Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Recollecting Mansfield


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After Durban we rounded the Cape, worked up the west coast of Africa and had half a day's shore leave in Dakar, Senegal. Some of the differences between Durban and Dakar — or, I suppose, South Africa and Senegal — were startling. In Durban the black people walked along with downcast eyes, never obviously looking at a white person. They seemed sad and silent. At one point I found myself, on the wharf, in a large customs shed. I couldn't find what I was looking for and eventually realised that everybody else in the shed was black. Only then did I observe a sign saying 'Non-Whites Only'. I was quite sure that everyone there was well aware of my having strayed into their midst but not one of them was looking at me. The gentle art of seeing without looking was perfected in that place. In Dakar, by contrast, the people, very black, walked tall with flashing eyes and flashing teeth. The women wore brightly coloured gowns page 41with matching headdresses. They were audible, laughing and talking, and conveyed a sense of being happily at home. I wondered how the architects of apartheid could bear the contrast between these two peoples.

We had one day in Gibraltar before flying out. Thelma and Joan were on a different flight from mine but I saw them again a few months later when I visited them in their little coastal town of Seaford on the Sussex Downs.

All this time England had been in the grip of a long postal strike so I had been unable to let Ida Baker know of the change in my arrival plans. But she knew all about the hazards of travel and the need to double-check everything. She had asked Oup to confirm that the Queen Fred was coming to Southampton, and when they reported that her passengers were, in fact, to be flown to Gatwick from Gibraltar, Ida Baker instructed that a London hotel booking should be arranged for that night, and that I should be met at Gatwick and told where to go and what to do the next day. Unfortunately for the kind person from Oup, my flight did not reach Gatwick until 2 a.m. by which time she had been waiting for some hours and was apparently not able to find out when to expect me. So she left me a welcoming note directing me to a small hotel in Ebury Street, from where, in the morning, I should go to Waterloo Station, take the 11.08 to Salisbury to be met there by a taxi lady who would drive me to Wood Green.

And so I found myself walking down a long grassy lane towards a little 16th-century (as it turned out) thatched cottage from which emerged a wrinkled old woman, bent nearly double, with wisps of white hair emerging from under her red woollen cap. Ida Baker. She took both my hands and said, 'You see, my dear, I did stay alive for you. ' She had a little dog called Megan at her heels. Her welcome was sweet and low, but also with a certain page 42briskness, as if she would brook no nonsense from the likes of me. I was, of course, 40 years her junior so it was not difficult for her to be a little imperious. The underlying reason for this, it transpired, was that she was haunted by the feeling that she had failed Katherine by being uncertain, insecure, subservient, tentative. Since the only thing she looked forward to now (apart from the publication of her book, of which more in a minute) was 'passing over' and finding Katherine waiting for her on the other side in, apparently, the same circumstances as before — doing her important work, needing to be looked after — Lesley (as she asked me to call her) was determined to prove, at least to herself, that she could be decisive and effective. Katherine, one gathered, would be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude.

Thus I was forbidden to do any food preparation or washing up, which meant, since Lesley was half blind, that none of the crockery or cutlery was ever quite clean. It would have been pointless to fuss about this — I simply had to accept it as I would an unfamiliar tribal custom. Neither was I permitted to get out of bed in the morning before she had struggled up the narrow spiral stairs to the attic bedroom with a large cup of hot tea, spilling not a drop in the saucer.

The attic bedroom had leadlight windows opening over water meadows with one of England's Avon rivers flowing through them, and soft grassy countryside rolling away into the far distance. There were still, in March, patches of snow on the eaves, with red-breasted robins darting about. I was entranced by the Englishness of it — this was the land that had nourished all the people whose works were in my bones.

After Katherine died, Lesley told me, she suffered what would now be recognised, but wasn't then, as a severe nervous break-down. When she recovered she took all her memories of Katherine, folded them carefully, packed them into a large trunk in page 43her mind and fastened down the lid. Just recently she had decided to write them up before the last of her eyesight disappeared, so she opened the trunk and there they all were, she said, as fresh as the day she had put them away. So she began to write up her 'Notes'. But of course she didn't realise that if she wanted to keep this activity to herself she would have to remain totally quiet about it. She discussed it with Georgina Joysmith, an attractive young woman in the village whom she had become fond of. Georgina, and a friend of hers called Peter Day, had connections to the publisher Michael Joseph, and they talked to her about turning her material into a book, edited and supplied with extra factual information such as dates, by Georgina. Lesley allowed herself to be persuaded rather, she told me, against her better judgement.

By the time I got there the book, Katherine Mansfield: The Memories of Lm, was in production and due to be published in a few months. Lesley said it contained all her memories of Katherine and I would find in it anything I wanted to know. She was clearly very sensitive and vulnerable about Katherine, even after half a century, so I didn't press her. I enjoyed simply being with her and getting to know her, hoping to find out to what extent Katherine had exaggerated her inadequacies. It was transparently clear that she was practising on me for the time when she would be with Katherine again. On one level she was careful to allow me freedom to go upstairs and write (letters, in my case) but underneath, when she sensed that I was about to escape to my room, she tried to hold me by begging me to eat or drink. When I did get away I felt her waiting presence, her mind going over and over me and my conversation. When I went downstairs she was so grateful … I could understand absolutely how desperately trapped one would feel if, because of ill-health, one could not escape. I recognised Lesley's big helpless hands, her inconsequential observations, her lack of intellectual stringency.

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Her diet was predominantly starch, sugar and fat — she didn't eat meat for spiritual reasons — and her drinks, apart from tea, were variations of hot milk. The most important meal of the day was afternoon tea, and what she liked most were raspberry (pink icing) buns. As in Katherine's day, there was something faintly urgent and surreptitious about her food consumption. For me the most extraordinary discovery was that she had never read Katherine's Journal or Letters to John Middleton Murry. Apparently Miss Harvey, with whom she shared the cottage for the first 15 years until she died, had tried to protect her, saying, 'No, dear, I don't think you should read it. Murry has altered it so that it is not really Katherine, and anyway it is her very private writings and you know how cross she would be …' This stratagem worked, so that Lesley lived and died without ever knowing of Katherine's sometimes desperate hatred for her. I found myself profoundly thankful for this, although it meant saying goodbye to my hopes of some insights from Lesley about it. But those hopes were not realistic anyway. People in the past had said to Lesley, 'How unkind she was to you! How could you bear it?', to which she would reply with a sweet smile, 'Oh nonsense! The poor darling was terribly ill and unhappy — of course she was sometimes irritable but she didn't really mean it.'

There is no doubt that Katherine was uppermost in her mind while I was there. She decided one day that tomorrow we would go to Fordingbridge, the nearest town, so that I could see it, and we would also stop off on the way to look at the oldest Anglo-Saxon church in the country. We would go by car, thanks to her taxi lady from the village. I thought perhaps I should wear a bit of make-up if I was going to be visible, and when I came downstairs ready to leave she must have caught a whiff of my face-powder because she said, 'Katherine is here!' I started to say something and she said, 'Katherine is in the room with us — I can smell her page 45own special smell — it means she approves of you.' It seemed a shame to disillusion her, so I didn't.

The village of Wood Green was not, however, my final destination and I had to set my sights across the channel. Lesley was extremely scathing about the idea of the room at the Villa Isola Bella. 'A ridiculous plan, my dear. The room was the gardener's potting shed, Katherine never once went into it. You would be much better off staying here to do your work. Make little sorties to London or wherever you must go, but base yourself here for the year.' But I would not have been able to manage being Lesley's pretend-Katherine for much longer, so I thanked her warmly, told her I would come back and departed.