Converging the Artificial and the Natural: Katherine Mansfield's Actual and Imagined Botanical Gardens.
--Katherine Mansfield, Notebooks, 11, p. 163
Gardens, whether as locations of interest or literary tropes, featured prominently in the life and works of Katherine Mansfield. The Botanical Gardens off Tinakori Road was one of Mansfield's favourite spots in Wellington. An early black-and-white photo of the gardens shows a geometrical landscape design with regular walking paths cutting through patches of grass decorated with local cabbage trees. (1) The mechanical design did not escape Mansfield's attention as she remarked on the traditional 'carpet bedding' near the gardens' entrance. (2) Artificial regularity did have its appeal to Mansfield, for she compared a green hedge to 'a stave', and the 'long row of cabbage trees [...] now high, now low' to 'an arrangement of notes--a curious, pattering, native melody' (Fiction 1, 84). Yet as soon as her gaze moved beyond the borders of choreographed beauty, the bush captivated her. The young writer felt that she was transformed into someone ancient yet powerful; she was also instantly transported to 'the Lotus Land' where all previous memory of beauty and order was erased (1, 85). While other visitors admired the carpet bedding with an at times almost religious awe, Mansfield savoured the bush in the shadows of her mind (1, 84). The gardens became where domesticated nature and the wilderness competed and converged. To Mansfield, the Wellington botanical gardens were 'such a subtle combination of the artificial and the natural--that is, partly, the secret of their charm' (1, 84). Bearing in mind Mansfield's description of this 'combination', I wish to discuss her gardens in the sense of both the places she visited--the Wellington and London botanical gardens--as well as the imagined, or rather, re-imagined gardens in some of her stories, reviews, and letters. By doing so, I will explore the delicate balance between 'the artificial and the natural', the tame and the wild, and how these two opposing forces or elements contend, negotiate and settle in the creative space of her writing.
Mansfield's search for the natural begins first with her rejection of the artificial borders and lines. The mathematical lines and ordered divisions which formed part of the Wellington Botanical Gardens in Mansfield's time were not accidental patterns coming out of a cultural and historical vacuum. Gardens, particularly New Zealand gardens from the 1850s to die 1930s, were imitations of European gardens according to James John Beattie. (3) This, of course, has much to do with New Zealand's heritage. The New Zealand gardens of the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries were largely nostalgic recreations of the European gardens, though the designs changed to include more Far East influences, as Beattie discusses in great detail. In Lily Briscoe and Her Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China, Patricia Lawrence traces die development of the British garden to the 'Italian Renaissance' and 'the French Cartesian philosophy of a priori systems' which resulted in the English gardens' designs of '"rule and line'" (4). But the English gardens of the nineteenth century embraced Asian, and particularly Chinese, garden design philosophies. Such philosophies yielded a more fluid experience for visitors. For example as they explored winding footpaths, visitors found themselves blocked by artificial rocks, but a turn around the rocks led to a new space.
Mansfield's fondness for New Zealand's wilderness is consistent with her discontent with set demarcation lines and order. Such classical or 'colonial' 'rule and line' patterns are meant to be broken. In her youth, Mansfield criticised New Zealand, largely out of a desire to see her country catch up with the cultural and aesthetic concerns that preoccupied European writers and artists. In a letter to her sister Vera Beauchamp written in 1908, Mansfield articulated her decadent beliefs as to the cultural and artistic directions that New Zealand should take. Reading her impassioned cry against her home country's aesthetic stagnation and artificiality, it seems as if she wished a violent storm to come and erase New Zealand's established taste in culture and the arts:
I am ashamed of young New Zealand, but what is to be done. All the firm fat framework of their brains must be demolished before they can begin to learn. They want a purifying influence--a mad wave of pre-Raphaelitism, of super-aestheticism, should intoxicate the country. They must go to excess in the direction of culture, become almost decadent in their tendencies for a year or two and then find balance and proportion. We want two or three persons gathered together to discuss line and form and atmosphere and sit at the street corners, in the shops, in the houses, at the Teas. (5)
Mansfield recognises an existing border--a 'firm fat framework'--that must be destroyed before establishing new frontiers for cultural and artistic development. She prescribes an extreme 'super-aestheticism' to cleanse the old system before her country can adopt a new discourse engaging 'line and form and atmosphere'. These terms are also applicable to garden designing. Mansfield's emotional involvement is apparent. Yet despite her severe tone, Mansfield proposes a middle ground for New Zealand because when the pre-Raphaelite baptism is over, there will be new topics for conversations preoccupied with aesthetic rather than pragmatic concerns. At first glance, a tea house is a curiously anti-climactic location for such discussions. But then again, the location does not seem so haphazard if we consider Britain's obsession with tea-drinking and the blue porcelain ware that has a hyperreal Chinese origin. Mansfield did not elaborate in her letter, but the tea house reference may very well be quite cosmopolitan and modern. (6)
