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the cover of Katherine Mansfield's Europe, on a backdrop on an old European map
Image: Archi Banal

BooksJuly 9, 2023

‘The woman in her cage’: Mansfield in Paris

the cover of Katherine Mansfield's Europe, on a backdrop on an old European map
Image: Archi Banal

Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station is a glorious exploration of the places – countries, cities, hotels, villas, railway stations, infirmaries – she visited in her short, vivid life. The following excerpt is from a chapter on Mansfield’s Paris.

At the start of the twentieth century, influenza was typically a death sentence: “The very word has a black plume on its head and a trail of coffin sawdust,” Katherine wrote. It’s often forgotten that she was both witness to and participant in a pandemic. A hundred million people died from Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920; about a quarter of the world sickened. The virus was less deadly by the time she caught it in the airless corridor of a Left Bank hotel in 1922 while being treated for TB. 

Despite the early promise of Switzerland, Katherine was back in Paris, one more stop on her never-ending quest for a cure. Leaning back on the soft pillows in her suite at the Victoria Palace Hotel, she uncapped her fountain pen: “I’m rather glad to have had influenza; it has been such a dreaded thing to me.” In the end, after days in bed with a wild cold, feeling “boiled”, she conceived a novel cure for the “Spanish Lady” – champagne: “I felt really awful [the] first few days & then one day ordered champagne for lunch & it did the trick.” Or did it? As with Covid-19 a century later, the infection often lingered: “I really began to breathe again, as they say, but in stalked the influenza and he is a persistent fellow; he’s not gone yet.”

I’m on the sixth floor of the same hotel, in the same discreet Paris street, standing in Mansfield’s original suite with its eighteenth-century decor, her home for much of the first half of 1922. Elise, the elegantly frazzled receptionist, is familiar with the old room; traces of the celebrity guest from a century ago are still scattered across the hotel. In a ground-floor lounge, for instance, on top of a Louis XVI-style mahogany chest of drawers with a white marble top, sits a cracked red leather folder with a black-and-white photo of Katherine. Across the way, an ornate drinking nook has been set up to commemorate her afternoon cup of tea here with James Joyce. I drank a lemonade there last night. 

‘I have a heaven-kissing room au 6ieme with a piece of sky outside and a view into the windows opposite – which I love.’  (CLKM, vol. 5) The view from the writing desk, sixth floor, Victoria Palace Hotel. Photograph by Conor Horgan.

Elise escorted me up to this room in the creaky lift; led me along the same windowless, slightly musty corridors where Katherine caught her flu. I’d been plaguing Elise for days; she finally relented, grabbing a set of yellow-edged keys. She’s unlocked the door of suite 610 with a flourish, and now stands by the door, intent on her mobile. She’s not tapping her foot, but it’s clear our particular clock is ticking. 

I find myself inside a jewel box. I’ve already flown across the deep red carpet, made straight for the window by the balcony where I know Katherine spent all those supine months. Floor to ceiling, this is a chamber of unblushing, old-fashioned magnificence, dazzling Lelièvre floral fabric stretched tight across all four walls, extending into matching pairs of curtains. A sublime Louis XVI writing desk is placed here, with a gold metal reading lamp and plain lacquered armchair. There the perfect wastepaper basket, oval and cream, is adorned with hand-painted ducks. I part the curtain as Elise stands scrolling. I’m opening the narrow window, fiddling with the creaky latch. 

Now comes the moment I’ve hoped for. I can see the railed balcony, barely big enough to stand on, soaring above a smallish internal courtyard with dank greenery far below. Victoria Palace is constructed around it. And yes! I can see directly across to suites with open shutters, bulbs burning behind sheer curtains on this drizzly October afternoon. Katherine documented this same view. Today, however, few permanent residents occupy these rooms – unlike a century ago, when hotel living was for many people a sustainable, commonplace option. Not anymore; one night in this suite costs US$840. I checked. 

Katherine peered out from here, across an internal courtyard, to a fellow guest who put canaries in cages on her balcony. Photograph by
Conor Horgan.

On my flight to Paris, still a mask-free experience in 2019, I sat back with a classic from Singapore Airlines’ inflight entertainment catalogue: Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Rear Window. Wheelchair-bound hero (James Stewart) spends his day at the balcony of his Greenwich Village apartment. He peers across an internal courtyard into the rooms – and private lives – of his neighbours. I’m reminded of this when I gaze out from suite 610. In 1922, as Katherine came to Paris for radiation treatment, she, too, spent hours at her window. The view from her balcony, across a grimy inner courtyard, became her smaller world: “I have a heaven-kissing room au 6ieme with a piece of sky outside and a view into the windows opposite – which I love.”

From her couch, she recorded the mutterings, the curtain twitchings, the life outside her ledge. It gave her access to a world she could no longer be part of: “One hears the voices of people in the open air – a sound I love in spring and all the windows opposite mine stand open so that I see at one the daughter sewing with her mother, at another the Japanese gentleman, at another two young people who have a way of shutting their bedroom window very quickly and drawing the curtain.”

Katherine’s attention shifted to the birdsong coming from the balcony opposite. She first spotted the comings and goings of wicker cages and flowers in pots soon after arriving: “It is nice to watch la belle dame opposite bring her canary in when it rains and put her hyacinth out.” Within weeks, the birds, a welcome echo of her childhood, filled her days: 

How can one possibly express in words the beauty of their quick little song rising, as it were, out of the very stones … I wonder what they dream about when she covers them at night, and what does that rapid flutter really mean? And there sits the woman in her cage peering into theirs, hops down to the restaurant for her seed, splashes into a little too short bath. It is very strange. 

Today the balcony directly opposite is bare cement and brick, shorn of flowers and wicker birdcages; the only item visible is an emerald-green beer bottle on the balcony floor by the doors. By now Elise has crossed the room and is standing next to me. She spots the bottle. “Pas bon,” she mutters. The sight is enough to get her back onto her mobile, a chambermaid on speed dial. My five minutes are up. I’m frantic, scribbling in a notebook, dazzled by the magnificence of it all: the Hartley carpets, the Louis XVI sofa in red wool, with red and blue velvet cushions, some with marabou feathers, the popular eighteenth-century trimming Marilyn Monroe fancied in pink. 

‘I have a heaven-kissing room au 6ieme with a piece of sky outside and a view into the windows opposite – which I love.’  (CLKM, vol. 5) The view from the writing desk, sixth floor, Victoria Palace Hotel. Photograph by Conor Horgan

The lift shudders. I’m discharged on the third floor and the depleted glory of my own room, where the wet courtyard greenery reaches up to the balcony. Elise has stalked off to reception in a cloud of scent. I collapse in an armchair, briefly ecstatic. Then it occurs to me that I forgot to ask for a look at the bathroom. Idiot. Or take a photo. What was I thinking? Not a single one. I’m furious and anguished; the travel, the jetlag, is again catching up with me.

Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station by Redmer Yska (Otago University Press, $50) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland.

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