Following on from the Witi Ihimaera post, in 1989, he published an anthology of short stories called Dear Miss Mansfield as part of the celebration of the centenary of Katherine Mansfield. I am borrowing his story title for the title of this blog post and I acknowledge that Ihimaera’s story was not well received in New Zealand but did receive positive recognition overseas. This “overseas” place can be troublesome for New Zealanders. New Zealand is a long way from everywhere. I was at a conference in Auckland once when a guest who had come all the way from Birmingham, England quipped that when you go to New Zealand you really want to be there because it is not on the way to anywhere else.
Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was born and raised in Wellington New Zealand in the late 1800s. New Zealand was just a beginning country and in the struggle of forming its own identity while still a colony of Mother England. Katherine’s father decided that his daughter’s education would not be complete without the finishing touches of Queen’s College, Harley Street, London. So Katherine was one of the forebears of the great OE (oversea’s experience) that so many kiwis have undertaken. The OE is a rite of passage for many New Zealanders and has its roots the understanding that their homeland is far away in the antipodes.
Mansfield became an accomplished writer of the short fiction form and was a leading light in what became known as British modernism. Her short return to New Zealand after her time in London was stifling to her and so she returned to England. But New Zealand was the place that many of her most vivid stories were drawn from her memories of growing up in Karori, Wellington. She was a third culture kid in literature and she brought a unique perspective as a New Zealander writing in Europe while not fully belonging to New Zealand or Europe.
My favourite of her New Zealand stories is “The Doll’s House” written in 1922 and published in “The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories“ in 1923. It shows the awkward class distinctions that had arrived with the immigrants to New Zealand. The Kelvey girls were not quite at the same social level as the Burnell’s but Kezia, so delighted with the gift of a perfect little dolls house, wanted to share the delight with her classmates. I will let you read the story but the line “I seen the little lamp” still delights me with the sense of hope it portrays.
There is an annual writer’s fellowship called the Mansfield Fellowship awarded to a New Zealand writer to go to Menton, France a place where Mansfield found peace to write. Katherine Mansfield’s writing has had great influence in modern literature globally and in New Zealand. While she wrote many stories set in places other than New Zealand she did acknowledge that New Zealand was in her very bones.
She wrote ‘I think the only way to live as a writer is to draw upon one’s real familiar life – to find the treasure in that.… And the curious thing is that if we describe this which seems to us so intensely personal, other people take it to themselves and understand it as if it were their own.’
Katherine Mansfield is very dear to many of us.
Amanda Bond is a New Zealand ex-pat currently working as Teacher Librarian in an international school in Istanbul, Turkey. Her twitter handle is @kiwionthego