Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Recollecting Mansfield


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The first thing that had to be done, it seemed to me, was to locate all the letters. The ones to Murry were in the Turnbull, as were some to other people, but there were very many letters in private hands whose owners had to be found. The man at Oup who would be my regular contact was Jon Stallworthy, the poet. His father was a distinguished New Zealand expatriate, so he was not unfamiliar with my country. He threw himself into the project with energy and enthusiasm and gave me some invaluable leads. An obvious nut to be cracked was Ida Baker, Mansfield's Old Faithful. She was difficult to approach. She had become wary of Mansfield investigators, and particularly of male ones. Years earlier, when Antony Alpers approached her, she had started off trusting him and responding to his charm, but finally felt he had betrayed her trust, and she had vowed to be doubly careful ever after. But, Jon Stallworthy visited her in her cottage on the edge page 24of the New Forest in Hampshire, explained carefully the nature of the proposed work and obtained her permission for me to write to her.

Readers of Mansfield's letters and notebooks will know that this was a situation in which I had to step very delicately. There had been much strain between the two women and Mansfield had written about her exasperation with Baker in terms that must surely have made the latter shrivel. By this time most of these comments had been published in Middleton Murry's editions of Katherine Mansfield's Letters to John Middleton Murry and The Journal of Katherine Mansfield. The two had met when they were still at school and Ida had developed an attachment to Katherine that never left her. Although Katherine found the friendship rather a limited one she nevertheless leaned on Ida for all sorts of small services. Later, when Katherine became severely ill, and Ida was still prepared to devote herself to her, Katherine had no choice but to accept Ida's help. Living with someone whose understanding of one's complexities is very limited can, however, be a cruel strain. In writing to or about her friend, she referred to her sometimes as Ida, sometimes L.M. (or Lesley), sometimes Jones and sometimes the albatross.

There were occasions of amused irritation such as these two examples, both from October 1919:

How I should beat her if I were married to her — its an awful thought — She thinks I'm made of money — that's the worst of it. On her last but one journey to San Remo she bought 1 hecto of coffee for 4.50 from 'such a funny little shop' & when I protested she 'thought the parcel was small for the money but the beans felt very tightly packed.' Could you believe it — However, let her go. And I shall never shoot her because the body would be so difficult to dispose of after. One couldn't make it into a neat parcel or put it under a hearthstone & she would never burn —

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She has broken our glass jug. Well, well. First thing I saw was the fragments outside the back door. It can't be helped. She said 'it was very frail from the beginning'. I suppose one would make the same excuse if one dropped & broke a baby!

Then there are instances of profound exasperation, such as this in Notebook 16 (also from 1919):

She was sure I would be cold & as usual tried to make of my departure une petite affaire sérieuse: I always try to thieve out, steal out. I should like to let myself down from a window, or just withdraw like a ray of light. 'Are you sure you won't have your cape … etc etc etc?' Her attitude made me quite sure. I went out. At the corner the flying, gay, eager wind ran at me. It was too much to bear. I went on for a yard or two, shivering — then I came home. I slipped the yale key into the lock, like a thief, shut the door dead quiet. Up came old L.M., up the stairs. 'So it was too cold after all!'

I couldn't answer or even look at her. I had to turn my back & pull off my gloves. Said she: 'I have a blouse pattern here I want to show you.' At that I crept upstairs, came into my room & shut the door. It was a miracle she did not follow … What is there in all this to make me hate her so? What do you see? She has known me try & get in and out without anyone knowing it dozens of times — that is true. I have even torn my heart out & told her how it hurts my last little defences to be questioned — how it makes me feel just for the moment an independent being to be allowed to go & come unquestioned. But that is just Katie's 'funniness'. She doesn't mean it, of course …

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We hardly spoke at lunch. When it was over she asked again if she might show me the pattern. I felt so ill, it seemed to me that even a hen could see at a glance of its little leaded eye how ill I felt. I don't remember what I said. But in she came & put before me — something. Really I hardly know what it was. 'Let the little dressmaker help you …' I read. But there was nothing to say. She murmured 'purple chiffon front neck sleeves' I don't know. Finally I asked her to take it away. 'What is it, Katie? Am I interrupting your work?' 'Yes, we'll call it that.'

And this, also in a notebook (Notebook 31, 1921-1922):

The deep grudge that L.M. has for me really is fascinating. She keeps it under for a long time at a stretch but oh — how it is there! Tonight, for instance, in the salon we hated each other — really hated in a queer way. I felt I wanted her out of my sight, she felt that she must insult me before she went. It was very queer. It was peculiarly horrible. When she said I hope you are satisfied I had a real shrinking from her — something I never feel at other times. What is it? I don't understand, either, why her carelessness or recklessness should be so repellent to me. When she tosses her head and says in a strange voice, at ease, 'Oh, a lot I care' I want to be rid of the very sight.

