The one true genius of NZ writing

Harry Rickets

Harry Ricketts has published 11 collections of poetry, a biography of Kipling, and co-edited the long-standing literary magazine New Zealand Books until it shut down after failing to successfully apply for funding from Creative New Zealand.

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Katherine Mansfield’s centenary; and the serial bigamist who published it

Jane Stafford: Born Kathleen Beauchamp in Wellington in 1888, Katherine Mansfield died 100 years ago in Avon, a small suburban town on the outskirts of Paris. She had probably had tuberculosis since 1918, and her final years had been spent as a wandering invalid in various European hotels and boarding houses, seeking sunshine, trying quacks, hiding her illness from suspicious proprietors—and writing. Some of her most famous stories date from this latter period – from the gentle satire of “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”, to the unrelenting horror of “The Fly” to the mining of memories of her New Zealand childhood. But not sentimental. In “Her First Ball”, a clumsy teen at a dance with her more sophisticated cousins ​​longs to be back home on the porch “listening to the baby owls yell ‘More pork’.” In “The Doll’s House”, mean Karori schoolgirls ape their parents’ inclusions and exclusions. Her “At the Bay” is an act of literary reanimation of her extended family, their beach community, her own childhood and that of her late brother. “It is so strange to bring the dead back to life,” the dying author writes to a friend. “Everything is remembered.”

In July, the combined forces of the Te Herenga Waka Victoria University English Literatures and Creative Communication Programme, the Stout Research, the International Institute of Modern Letters and the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society/Katherine Mansfield House & Garden will hold a centenary conference of Mansfield’s death and it’s all about these last years.

Entitled Last things and legacies, we invite papers and audience members to papers that focus on that latest flurry of productivity and the circumstances surrounding it – personal, medical, economic, cultural, historical, associative. And we’re looking at Mansfield’s “legacy.” This can be done literally: she left a somewhat ambiguous will suggesting that her husband John Middleton Murry destroy everything he didn’t use. So he used (and earned) absolutely every last scrap, censored only the notes in the notebooks that criticized his procrastination, and constructed for posterity his own version of her – ethereal, sentimental, spiritual, far from the pointed, funny, forensically intelligent reality.

But there are also the metaphorical legacies – in literary scholarship and in creative production. Mansfield had a strained relationship with the Bloomsbury literary snobs, a flammable friendship with DH Lawrence, and was initially viewed with condescension by literary critics (gender, sexuality, colonial origins, the inferiority of the short story form, publication in ‘magazines’, an all-round being an outsider, etc.). That has changed and her status as an important figure in the modernist movement is now secured. And her modernism is seen as fractured, reinforced and transformed through other lenses: feminism, gay writing, the literature of empire, of displacement, of disease.

Academic treatment of Mansfield as a New Zealand writer has evolved from sentimental biographical readings – in fact she once had a dream that she was back in NZ without a return ticket and woke up horrified. Instead, critics pay attention to the context of the fabricated, uneasy and highly materialistic world of late colonial New Zealand, and the relationship of her work with other colonial authors, from Rudyard Kipling to Henry Lawson. Post-colonial critics examine the notebook she kept on a camping trip through Te Urewera; gay critics the relationship, at school and afterwards, with Maata Mahupuku (“I want Maata. I want her the way I had her – terrible”); studies of print culture her shrewd bargaining with the commercial world of publishing.

Our conference also has a creative writing component. This is a reflection of how contemporary creative writing – and the arts in general – engages and is stimulated by Mansfield’s legacy. The poem by the essayist and poet Nina Mingya Powles, “If Katherine Mansfield were my best friend”, begins: “She would teach me how to apply winged eyeliner / In a moving vehicle”. Of course she would. And then make fun of you behind your back.

The Mansfield personality invites artistic intimacy, albeit of a rather terrifying kind, like Sarah Laing’s graphic novel Mansfield and me demonstrates, by piecing together events from KM’s life and that of the author. Mansfield initially trained as a musician, so fitting on the Charlotte Yates album mansfield, 12 artists set Mansfield poems to music. Janet Jennings has composed a new song cycle with poems by Mansfield. The new “biographical dance work” of the Royal New Zealand Ballet Woman of words (i.e. KM) will premiere at the Wānaka Festival of Color in late March.

To call this activity an industry reflects its breadth and energy, but also suggests a little bit of programmatic zeal. Not for Mansfield. “I am No critic of the domestic kind,” she wrote. But if it’s an industry, it’s a full and very diverse production.


Harry Rickets:

He was

He was the user of a number of aliases

— Stephen Swift, Charles Granville,

Henry Charos James – maybe others.

He was a writer of lyrics (of their time).

He was arrested and brought back from Tangier.

He was tried at the Old Bailey in 1912

for serial bigamy and fraudulently obtaining funds.

He was found guilty on both counts; none of his “wives”

stopped him. He was clearly a charmer.

He was the publisher of In a German pension,

Katherine Mansfield’s first short story collection:

circa 500 copies, green linen gilded, collector’s item.

He was great-uncle, Charles Hosken.

The conference Katherine Mansfield: Last Things and Legacies will be held at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University on July 7-9.