In fiction Mansfield also expresses a similar impulse to 'demolish' the organised, orderly, domestic New Zealand--not with water, but with fire. 'L'Incendie' (1907) exemplifies such a desire. 'L'Incendie' can be read as a reflection on the writer's anxiety about establishing her own creative self through a preliminary process of destruction. This early vignette describes a spreading fire from a first person point of view:
A stretch of gorse clothing the hillside has caught fire. From my window I see the blue smoke spreading afar in twists and turns and curves of thin exquisite loveliness. I see, too, the fierce red glow of the flames. I watch their mad hungry progress. There is a steady, strong destructive sound. The flames rush forward, crying 'See, see, can we ever be satisfied?' Above the hills the sky is widely luminous. Below the hills is a street of little wooden houses. From the yards come the piercing incoherent sounds of children at play, and at this evening hour their voices sound thin and old, their crying seeming full of protestation. (1, 66)
The 'blue smoke' progresses like a serpent and the fire marches to a 'steady, strong destructive sound' as a kind of personified hunger. The feeble and aged voices of protest make us wonder whether Mansfield is merely describing a wild fire or the old New Zealand, diminishing in sight of her vision of a new country. Written in the same year as 'In the Botanical Gardens', Mansfield was obviously in the same frame of mind that favoured the wild, the destructive and the unorthodox.
The fire is lit in order to get rid of gorse, a plant the early settlers brought with them to create pretty hedges that would remind them of their home in either Scotland or England. In New Zealand, it grows virulently, stubbornly, invading the hillsides. To make matters worse, gorse seeds can lay dormant under soil for up to fifty years, and the common method of burning them only serves to germinate the seeds. Mansfield's choice of burning gorse may or may not have been a happy metaphorical coincidence, but her obvious delight in the fire itself is rebellious in nature: the more fire consumes these weeds, the more they will grow and spread.
As the narrator watches the fast progression of the fire intently, 'fascinated and horrified', a desire to become one with the fire is inflamed (1, 66). She wonders, 'Shall it be always from my window that I must watch the fire burning? May I not hold the flames in my hand, if only for a little while, and hold them against my heart--and laugh as they fiercely attack it?' (1, 66). The same kind of creative destruction was also expressed by John Middleton Murry in a modernist manifesto published in Rhythm magazine: 'Art is movement, ferocity, tearing at what lies before. It takes nothing for granted; and thrusts mercilessly, pitilessly'. (7) Mansfield later contributed and became the magazine's co-editor with Murry. Mansfield's questions in die vignette suggest a longing for symbiosis with an external, natural but invasive force; the desire itself closely resembles the kind of ruthless movement or direction that art must also take. She will welcome and enjoy the burning as the fire consumes her heart.
Mansfield chooses a foreign word for not just this attack on nature but the destruction of the self and of the creative heart. The vignette's title 'L'Incendie' is a French word that implies affinity with cosmopolitanism and Decadent aesthetics. Charles Baudelaire also used the same word in a similar context in his 'To the Reader' for The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du Mal), which was first published in 1857. 'Arson' (l'incendie) and its vile sisters of 'rape, poison', and 'slaughter' are described as superior elements that can decorate the 'banal canvas of our woeful fates', yet the souls are not bold enough to receive such branding designs. (8) James McGowan translates l'incendie as 'arson', further underscoring tire's deliberate and destructive nature. Conventionally destructive forces are now ironically endowed with positive powers that can elevate and transform 'fates'. Baudelaire recreates a Paris that is in every way a rejection of Haussmann's ordered and purifying renovations that resulted in sterilized streets and architectural and aesthetic uniformity.
Mansfield read Baudelaire amongst other Decadent poets, and borrowing from him is no coincidence. In a thinly-veiled autobiographical vignette 'In a Cafe' (1907), Mansfield writes: '[l]ife to a girl who had read Nietzsche, Eugene Sue, Baudelaire [...] was, in her opinion, but a trifle obvious' (1, 86). She read Baudelaire's journal, and recorded in her own diary a quote in French that translates as 'Work--even bad work--is worth more than daydreaming.' (4, 352) Baudelaire's abhorrence of the new Paris is in the same vein as Mansfield's criticism of similar principles governing the minds of New Zealanders. Reading Mansfield's earlier letter suggesting the demolition of New Zealand's 'fat frameworks of their brains', it is not difficult to connect the Baudelairean 'boldness of the soul' that she also wished to instil into the heart of her country.
