• Mansfield Musings

Act of Creation

As she looks at how to conjur Katherine Mansfield for the stage, Sue Casson returns to the writer's early life in New Zealand.

Each biographer of Katherine Mansfield has made their mark interpreting what's known of the events in her life, piecing them together to tell the story in their own way. So as I return to the scenes I wrote when first depicting her life in Two Tigers, I'm wondering where my emphasis should fall this time, whether it won't be different a lifetime on - because of further facts that have come to light in the interim, or the life I've lived that makes me see things a little differently.

Katherine herself tried many different names and costumes in search of a ‘true’ self, just as she experimented in her writing to find her ’true’ voice. My job is to find a theatrical truth.

Early life is not only an obvious place to start, but often an indicator of the person that later emerges. In Katherine Mansfield's case, where she spent it has a special significance, as she returns to New Zealand, and memories of growing up there amongst her family in many of her stories.

All accounts of Kathleen Beauchamp show a child with a strong sense of self somewhat at odds with the rest of her family. The middle child is often seen as the one with a less defined role – not the eldest who sets the pace, no longer the baby to be indulged – so it falls to them to find a way to establish themselves. The idea of Katherine being in some sense the architect of her own captivating creation is one that very much appeals to me, as if in a sense we are co-authors. She wanted to be 'all she was capable of becoming' - I want to remake her so.

Shall I cut a dash / Belle of every ball / Conqueror of men?

In this photograph we can see Kathleen as the middle child of a jostling family of five, all born before their mother reached thirty. The outwardly dumpy and awkward young Kathleen that the family sees, (close study of this photo suggests that she is the only one wearing spectacles) contrasts sharply with her own special view of herself as a swan in the making.

As Claire Tomalin in her 1988 biography A Secret Life puts it:

‘Katherine was always a performer. She needed to enchant an audience, but there was no-one in her family on whom she could successfully cast a spell. They simply did not see her as she wished to be seen’

What a gift as a subject! Being on stage is all about casting a spell, so if her magic was lost on her family, the same cannot be true on stage. My Katherine has to be both literary figure (challenging to portray on stage as we found last time around) and vibrant performer. Young 'Tiger' Katherine fights hard to be in charge of her own destiny, defying the need to fit in and confound the confined expectations of colonial society women at the turn of the 20th century. Her first song rejects the womanly role as she sees it.

Drinking cups of tea / Always in for calls / While the master roams

For the fuller, more emancipated life ahead she envisages for herself.

Mistress of my fate / Shall I make my mark / Script it with my pen?
I want to take all life can give / Write as I live / Amen

Katherine sings this alone in her room, significantly surrounded by the books, art, and music that feed her thoughts and aspirations. From them, she has learnt of a world wider and fuller beyond the one she is presently inhabiting.

It is one she glimpsed in London, when she spent 3 years being educated alongside her sisters at Queen's College. The contrast between the culture and style of the English capital, and what she sees as a colonial backwater, so far from the old country must have been immense, and this scene is all about her impatience to return and start living the life she longs for.

But around her weave the family she later re-imagines in fiction. For now Kathleen Beauchamp is hungry for life, for experiences that she can write about, for a larger pond in which to make her name. When Katherine Mansfield returns to her childhood world some years later, 'to renew' it in writing, she is more circumspect, bringing it to life with 'mystery, a radiance, an afterglow'

So behind the short, impatient phrases that young Kathleen sings, flows a different melody. One that suggests sunshine, wide open spaces, natural beauty. This will be left after the youthful rebellion has been given voice and blown through. In Two Tigers the theme was one of the last things the audience heard, with her own words spoken over. This was part of her legacy.

For on stage Katherine her beginning sows the first seeds of her end - and both these threads have a musical and theatrical energy of their own. Youthful conflict amid a colonial beauty to which the audience can return later as if with new eyes - just like Katherine herself.

In my next blog I’ll be looking at how Kathleen's vision of a cultural life gradually took firmer shape, through a series of significant encounters. Join me by adding your email at the top to subscribe!

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