Peter Wells reviews Katherine Mansfield’s The Urewera Notebook, edited by Anna Plumridge.
The Napier-Taupo road has the high status of being one of those roads on which you lose cellphone coverage. This means you leave behind the 21st Century. You plunge into the uncertainties of real time, presented naked of technology to the landscape. And the landscape itself is powerful. There are still very few “amenities” along this twisting, tormented and lonely road. In fact the only amenities – attempts at hostelries offering hot coffee and toilets – echo the four stages that horses and stagecoach could reach in a day. There is none of the effluvia of contemporary life – no McDonalds, no Huntervasse toilets, no caryards. In fact there are no petrol stations.
This is by way of saying the Napier-Taupo road is still a dramatic setting. And it was on this seemingly mysterious stretch of nowheresville that Katherine Mansfield found her one and only completely New Zild Gothic story, “The Woman at the Store”. This is a story that is at least as much Ronald Hugh Morrieson as fluttery fluting Mansfield. It is realist, twisted and vicious. And sad. It has the melancholy of lives left behind that have curdled – in other words a typical New Zild narrative arc. And this little pearl of a book, The Urewera Notebook, edited by Anna Plumridge, tells us it was based on one Helen Himing (date of birth unknown) who was the wife of a roadman who tended a lengthy and lonely stretch of Napier-Taupo Road.
Plumridge is one of those literary terriers to whom you give a simple and seemingly banal fact and she will thrash it back and forth until the poor fact leaks out its origins and everything it can divulge by way of information. This is code for saying this rather prim hardback is a doctoral thesis warmed up for publication. I hasten to add it isn’t trussed up in that clunky university-speak that shows no respect for language. It is fairly speckled all over with insights both large and minute.
The book is based on Plumridge’s intensive research into the three-week voyage into “a heart of darkness” that Katherine Mansfield made as a sulky 19-year-old in November 1907.
The road trip went from Hastings, along the Napier-Taupo Road, branched off towards the Ureweras, headed up towards Rotorua, down to Taupo and back along that dismal road to Napier. This took place in between her first introduction to life in London, a return to the tiny town antics of provincial Wellington, and her swift removal to the Centre of it All (London in 1908) where she stayed for the rest of her life. In a way the notebook has the interest of a major artist confronting essential Aotearoa, scribbling in her notebook as she went. It is kind of apprentice material in which “Kathleen Beauchamp” tries on a thousand and one costumes before the admiring mirror of a self. “I look completely charming” she notes at one point, taking a snap of herself as she sat on the train from Woodville. She also records vivid glimpses of what she sees. And as it is 1907, she sees an awful lot.
It was, after all, a slim 40 years since the land wars, with all this meant in terms of appropriation, loss and damage. It was also less than a century since the dystopian “musket” wars that had effected a kind of tribal ethnic cleansing from one end of the North Island to the other. Kathleen Beauchamp was looking at and travelling through a disruptive landscape – but one that she found extremely fascinating and beautiful – mysterious, and “other”. And like that experience of suddenly losing cellphone coverage – it felt very real.
The party was made up of middle-class people with enough cash to allow them to take time off work and go off on a gypsy caravan tour. It was made up of three men, three women and two girls. They travelled with a coach and a dray that held all their camping equipment. They did their own cooking and slept in tents or houses if they could find them. (This revealed that the spoilt Miss Beauchamp did not know how to cook, or even how to make a cup of tea.)
Katherine Mansfield, as she later became, was always a master of disguise. She fast-forwarded through personae, trying on personalities – the vamp, the aesthete, the slut, the Bloomsbury wicked wit, the suffering tubercular woman facing death. Sexually she had the same transience as she went from teenage lesbian love with a young Māori woman, promiscuous heterosexuality which landed her with gonorrhoea before finally settling on a strategic heterosexual marriage with a husband in another country and a lesbian love slave in the same room. She was a lot of things to a lot of people, not least to herself. The question of who “Katherine Mansfield” really was is a never-ending quest, with many pilgrims lost and confused along the wayside. Mansfield was an assumed identity anyway and in these notebooks it is an apprentice Mansfield we are looking at. She is plain Kathleen Beauchamp and the rather dim photographs reveal a dumpy teenager under a big hat, rather too sharply corseted for her own health.
(It is the one major defect of this book that all the photographs are reproduced in exceptionally poor quality. I guess literary people have severed visual nerves but for me, the photographs of Mansfield standing or seated among Māori and fellow travellers are so rare that I really want to zoom in on the details.)