Although bushfires were also deliberately lit to clear land and establish farms in colonial times, in Mansfield's version the flames are out of control and threaten the houses. Like Baudelaire, Mansfield thrills to danger and destruction as a means to higher poetical and creative states. Bodi Baudelaire and Mansfield detested banality and sanctioned destruction, but Mansfield's 'L'Incendie' makes clear the intention to become one with the wild fire. This desire to be unified with the elements later proves to be the crux of Mansfield's creative power, as we read in her accounts of 'becoming' the subject of her fictional works. (9) But even as early as the 'Botanical Gardens' vignette, Mansfield already described '[a]n inexplicable, persistent feeling' pressing her to 'become one with it all'(1,85).
Mansfield identifies with the blaze as much as she delights in the bush rather than the well-groomed edges of Wellington's botanical gardens. Such a preference suggests her moving away from existing colonial borders and centres towards cultivating an increasingly cosmopolitan taste in the art of writing. Vincent O'Sullivan calls Mansfield 'the New Zealand European' and traces her career from 'a colonial' to a 'Modernist', a process that sums up her constant preoccupation with writing that 'exemplifies [...] rejection of the centre, rejection of the borders as well.' (10) In 'In the Botanical Gardens', she acknowledges the artificiality of an 'enclosure' of flowers that appears to be 'too beautiful' and describes her ecstatic encounter with primitive nature:
And, suddenly, it disappears--all the pretty, carefully-tended surface of gravel and sward and blossom, and there is bush, silent and splendid. On the green moss, on the brown earth, a wide splashing of yellow sunlight. And even-where that strange, indefinable scent. As I breathe it, it seems to absorb, to become part of me--and I am old with the age of centuries, strong with the strength of savagery. (1, 85)
A deliberate disregard for man-made borders is apparent here. The 'bush' is foregrounded instead of the meticulously manicured garden that represents an equally beautiful form, though a form controlled, calculated, and perhaps superficial. Once Mansfield looks beyond such artificial frames, she discovers the spontaneity of other patterns, colours, and scents so alive they invigorate her. In the first issue of Rhythm, Murry proposed: 'We need an art that strikes deeper, that touches a profounder reality, that passes outside the bounds of a narrow aestheticism, cramping and choking itself, drawing its inspiration from aversion, to a humaner and a broader field'. (11) This echoes the intuitive creative urge that Mansfield describes in the botanical garden vignette. She tuned her own aesthetic intuition to the frequency of the Modern era, and the move away from both centre and border was the first step.
In Prelude, Mansfield recreates a garden without clear borders; its growth blurs the edges of domesticity and wilderness. The little explorer, Kezia Burnell--another "little colonial" much like Mansfield herself--ventures into 'the spread tangled garden' (2, 72). A fairytale-like cross-road is described here: on one side all paths 'led into a tangle of tall dark trees and strange bushes with flat velvet leaves and feathery cream flowers that buzzed with flies when you shook them--this was the frightening side, and no garden at all' (2, 72). And on the other side there was 'a high box border and paths had box edges and all of them led into a deeper and deeper tangle of flowers', all rich in colours whether they were in full bloom or decay (2,72). It is as if Kezia is faced with a choice that may lead her into an other-world. The first side signifies otherness in both visual and tactile terms, and Kezia also realises that it is 'no garden at all', whereas the other side has a 'border' and an 'edge' but guarantees no safe passage either. Kezia cannot see through the thick forest of flowers and what lies beyond.
The concept of the 'border' as an integral part of a garden is suggested in the above discussion. Kezia is too frightened to wander into the thick bush on the one side. Instead, she follows the path with box edges that demarcate thriving floral gardens. The actual garden, however, is no less unsettling; it is a garden whose inhabitants are intoxicating, almost animated, and its flowers in claustrophobic clusters radiating vibrant colours:
The camellias were in bloom, white and crimson and pink and white striped with flashing leaves. You could not see a leaf on the syringa bushes for the white clusters. The roses were in flower--gentlemen's button-hole roses, little white ones, but far too full of insects to hold under anyone's nose, pink monthly roses with a ring of fallen petals around the bushes, cabbage roses on thick stalks, moss roses, always in bud, pink smooth beauties opening curl on curl, red ones so dark they seemed to turn black as they fell, and a certain exquisite cream kind with a slender red stem and bright scarlet leaves (2, 72).
