such moments, Yska steps unequivocally into the preserve of fiction himself.
Yska's familiarity with Wellington really did a great deal for the narrative. This is particularly so in his discussions of Karori: with scrupulous detail, he reconstructs the small rural hamlet as Mansfield knew it, but alongside this offers his own memories of the area. Descriptions of a school playground 'alive with threat' for a child of immigrants, of being bullied by a local tearaway, of 'sarcastic sometimes violent parents' (p. 139) in a humble weatherboard home suggest Yska's associations to the place are sombre. He makes the rather poignant observation that in pacing the streets alongside Mansfield, he comes up against 'pocket demons of my own' (p. 238). Yet he is alive to its sensual beauty, writing gracefully and familiarly of its shadowed gullies, dewy villas and the wind-frayed hillside where he lived, 'tangled with shaggy-trunked ponga, mahoe, haukawakawa, coiled cables of supple-jack to haul on, and rooftop streaks of crimson rata above calm trails scented with leaf mould' (p. 138).
I enjoyed Yska's presence in the book. It's an approach which acknowledges the resistance in postmodern writing to narrative authority, but at the same time projects the insights of a long-time Wellingtonian. The book opens with an extended apostrophe in which Yska addresses Mansfield directly. This struck me as unnecessarily affected at first: 'Cold Katherine. Solitary Katherine. Triste Katherine' he writes, then questions her, confides in her, repeats her history back to her. But as the narrative progressed, the device gained meaning: it positions the reader as witness to Yska's address to Mansfield, just as the book can be understood as a personal quest of one writer to understand the other. The person who narrates another's life exercises a kind of history-sculpting power that is inflected with his own point of view. Yska's decision to make himself a character in the text is a clever way of making explicit this complex interplay between biographer and subject.
The book is divided into four roughly chronological sections, addressing different phases of Mansfield's childhood, although essentially grouped around Yska's research interests and discoveries. In the first section, Yska brings to the fore Wellington's shadier history as a perilous, unsanitary, stinking breeding ground for contagious disease during Mansfield's early childhood. Amongst Edwardian buildings boasting civic gentility were a network of open 'filthy drains' (p. 62) channelling water contaminated by 'nightsoil' dumped by residents and waste which 'filled the ditches and piled up around the harbour' (p. 61). Yska gives records of the death rates in the period--plangent proof of the problem.
The writing is gritty and emotive. Yska provides potent examples of crisis. In 1892 the local medical officer of health, Dr William Chappie, had to unblock a Tory Street drain 'stuffed with coils of sheep intestines from a local slaughterhouse' (p. 64). In the household of James Hector, one of the colony's leading scientists, the problem of dirty water was addressed by 'fixing a piece of flannel over the mouth of the kitchen tap, removing it every evening when it contained a teaspoon of filth that gave off a terrible stench as it decomposed' (p. 59). As Wellington was proudly singing its own praises as a booming child of Empire, 'home to the colony's busiest port and fastest-growing manufacturing centre', Yska shows that its citizens of all classes and suburbs were subject to attack by 'typhoid, diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles' and cholera' (p. 61).
Against this background, Yska shows that the Beauchamp family were not immune. He is the first to point out that Mansfield's younger sister, Gwendoline, died in Wellington's cholera epidemic. The cholera deaths, which amounted to 'one continuous, lethal epidemic' persisting 'for upwards of half a decade' (p. 57), have largely been forgotten, but Yska reveals that Gwendoline's death in 1891 'was one of 104 epidemic deaths that year' (p. 63). He mounts the case that the Beauchamp family moved to Karori to escape the threat of disease, reminding us that Mansfield's father described the move to Karori as benefitting 'not only the children's health, but also my own' (p. 66). Understanding events in this light enables a rereading of Mansfield's fiction. Her parents' anxieties about illness 'lurks above' the stories set in the colony, Yska suggests. Disease enters through any fissure into the apparently secure world we see in photographs and other biographies, and sheds light on the menacing side of Wellington that Mansfield often hints at, but seldom explicitly explores. It gives new meaning, for instance, to moments in 'Prelude' where Wellington, in fictional guise, is denounced as a 'hole of a town' by Stanley Burnell, and Beryl Fairfield regrets the social life of town but agrees that living out of town 'won't kill' the family (p. 67).