One of the larger questions Plumridge looks at is whether Kathleen Beauchamp was the nightmare teenager frumping round Wellington, hissing like a cat when she wasn’t scratching the furniture in her fury at not being back in cosmopolitan London. This has been a pretty standard trope for a long time. But the evidence supplied by Kathleen’s own diaries is that she was that quintessential Kiwi lass – a good sport. She walked in the dust up mountainous roads when the horses couldn’t cart the humans any longer, she went “in her nakeds” into hot pools, she looked, she laughed, she wrote. Her companions on the tour – who could have dobbed her in – talk of her humour, kindness and interest. It may be a fact that Kathleen Beauchamp was a 19-year-old having the time of her life roughing it in old Aoteoara.
This brings me to the writing. The first three-quarters of Plumridge’s book is a rather protracted entr’acte looking at the various interpretations of The Urewera Notebook. This relates to the fact that the notebook is itself, a little like Mansfield, full of possible interpretations. There is Mansfield’s famously difficult-to-decipher handwriting for a start. Add in the fact most of the notebooks are written in pencil (a sign of roughing it – no fountain pens at this stage.) But then Mansfield really did use the notebook as a kind of verbal sketchpad. She gave no dates, she often simply went back and filled in an empty space with more verbal doodlings. (In fact if I made an analogy to another art form I would parallel this entire diary to the pad of a plein air impressionist painter, quickly doing sketch after sketch after sketch. The aim is to capture something on the wing. A tint of light, a look in a face, a way of holding a baby. Nothing is “improved” or “worked up”. The artist quickly moves on, trying out language in this case, seeing what works, what can be evoked. The notebook also has lists – “Tea, lunch, wire [meaning telegram], milk, flour, walnuts” – and an affectionate sketch of a letter to her mother.)
I sometimes thought with this book that Mansfield herself was a kind of unkempt landscape that various voyagers travelled into and brought back interpretations which were only ever approximations of something inherently undiscoverable. She remains, a little like the landscape of Aotearoa itself, wild, mysterious, other.
The first “discoverer” of the notebook was that cad Middleton Murray. It is hard to think of a man with worse press than the unfortunate repository of Mansfield’s amatory writing. She needed a romantic object to whom to send her immortal letters about love and marriage. She created a fictional Murray who so often disappointed her bitterly either in person or in his failure to understand just how terrible her predicament was – a young woman in her early thirties facing death in a foreign hotel room. Her disease – tuberculosis – was notifiable and needed to be hidden if possible. If discovered she could be ejected from the room on the spot and might even have to pay special cleansing costs. He really wasn’t interested.
After her death of course Middleton Murray minted the Katherine Mansfield that became a 1920s legend. She was in a way his greatest literary production. He culled her lovely bitchiness, he tidied away the mess of a pregnancy. Certainly gonorrhoea was not a saintly attribute. Murray didn’t know anything about New Zealand and apparently didn’t even bother to look at a map. His understanding of the notebook is full of gaffes so bad – from this end of the telescope – as to be laughable. His knowledge of Māori was nil.
The next intrepid explorer of terra Mansfieldiana was Professor Gordon of Victoria University. He sought to create a happier Kathleen Beauchamp than the furious termagant Middleton Murray created, the girl who hated low rent Wellington. (It’s possible that is how Mansfield may have talked to her husband about her adolescence. It would have made her transition to Bloomsbury so much more gratifying if you posit that she came from ‘nothing’ to the centre of ‘everything’. The distance travelled is greater.)
Professor Gordon dusted down the notebook and applied his own magic. It was he in fact who fictionalized these scrappy doodlings into the rather formal and impressive title The Urewera Notebook. Fact: the notebook had no such title. It is my assertion that conferring such a weighty moniker on these slight impressionistic jottings risks overwhelming them with connotations of the Clytemnestra of New Zealand history, Dame Judith Binney. It gives the notebook a gravitas, a sense of tragedy that is too consciously nationalistic, too embedded in the fraught weightings of contemporary political correctness. Fact: Kathleen did indeed go to the Ureweras on her trip but it was only a small part of the journey. It took three days. The notebooks could have as easily been called “My Summer Hols!” as this is probably closer to the teenage narcissism and slightly jejeune and jolly tone that underlies much of the writing. But of course that’s really not a good marketing ploy and it underplays the goddess role that Mansfield occupies at the very apex of our national literature. Everything the goddess touched becomes sacred.