The two sides--bushy wilderness and otherworldly flower garden--described through Kezia's eyes, correspond to Mansfield's comment on the Wellington gardens: on the one side, flowers that are too pretty to be real, and on the other, the captivatingly wild bush beckons the young writer or any viewer with its unruly appeal. But the flourishing of plants at an unnatural rate on both sides, as communicated through their growth, colour, odour and texture, imparts an otherness that overwhelms the senses. Just as in Mansfield's vignette on the Wellington gardens where the bush emerges out of the artificial garden, so the two sides of the paths are not so divided after all.
Other than the Wellington botanical gardens and fictional gardens in her works, Mansfield also compares London to a restricted garden, a place where a little wild colonial like herself is allowed to look and linger, but never touch or stay. That she does not belong in the London, and by extension, the imperial gardens, is clear. At eighteen, Mansfield completed the 'Botanical Garden' amongst other vignettes and sent it to her editor, E. J. Brady. In the letter to Brady, Mansfield confessed that the 'Botanical Garden' is her only local work, since 'London has held Pier]--very tightly indeed--and [she has] not yet escaped.' (12) Certainly her other vignettes at this time were about London, a city to which she desperately wanted to return in order to re-embrace its metropolitan charm. But amongst the other vignettes is a New Zealand story--an escape meaningful in itself. Mansfield's escape from London to Wellington's botanical gardens foreshadows her later attitude towards the imperial 'gardens' and a return to the antipodean country. In New Zealand, the domesticated gardens are immersed in the wild, and everyone, like Kezia Burnell, can freely pluck and pick any flower or roll down the grassy slope if she chooses.
Mansfield never saw herself as 'English'. In her notebook, she responds to Murry's proposal to share a life in the English countryside with distaste: 'No, I don't want that. No, I don't want England. England is of no use to me'. (13) Her antagonism towards the country is based in its lack of passion and warmth, which though acceptable to her English husband is not so appealing as a metaphorical garden. As Mansfield writes in her journal, 'I would not care if I never saw the English country again. Even in its flowering I feel deeply antagonistic to it.' (14)
Mansfield's aversion to English gardens is best expressed in a journal entry dated May 1919:
But why should they make me feel a stranger? Why should they ask me every time I go near: 'And what are you doing in a London garden?' They burn with arrogance and pride. And I am the little Colonial walking in the London garden patch--allowed to look, perhaps, but not to linger. If I lie on the grass they positively shout at me: 'Look at her, lying on our grass, pretending she lives here, pretending this is her garden, and that tall back of the house, with the windows open and the coloured curtains lifting, is her house. She is a stranger--an alien. She is nothing but a little girl sitting on the Tinakori hills and dreaming: "I went to London and married an Englishman, and we lived in a tall grave house with red geraniums and white daisies in the garden at the back." Im pudence!' (15)
The entry subtly contrasts domesticated gardens with their restrictions and the wild in both Kezia's and Mansfield's New Zealand. The dream of the little colonial girl is ironic, for it is to go to London and marry 'an Englishman', living in a house where once wild but now tamed flowers--'red geraniums and white daisies'--have their designated place. An invisible border is implied: London is a 'garden patch', not the bush or the entire forest, upon which rules of non-trespassing are reinforced by those who rightfully belong. As a result, Mansfield, the little colonial from New Zealand, is forbidden the right and pleasure to explore. The question of why a colonial like herself must justify her presence and action is a challenge to imperial as well as intellectual borders. Mansfield is more interested in what lies beyond the borders than what is framed within, and in exceptions than in the norm. It is not that she does not appreciate the artificial, but that she will quickly discard such artificiality for the 'savage'. The unequivocal dichotomy of 'us' versus 'them' is expressed in the metaphorical wandering in the imperial gardens, where she is treated as a colonial trespasser.