In the second section, Yska explores family history, outlining Mansfield's maternal Dyer lineage and her paternal Beauchamp ancestry. I found this part less revelatory than section three, where he offers fascinating insights into members of the MacKelvey family, who feature as the Kelveys in 'The Doll's House'. In the story, Lil and Else Kelvey are shy, shunned and pitiable, two little girls whose father is mysteriously absent, and who attend school dressed in ludicrous hand-me-downs provided by their washerwoman mother. Yska reveals that while the image of poverty was true, in real life their mother, Annie MacKelvey, was an 'intelligent, vivacious woman' (p. 120) who helped with the Beauchamp Monday wash. Their father was 'popular, even loved' in Karori, a 'bee keeper and jobbing gardener' (p. 118) who regularly worked for the Beauchamp family. In real life Lily and Elsie MacKelvey were 'studious' (p. 129), both girls won writing prizes at Karori School. Lily painted for pleasure throughout her life, even submitting her work to the Kensington School of Art in London.
In looking to real precedents for themes and characters in the New Zealand stories, Yska again enables a rereading of Mansfield's writing. The Burnell snobbery remains snobbery but the threat embodied in the Kelveys gains more substance. What seems, in 'The Doll's House', to be an 'unashamed sense of social superiority' on the part of the Burnells, may actually have reflected 'anxiety about contact with contagion' (p. 67). This is not of course the definitive reading, but it is a thoroughly intriguing one. In real life, Mansfield's parents were mourning the loss of a child; fear of disease may have coloured Mansfield's early years. Yska argues that this is made explicit by a line in 'The Garden Party' when the Sheridan children are forbidden to set foot in the 'little mean dwellings' inhabited by poor workers 'because of [...] what they might catch' (p. 16).
Perhaps Yska's biggest contribution--alluded to as the 'the thrilling discovery' in the blurb--appears in the final section of the book: a hitherto unknown short story by Mansfield published in the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies' Journal of 13 October 1900, together with some correspondence between its editor and the Beauchamp girls. Yska found the story after trawling through pages of this weekly periodical, which was printed between 1890 and 1908. The women of the Beauchamp family were, Yska points out, frequently mentioned in its 'swirl of elite gossip'. Mansfield's story, 'His Little Friend', is a sombre tale which presents the friendship between an elderly man and an impoverished young boy, who dies at the end of the tale 'of a cold'. As Yska says, it contains the 'dark seeds' of stories like 'The Garden Party'. It is a valuable discovery, proving how young Mansfield was when she first appeared in print, and confirming that questions about death, childhood and class were lifelong preoccupations.
In a market saturated with biographies of Mansfield, when one wonders what more can possibly be said, Yska achieves something commendable: a new contribution to knowledge. Amidst the larger revelations discussed in this review, Yska adds a wealth of smaller historical details to the Mansfield story. Little pieces of research do much to widen our understanding of Mansfield's Wellington life--they 'tilt the angle we may see her from' to borrow a phrase from Vincent O'Sullivan's discerning foreword. Mansfield "claimed to have been born in a 'Southerly buster'", though the weather records show it was more likely a garden-variety gale' (p. 73). Harold Beauchamp expressed intolerance for children from the poorer families who created 'a perfect pandemonium' (p. 166) in the street outside his Thorndon home. Of such little details are lives made, reconstructed and interpreted. Reading Yska's book felt like walking along a familiar beach, but finding all the little pebbles overturned, revealed in a curious new aspect.
The book has a lush, antique appearance: James Nairn's impressionist depiction of Wellington harbour decorates the cover and endpapers; creamy pages bear extensive historical photographs; it has a cloth spine, a pretty ribbon page-marker. But the colour scheme is modern--bright green and the yellow of buttered popcorn--an amalgamation of the past and the present day. And this brings me back to my starting point, for of its present-day context this book seems deeply aware. Yska takes seriously the implications of the fact that to 'author' a biography is also to assume the mantle of 'authority', and that in writing about Mansfield's life he brings the perspective of his own. At a time when truth seems increasingly up for grabs in the international political arena, and a president can kick it about--or kick it away--how delicately Yska steps through history to unearth fact. How sensitively he places Mansfield's feet on Wellington soil.
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|Title Annotation:||A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield's Wellington, 1888-1903|
|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
|Previous Article:||A series of critical vignettes.|