The Juvenilia of Katherine Mansfield

Back in the last century, when I was a teenager devouring whatever literature I could lay my hands on, I read a short story by New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield. It was called The Life of  Ma Parker, and it was about sadness and regret and the aging of parents, things that I, at fourteen or fifteen, couldn’t even begin to wrap my mind around but they made me cry anyway. I loved it so much I looked for Katherine Mansfield’s work and some years later I read a couple more of her books: The Garden Party, Bliss and Other Stories.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_7861.jpgI haven’t thought about that story in a long time, but here is what I came across last year on Lambton Quay in Wellington, New Zealand.  The tall and elegant figure by sculptor Virginia King, Woman of Words, features lines from Mansfield’s short stories, diaries and journals carved into her clothes. Alas, we couldn’t stay to see the statue lit up at night from within, but I can feel those words winging their way through the decades.

It turns out that Mansfield was a child writer, and her first published story was discovered in 2017  in Wellington City Libraries’ archives. “His Little Friend” is reprinted in full in Redmer Yska’s new book, A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888–1903. It is an odd little tale, its voice carrying that strange precocity characteristic of so many young writers. She was 11 years old at the time, writing under her given name, Kathleen M. Beauchamp. Here’s how the story begins:

In a quiet little village in S- there dwelt an aged couple whose names were John and Mary Long. They had a small cottage standing far back from the road, with a large garden in front, both of which were scrupulously neat and tidy. Mary had married John when she was nineteen, and they had lived in the same little cottage ever since. Now she was past sixty, and he was seventy-three. Mary took in sewing while John sold fruit and vegetables to the villagers.

The voice is confident, taking joy in its ability to establish a place, people, circumstances, to reel out a story, play with its possibilities, and then bring it all to a tragic finish. What’s remarkable, as the story progresses, is the child writer’s ability to conjure up a decaying marriage, the fading of youth and memory and a friendship across generations. Even the dabs of sentimentality are charming because they are from an 11-year-old. In these words, I can almost hear the writer this child would grow to be–a writer who would die too young, whose bohemian life would whirl through many scandals, but whose startling clarity and careful use of detail would be considered to have revolutionized the English short story.