But what lies beneath Mansfield's foreignness is also her literary lineage. At Garsington, Mansfield was more or less marginalised because with her New Zealand identity came an 'exotic vulgarity and sensitively showy bad taste', writes Lady Ottoline Morrell. (16) To the Bloomsbury literati, comments Angela Smith, '[v]ulgarity and colonial provenance' are linked in the mind of Mansfield's contemporaries such as Virginia Woolf. (17) Woolf, who associates popularity with vulgarity, comments on Mansfield's literary and commercial success with transparent jealousy:
So what does it matter if K.M. soars in the newspapers, runs up sales skyhigh? Ah, I have found a fine way of putting her in her place. The more she is praised, the more I am convinced she is bad. After all, there's some truth in this. She touches the spot too universally for that spot to be of the bluest blood. (18)
Mansfield not only detected such antagonism, but also captured it in her English garden metaphor. Woolf is representative of those who reject the legitimacy of the little colonial's identity. To Morrell and Woolf and the imperial identity they represent, it was as if [Mansfield's colonial background] were a furtive but alluring vice', observes Smith. (19)
Among the many famous New Zealand stories by Mansfield, 'The Garden Party' is particularly relevant both in its garden-related trope, and in its subversion of set patterns. The story depicts a departure from a beautifully manicured garden, from middle-class notions of order and artificiality, and then a descent to an unknown world of beauty that cannot be contained in a garden. The story's concern with order is explained in a letter Mansfield wrote to the novelist William Gerhardi. In the letter, Mansfield discussed 'The Garden Party', commenting on the 'diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included'. (20) Laura Sheridan, the adolescent protagonist of the story, feels that events in life should have a clear order, explains Mansfield. But real life does not respect such desire for order: 'We haven't the orderings of it.' (21) The story also contains excessive descriptions of the artificial beauty securely encircled within the Sheridan property. The artificiality is striking when juxtaposed with death, which is a crucial link in the natural cycle of any form of life. Death, master trope of decadent beauty, is not represented in the polished lush garden, in the waxy and fake-looking flowers that are to decorate the garden party. Everything is and must stay in its prime form, which is the only acceptable state.
The story begins with visual descriptions as the Sheridans' house gets ready to host a garden party. The effort of the workers is reflected in the polished look of the garden: the plants, grass, and rosettes seem to reflect natural light, and the roses, as if 'visited by archangels' are blooming in abundance and given a prominent display (Fiction 2, 401). Laura, the young daughter and the 'artistic one' who is in charge, is vaguely aware of a contention between nature and the artificial (2, 402). When the workers recommend that the marquee be set up in front of the karakas trees, she secretly laments that such 'proud, solitary' trees that '[lift] their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour' must be hidden (2, 403). But Laura does not have time to ponder further. More flowers arrive, and in the same manner of the roses that are ready for display, the lilies, too, are 'wide open, radiant. almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems' (2, 404). It is too much, and Laura is overwhelmed: 'She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast' (2, 404). Turning the pink flowers into flames is reminiscent of 'L'Incendie', for as the wild fire lights up the inner passion of the narrator, the pink lilies also inflame Laura's heart. The element of unnaturalness is introduced in the appearance of those flowers whose organic texture is replaced with a tactile and feverish intensity.
An accident disrupts Laura's momentary intoxication, for a young carter has been killed. Laura proposes that the garden party be stopped because it is impossible to continue 'with a man dead just outside the front gate' (2, 407). This is, of course, an exaggeration, chime the narrator and Laura's mother. Laura tries to negotiate with her family. But her mother gives her a hat--a bribe--and the compliments from everyone divert Laura's attention from the accident. The hat, needless to say, is an artifice. It serves well as a distraction, for like the flowers in full-bloom, Laura, too, is being displayed; she is decorated and decorative, and is trimmed into an artificial image.
The party goes on until the end of the day, when Laura is granted permission to go and visit the family of the dead with a basket of leftovers. She crosses from her grand house to the slum, and is ultimately shown a natural cessation of life that is not witnessed at the Sheridans': death as closure and resolution of life, an equally beautiful and peaceful place where all wax-like roses and flame-like lilies will fade and rest, a truly natural place. And, seeing the young man's 'wonderful, beautiful' face, Laura only utters one sentence: 'Forgive my hat' (Fiction 2, 413). The hat does not fit in with the peaceful scene of resolution, for it is a pretence that life, like the blossoms, will never brown, bruise, and be buried. Like the flowers in the Wellington gardens, the hat is too beautiful to be natural. Laura's apology is thus appropriate as she intuitively discerns the difference between the two.
What is significant to the symbolic interpretation of the story is that the dead man's world is segregated from the Sheridans' both in spatial and intellectual terms:
[T]he little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys (2, 408).
The 'garden patches' are inhabited by things that Laura would not associate with gardens--they are no garden at all. The division between the Sheridans' house and where the dead man's family live is clear and signified by the appearances and functions of their respective gardens. The geographical locations of the Sheridans' and the poor people's homes are clearly symbolic. The former displays an absolute superiority down to the detail of something as mundane as smoke, which is more formed, even gracefully spouted as compared with the 'rags and shreds' from the poor people's chimneys.
