• Mansfield Musings

Communing with Mansfield

A folder of notes about Katherine Mansfield from the beginnings of her research, takes Two Tigers writer Sue Casson back to another time.

The British Library Reading Room at the British Museum © The British Library Board

Thirty years ago, I spent many hours researching Katherine Mansfield in the British Library in London. As a copyright library, first editions were gathered there in their original form, along with some of Murry's now out of print. I'd gather quotes and ideas together over a few visits and spend subsequent days translating them into scenes or song.

In those days the library was housed under the same roof as the British Museum in Bloomsbury, accessible from the same pillared portico at the top of the imposing stairs, and a small step away from the Elgin marbles or Rosetta Stone if diversion were needed mid-afternoon to collect scattered thoughts.

Once through the doors and into the dark entrance hall among all the gathered museum visitors, I’d head through the little door to the right of the pop-up shop. In that small corridor, I’d show my library card, my privileged pass to another world, and a man (it was generally a man) would check my bags – for pens and sharp instruments rather than bombs, before waving me through to the cathedral of knowledge.

Virginia Woolf

In Jacob’s Room Virginia Woolf describes the reading room as ‘an enormous mind,’ and entering that space, with its’ high-domed sky-blue ceiling filled with lofty thoughts was always a cerebral experience. Large ancient tomes lined the upper walls, accessible only by unseen staircases, whilst suspended in the rays of light from the tall arched windows was the dust from centuries of books, shrouding the atmosphere with history.

For here also was a time slip to a hundred years or more ago. The library was finished in 1857, and the seat where I sat, my blue leather covered desk, the same as many others spread out like ‘the spokes of a cartwheel’ beneath the dome, was one where Virginia Woolf, but also countless other literary ghosts, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, H G Wells, and George Bernard Shaw to name but a few, had sat, had read, had breathed this air. Unfortunately, there is no record of Katherine Mansfield inhabiting a desk, despite briefly living just a short walk away in Gower Street towards the end of the First World War.

But when her friend Virginia describes her experience of the reading room in her 1922 novel, written whilst Katherine was still alive, it is recognisably my own.

‘hundreds of the living sat… copying from printed books into manuscript books, now and then rising to consult a catalogue, regaining their places stealthily, while from time to time a silent man replenished their compartments... Nobody laughed in the reading room. There were shirtings, murmurings, apologetic sneezes, and sudden unashamed, devastated coughs.’

In this timeless place, I would vicariously nestle into the London KM inhabited, and join the ghosts of those illustrious past readers. Like those before I'd mark my chosen desk with a folder of notes, before ‘rising’ to refer to the catalogue – a shelf of heavy books in an outer wheel, filled with magical codes that could be jotted onto a library slip to summon the book of your choice, delivered to your desk by ‘a silent man’ off a squeaking trolley from the labyrinthine stack beneath, within the hour.

Meeting Mansfield

The air whispered with the dim echo of turning pages, and the low murmur of enquiring voices. Reverence for learning was matched by sepulchral sound, giving thoughts breadth to roam and allowing conversations with those long dead. A place of echoes – from others, and from history – it a place for imaginative spiritual communion, a space to breath.

At this desk I felt as if I encountered Katherine Mansfield and Middleton Murry. I would read their words, intimate accounts of their lives together committed to distinctive print on yellowing pages. I would actually be able to brush my hand across the long since defunct Rhythm magazine and Blue Review, bound now, and delicately tied with a raggedy cotton cream lace. I could carefully explore the Hogarth Press edition of Mansfield's Prelude, printed on Leonard and Virginia's own press. Stepping back to their past through these pages, I would not have been at all surprised if KM had walked in through the swing doors, unbuttoned her neatly tailored coat, and settled at the desk next to mine.

Another Age...

The doors on this library closed for the last time when it could no longer keep pace with the wealth of publications published annually, and the stack was moved book by pile of books to a spanking new home at St Pancras. At the time of writing you can’t even visit it, although I believe it is kept intact beneath the striking atrium for which the museum is now famous.

Which is why coming across a tatty brown envelope of my fragile library slips recently – feels like a relic from another world. Not only the world I loved behind the now locked doors, but also a world when I was young, more like the age Katherine was when she was writing, and when like her I had no children.

...and the Accident of Legacy

All my original notes, quotes and dates are here with me now. Given the number of times I’ve moved since those first days of research I’m astonished at how gathered they all are.

It brings home to me the miracle of Mansfield’s legacy. How easy it would have been for notebooks of thoughts, letters, poems and stories that she felt were so vital for her to articulate to get left behind or lost as she moved from one address to the next. Scattered in inconspicuous cahiers, put in boxes in different temporary homes in England and all over Europe, as she travelled in search of a cure, the sheer range of publications of her work we have is an extraordinary feat of salvage by Murry, and bears witness to his innate belief in her talent.

Join me next time as I continue my Mansfield Musings. Subscribe at the top of the page to make sure you don't miss out!

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