But Mansfield did not easily exonerate herself. Years earlier (1914; Notebook 23), she wrote this:

Have I ruined her happy life — am I to blame? When I see her pale and so tired that she shuffles her feet as she walks when she comes to me — drenched after tears — when I see the buttons hanging off her coats & her skirt torn — why do I call myself to account for all this, & feel that I am responsible for her. She gave page 27me the gift of her self. Take me Katie. I am yours. I will serve you & walk in your ways, Katie. I ought to have made a happy being of her. I ought to have 'answered her prayers' — they cost me so little & they were so humble. I ought to have proved my own worthiness of a disciple — but I didn't. Yes, I am altogether to blame. Sometimes I excuse myself. 'We were too much of an age. I was experimenting & being hurt when she leaned upon me. I couldn't have stopped the sacrifice if I'd wanted to —' but it's all prevarication. Tonight I saw her all drawn up in pain & I came from Jack's room to see her crouched by my fire like a little animal. So I helped her to bed on the sofa & made her a hot drink & brought her some rugs & my dark eiderdown. And as I tucked her up she was so touching — her long fair hair, so familiar, remembered for so long, drawn back from her face, that it was easy to stoop & kiss her — not as I usually do — one little half kiss, but quick loving kisses such as one delights to give a tired child. 'Oh' she sighed 'I have dreamed of this' (All the while I was faintly revolted.) 'Oh' she breathed, when I asked her if she was comfortable, 'This is Paradise, beloved.' Good God! I must be at ordinary times a callous brute. It is the first time in all these years that I have leaned to her & kissed her like that. I don't know why I always shrink ever so faintly from her touch. I could not kiss her lips.

Because she was so dependent on L.M. for innumerable small services, she continued to work on the problem and, in a letter to Murry of January 1920, she seemed to have arrived at a destination:

Ever since you left here this time — since this last 'illness' of mine (what the doctor calls acute nervous exhaustion acting on the heart) my feelings towards Lesley are absolutely changed. It is not only that the hatred is gone — something positive is there which page 28is very like love for her. She has convinced me at last, against all my opposition that she is trying to do all in her power for me — and that she is devoted to the one idea which is (please forgive my egoism) to see me well again. This time she has fed me, helped me, got up in the middle of the night to make me hot milk and rub my feet, brought me flowers, served me as one could not be served if one were not loved. All silently and gently too, even after all my bitter ravings at her and railings against her. She has simply shown me that she understands and I feel that she does.

Am I right in feeling you would never have disliked her had it not been for me? How could you have! I look back and think how she tried to run the house for us. She failed — but how she tried! I think of her unceasing devotion to us — her patience with me — her trying to help you and to efface herself when we were together. Who else would have done it? Nobody on earth. I know she loves us as no-one ever will. She thinks (still thinks) it would be the ideal life to be near us and to serve us. In Hampstead she was in a false position. She cannot be a servant — a nurse — a companion — all these things. But to overlook — to help — to keep an eye on our possessions (precious to her because she knows what we feel about them) there is no-one like her. My hate is quite lifted — quite gone, it is like a curse removed. Lesley has been through the storm with us. I want her now to share in the calm … I know she is not perfect. I know she sometimes will annoy us. God — who won't? And who will leave us so utterly free and yet be there in charge when we want her. I confess that now I do lean on her. She looks after me, she has become (or I see her now in her true colours) the person who looks after all I cannot attend to. It was only when I refused to acknowledge this — to acknowledge her importance to me that I hated her. Now that I do I can be sincere and trust her and of course, she, feeling page 29the difference, is a different person. Her self respect has all come back. She thinks for me and seems to know my ways as nobody who had not been with me for years ever could … I think my hatred must have been connected with my illness in some way. I cannot explain it … You must realise that now that we are at peace I am never exasperated and she does not annoy me. I only feel 'free' for work and everything.

All this notwithstanding, the miracle didn't really occur, as this waspish letter from August 1921 shows:

Dear Ida,

I shall destroy the other letter I have written. Perhaps Jack is right; I am a tyrant. But…look here.

(a) Will you please either date your letters or put the day on the top.
(b) Do you mind cutting out the descriptions as much as you can? That kind of yearning sentimental writing about a virginia creeper & the small haigh voices of tainy children is more than I can stick. It makes me hang my head; it makes Jack play the mouth organ whenever we meet it in females. But I shall say no more. This is where the tyrant comes in. It's so much worse when the spelling is wrong, too. Brett is just exactly the same in this respect … It's very queer …

I don't like any of the stuffs. Will you go to Lewis Evans & Selfridge or Debenham. Number the patterns & I'll wire a reply. Miss Read won't get them done, of course, but arrange with her to send them over. Try for royal blue instead of cornflower. These are either 2 dark or 2 light. As for tartans — try for soft smoky checks on any coloured ground instead — like the red & black check we saw in Menton. You remember? That's the kind of stuff I page 30meant, too. They had both better be lined with v. fine silver grey viyella or cashmere, I think. And tell Miss Read to cut them on the big side so that I can wear my woollen jumpers underneath if necessary. I'd rather have nothing than these ugly dull stuffs. I am a very modern woman. I like Life in my clothes. It's no good going to Liberty for plain colours — ever. Try & think of a picture in a French pattern book or a figure on the stage, can't you?

Sorry to give you so much trouble. I'd no idea it would be all so very difficult. My advice is to 'concentrate more' & not worry about the golden leaves so much. Fall they will! I am up. I am better and at work again. Cheer up! — Katherine.

These few selections will give an idea of the eggshells I would have to walk on in approaching Ida Baker. Her own letters from Mansfield (those that postdated the big 1918 bonfire Mansfield demanded) were safely in the British Museum, but I would need her permission to access them, and in any case I needed to meet her because she was such a key person in Mansfield's life.

When I wrote to her I felt as if I already knew her because I had read so much about her. I managed to convey a sense of this without making her cringe back into her shell. That, and the fact that I was a woman and a New Zealander (how perceptive of Dan Davin!), opened the door for me, and we began to write quite often, with me promising to get to England to meet her as soon as I possibly could. She was in her late 70s by then, so I did have a sense of urgency.