Laura, however, is to depart from the organised, artificial beauty chiselled by wealth and social order, and go down to the 'shredded', discontinued reality of poverty. Her journey is a breaking of patterns, a departure in itself out of an almost Edenic garden. She descends into chaos but this is the kind of fortunate fall that is also embraced by Baudelaire. Laura's eyes are opened to a new knowledge of death by the sculptural, calm face of the dead man. It then becomes apparent why everything in the garden party seems unrealistic, as if it only belongs to the Tree of Life, and is not yet tainted by the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The breaking of patterns, the transgression of borders introduces a new order.
As Woolf s contemporary and reviewer, Mansfield criticised some of the English writer's works. But there was a story by Woolf, 'Kew Gardens', that Mansfield reviewed and liked. At first glance, 'Kew Gardens' appears to be a shapeless story. Mansfield's review mostly concentrates on the unexpected arrangements of narrative paths that Woolf takes in the story. In the review, Mansfield expresses joy at Woolf s meandering through the gardens, for the world Woolf creates in 'Kew Gardens' is 'on tiptoe'; it is a world in which '[a]nything may happen'. (22) However, the directionless story is enveloped by an atmospheric fog, 'bathed' in 'a light, still and lovely, heightening the importance of everything', giving the narrative cohesiveness. (23) The wandering couples in 'Kew Gardens' always return to a geographical as well as structural origin and narrative crux--the flower bed. The effect is marvellous, for it is as if our vision becomes distracted and our pupils dilate to blurry images from past to present, from near to far, and yet Woolf always recalls die spreading vision and perception back to the gloriously lit flowerbed. Mansfield's admiration of 'Kew Gardens' lies in its surprises, in the manner in which within its borders and structure lies a living organism that constantly fascinates with its movements and details.
If we look closely at Mansfield's comments, we will find that her reaction to 'Kew Gardens' echoes her description of the Wellington Gardens:
It happens so often--or so seldom--in life, as we move among the trees, up and down the known and unknown paths, across the lawns and into the shade and out again, that something--for no reason that we can discover--gives us pause. Why is it that, thinking back upon that July afternoon, we see so distinctly that flower-bed? We must have passed myriads of flowers that day; why do these particular ones return? (24)
The 'flower-bed' creates a similar effect to the 'bush' for Mansfield. Bodi are pictorial metaphors for a culminating point in writing, the axis of a fictional structure from which all conceivable directions of narrative depart. Borders are now no longer 'rules' or 'lines' cutting the soil into little squares of self-contained shrubberies but also where all paths, literal and narratological, merge and meet.
It is no surprise, then, that in Mansfield's initial outcry against New Zealand's colonial taste, she desired a new structure and topic, and above all a new order. Two forces are at work in Mansfield: an aversion towards set borders or demarcations, and the pursuit of new lines. Ida Baker, Mansfield's life-long friend, remembers in her memoir that the writer "hated 'fuzzy edges'". (25) Virginia Woolf also remarks that Mansfield likes 'to have a line around her'. (26) Angela Smith interprets such 'obsession with line and design' to Mansfield's passion for Fauvism, particularly her appreciation of John D. Fergusson's art. (27) Mansfield visited Fergusson's Paris studio in 1918. The visit deeply impressed her, as she later recorded in her journal how the sunlight came 'through the windows, dividing the studio into four--two quarters of light and two of shadow'. (28) The magical touch of the strong light gives the objects a curious floating effect, which departs from realistic depiction. In Mansfield's description, movement and new sensory effects are securely contained in the frames created by the sunlight and windows and gesture towards a return to a reinvented 'line and order'. The new line and frame are different from the 'fat frameworks'; rather they are a fresh alignment with the gloriously illuminated 'bush'. Choosing the natural instead of the artificial, Mansfield deliberately blurs the line between the two and this creative impulse reflects a significant trait of modernism. James McFarlane remarks that although 'ambivalence' can be used to describe modernism, it is far from complete. There is no word inclusive enough, writes McFarlane, that can 'embrace all the diverse ways of interconnecting opposites and contraries and contradictions' in modernism: 'What is distinctive--and difficult--about the Modernist mode is that it seems to demand the reconciliation of two distinct ways of reconciling contradictions, ways which in themselves are also contrary'. (29) Hermann Hess also comments on the diverse mixture of the modernist world, pointing out that underneath this 'motley there lies a unity', and he 'constantly desire[s] to show that beautiful and ugly, light and dark, sin and sanctity are opposites only momentarily, and that they continually pass over into each other.' (30) Marrying opposites is typically modernist but it is also characteristic of nearly all the creative arts of that period. Lawrence argues that not only did the Chinese gardens (and Eastern art in general) influence English garden designs, but also that such influence is 'another example of the hybridity and transnational aesthetic dialogue that enriched British art'. (31)
I return to the Wellington gardens in Mansfield's early vignette: she breathes in an 'indefinable scent' that is an organic part of the wilderness. The sensuous trigger evokes imaginary associations with New Zealand's pre-colonial history. Mansfield chooses for New Zealand the approach of artificiality because only then can the country 'give birth to an artist who can treat her natural beauties adequately.' (32) Angela Smith remarks, that '[Mansfield] recognizes that all representation is artifice, and that realism is no more natural than any other artistic mode'. (33) This revelation leads Mansfield first towards a path of artificiality and a Decadent excessiveness. She transplants nature into her fictional settings and allows the uncharted wilderness to occupy the centre, and the manicured and cultivated gardens becoming peripheral. But she also acknowledges that the two 'gardens'--artificial and natural--are not that different from each other after all; they are but 'artistic mode(s)' or models within which she sets wild fires ablaze or designs landscapes of meaning and suggestion. All gardens, natural, man-made or fictitious, can be re-imagined to serve their own purposes in Mansfield's writing.