But when the curtain finally goes up on the actual diary (a mere 20 pages at the end of a 118-page book) the writing is immediate and crisp. Writers have often commented on the cinematic speed of Mansfield’s writing. Well, here it is in genesis, sped along by dashes which connect flares of images – thoughts – feelings. (In fact she mentions an early form of cinema in passing.) Any quote is as good as another. “I stand in the manuka scrub – the fairy blossom – Away ahead the pines – black, the souring of the wind.” It isn’t exactly a connected train of thought – it is image leapfrogging over image. There is a theory that the sparkling novelty of Mansfield’s greatest short story, “At the Bay” gets its music from her experiences on this trip. And indeed in the notebooks one comes across, again and again, extremely vivid glimpses, as swift as a camera lens opening and shutting, of essentially New Zealand sounds, smells, sights. “–It is a queer spot – ramshackle & hideous, but the garden is gorgeous – A Māori girl – with her hair in two long braids, sat at the doorstep – shelling peas – & while we were talking to her – the owner came & offered to show us the shearing sheds – You know the sheep sound like a wave of the sea -.”
Plumridge has done a stellar job hunting down the merest hint of a detail and supplying information that may explicate it. She also supplies some context for throwaway remarks by Mansfield which may have been misunderstood. Her infamous dismissal of Pakeha as “the third rate article” seems to point to an infinite disdain. “Give me the Māori or the tourist – but nothing between”. This makes more sense if you relate it her rampant colonial snobbery. The “real English” article she fawns over is actually an individual with the unglamorous moniker of Prodger. Prodger’s great virtue is his father was an aristocrat and his younger sister managed to snavel the eighteenth Lord Sempell and the ninth baronet of Craigievar (the same person, she wasn’t a bigamist). We all like a good title.
In fact Kathleen, with her lower-class Irish-sounding Christian name, had “the taint of pioneer” in her own blood. Her grandmother came from a pub in the Rocks in Sydney, a notoriously rough area. Her family were upwardly mobilising bourgeois and her own insecurity about her “third rate” origins is projected onto fellow Pakeha in an attempt to point out her own distinction. (To Virginia Woolf however Mansfield was always “cheap and common”, stinking like a civet cat.)
Perhaps a truer note here for Kathy the good sport is when she writes home to Mum and lets slip that “I’m quite fond of all the people – they are ultra-Colonial but thoroughly kind & good hearted & generous – and always more than good to me.” This is probably a saner assessment of what Mansfield really thought about the people who were, ethnically and culturally, of exactly the same background as herself. She dropped the lorgnette and got real.
It is notable that on the whole the 19-year-old colonial had a refreshing openness to Māori that she met. Given this was the highest arc of imperialism and hence patronising ways of looking at non-British races, she is nearly always looking at the human, the individual, the person. Part of this is her openness to physical beauty. She especially loved handsome or striking Māoriwomen and Māori men. There are many descriptions of their physical attractiveness, the way they distinctively dressed, that sudden rapport which is not part of Anglo-Saxon cultural etiquette. She commented on the greenstone jewellery worn, the clothing, the long luscious curls of men of the followers of Rua. She tried to write down Māori sayings and showed an openness to tikanga Māori that is surprising given the period. She did hate the commercialisation of Rotorua. Yet in fact it was just the kind of setting she later deployed in a masterly fashion – hotels – alienation – transience – the sale of love. Mansfield’s ambivalence towards her New Zealand identity is often seen through her complicated family relationships, her defeats, her own betrayals. Yet the evidence in these free-flowing jottings is that she was a rapt inhabitant of Aotearoa, lens wide open, fresh to impressions and storing away information for later deployment.
In the end that is the interest of this notebook. Nowhere else do we have a record, made on the spot, of how she responded to her native country. It is as real and close as it could get. It wasn’t Aotearoa as she looked back with longing, after the shock of her brother’s death. Here she is not trying to reclaim it, as a loving testament to memory. It is as it was lived. Vivid, real, moment by moment, closely observed. That is its great virtue.
In the end the gypsy caravan traipsed back along that endless Napier-Taupo Road. It was on the return journey that Kathleen came across the setting for “The Woman at the Store”. Plumridge reconstructs the scene through the words of fellow traveller Elsie Webber (aged 12 to Kathleen’s 19). They knocked on the door of a cottage “at a very lonely, isolated spot” to ask if they could pitch their tent on the property. The door was opened by “a cheerful blowsy woman” who was thrilled to see some humans. “Come in and sit down. I’ll make a cup of tea. I haven’t got me drorin room boots on!”[drawing room boots]. Kathleen’s sharp ear for dialogue was captured by this. But it was the crushing sense of isolation, the lurking menace of the landscape which spoke to Katherine Mansfield and so she constructed her gothic story with its hints of violence, madness, repressed sexuality and death.
It is to Plumridge’s credit that she completes the story for us. Long after Kathleen’s party had disappeared Helen Himing vanished: “…several days after being reported missing, her body was found in the hill country near Rununga.” In her own way Helen Himing provides a small footnote for this larger journey of a writer apprentice who, having passed through her native land, looked at it sharply – and never came back.
The Urewera Notebook (Otago University Press, $49.95) edited by Anna Plumridge is available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.