Some of Mansfield's best stories are set in New Zealand, and yet they were all written away from New Zealand. This distance has given her a more refined vision of what captivated her in the first place. Balancing the artificial and the natural constantly preoccupied Mansfield, as is evidenced by her explanation of New Zealand's untainted beauty and vulgar commercial progress in a letter to Ottoline Morrell:
But the English summer sea is not what I mean. I mean that wild untamed water that beats about my own forlorn island. Why on earth do I call it 'forlorn'. My bank Manager assures me that it's a perfect little gold mine and whenever I go down to the Bank of New Zealand I turn over a heap of illustrated papers full of pictures of electric trains and American buildings and fashionable ladies and gentlemen who might have walked out of the Piccadilly Grill ... But all that sham and vulgarity is hard to believe in: I don't believe in it all. There is another side that you would believe in too. Ah, my dear, I know the most heavenly places that cannot be spoiled--and that I shall go back to as surely as if they were 'Dixie'. (34)
The old contention between the trimmed garden flowers and the wild bush in her early vignette resurfaces here. Mansfield is still not a fan of colonial taste. Though her indignation is more temperate compared to her early outcry against her home country's 'fat frameworks' of mind, Mansfield clearly does not believe in a mirror image of London and that its modern taste can truly represent the uncorrupted beauty of New Zealand in her memory and imagination.
Yet Mansfield is as concerned with the landscape as she is with the mind. She uses another garden metaphor to express the contention between the artificial and the natural: '[t]he mind I love must still have wild places [...] It must also have real hiding places, not artificial ones--not gazebos and mazes. And I have never yet met the cultivated mind that has not had its shrubbery. I loathe & detest shrubberies'. (35) Gazebos and mazes are man-made hiding places that are deprived of the natural element of wonder; they are unreal as compared with the 'bush' of the botanical garden vignette. The same detestation is foretold by Mansfield's indignation as she walked into the botanical gardens and noticed 'the orthodox banality of carpet betiding' on each side of the entrance, and 'men, women and children' who 'seem as meaningless, as lacking in individuality, as the little figures in an impressionist landscape' (1, 84). (36) The figures, as well as the ordered garden layout, are as lifeless and uninteresting as a mind that is demarcated by 'shrubberies'. Smith comments that '[t]he cultivated mind is seen as cautious and circumscribed, rather like the Botanical Gardens of [Mansfield's] early essay, with their contrived and signposted wildernesses.' (37) The use of 'contrived' is appropriate because Mansfield is carefully avoiding utter and complete artificiality as well as a mind that has messy borders.
Mansfield's original vision of the 'bush' is a metonym for a converging of the artificial and the natural. The former includes the written words and even the square format and ruled lines of her notebook, while the latter contains nature, movement and the fiction writer's mission to capture the heart and soul of her reader. Her letter to Morrell suggests her divergence away from mainstream patterns which she sees as crooked and false. She tries to convince her blue-blooded friend that there is a truer version unreported, unembroidered or without borders, an image as powerful as the bush and its hidden forces. Ironically, Mansfield's 'unspoiled' land can only be recreated in the artificial mode of her fiction. And through this creative mode, Mansfield re-lives, though never physically returns to, that moment of joy upon discovering the wild on the borders of Wellington's botanical gardens.
(1) Vincent O'Sullivan, Katherine Mansfield's New Zealand (Auckland: Viking, 1988), p. 56.
(2) Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Fiction of Katherine Mansfield, ed. by Gerri Kimber and Vincent O'Sullivan, The Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 1 (1898-1915), p. 84. Subsequent quotations are taken from this edition and the page references provided in the text.
(3) James John Beattie, 'Making Home, Making Identity: Asian Garden Making in New Zealand, 1850s-1930s.' Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, 31:2 (2011): 139-159 (p. 139). DOI: 10.1080/14601176.2011.556378.[accessed 31 December 2015].
(4) Patricia Lawrence, Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), p. 314.
(5) The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. by Vincent O'Sullivan and Margaret Scott, 5 Vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1984), Vol. 1, p. 44.
(6) See chapter four, pp. 296-313, of Lily Briscoe's Eyes in which Lawrence discusses how imagined anglo-chinois landscape patterns appeared on British tea ware. These images circulated in British culture and contributed to the formation of the transnational nature of modernist taste. Lawrence concludes: 'In actuality, the British "appropriated" the rich blue and white, and other ceramic, arts of China "liquidating" the reference to Clima along the way, and then using it to enrich its own porcelain arts', p. 298.
(7) John Middleton Murry, 'Art and Philosophy', Rhythm 1 (1911), 9-12.
(8) Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, trans, by James McGowan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 5.
(9) One of the rather famous passages that have been frequently analyzed by Mansfield scholars is from a letter she wrote to Dorothy Brett, painter and Bloomsbury member. In the letter Mansfield writes about how imperative it is to 'become' the subject--apples or ducks--so that she can 'create them anew'. Collected Letters, I, p. 330.
(10) Vincent O'Sullivan, Finding the Patterns, Solving the Problem: Katherine Mansfield the New Zealand European (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1989), p. 5.
(11) Murry, 'Aims and Ideals', Rhythm 1 (1911), 36.
(12) Collected Letters, 1, p. 26.
(13) The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks, ed. by Margaret Scott, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 2, p. 167.
(14) Notebooks, 2, p. 167.
(15) Notebooks, 2, p. 166.
(16) Dear Lady Ginger: An Exchange of Letters Between Lady Ottoline Moire-II and D'Arcy Cresswell, ed. by Helen Shaw (London: Century, 1984), p. 118.
(17) Angela Smith, Katherine Mansfield: A Literary Life (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2000), p. 2.
(18) Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. by Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNeillie, Vol. II (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), pp. 170-1.
(19) Smith, A Literary Life, p. 2.
(20) Collected Utters, 5, p. 101.
(21) Collected Utters, 5, p. 101.
(22) Mansfield, 'A Short Story', Review of Woolf s 'Kew Gardens', Athenaeum (13 June) 1919. Republished in The Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, ed. by Gerri Kimber and Vincent O'Sullivan, Vol. Ill The Poetry and Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 474.
(23) Katherine Mansfield, The Collected Fiction of Katherine Mansfield, ed. By Gerri Kimber and Angela Smith, The Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Katherine Mansfield, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), Vol. 3, Poetry and Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield, p. 474.
(24) Poetry and Critical Writings, p. 475.
(25) Ida Baker, Katherine Mansfield: The Memoirs of LM (London: Michael Joseph, 1971), p. 85.
(26) Cited in Smith, A Literary Life (Houndmills: Palgrave, 2000), p. 15.
(27) Smith, A Literary Life, p. 74.
(28) Notebooks, II, p. 133.
(29) James McFarlane, 'The Mind of Modernism', in Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930, ed. by Malcolm Bradbury and ]ames McFarlane (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 71-93 (p. 87).
(30) Quoted in Bradbury and McFarlane, Modernism, pp. 88-89.
(31) Patricia Lawrence, Lily Briscoe's Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2013), p. 313.
(32) Mansfield, Notebooks, 1, p. 81.
(33) Smith, A Literary Life, p. 31.
(34) Collected Letters, 1, p. 316.
(35) Notebooks, 2, p. 163.
(36) Mansfield was probably thinking of Georges Seurat's 'Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte' (1884-86), a famous Impressionist painting in which men, women and children are depicted as stiff and almost identical figures captured in unvaried light and shade. Mansfield was familiar with Impressionist artists, but preferred Post-Impressionism and was especially impressed by Van Gogh.
(37) Smith, A Literary Life, p. 125.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
|Previous Article:||Maternal Agency, Genre Mutation, and Political Critique in Fiona Kidman's True Stars.|
|Next Article:||Puffing like a Grampus: Literary Efforts at Drama 1946-1964.|