New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield was a woman ahead of her time.
This post was originally published in 2020 and has been updated for the 2023 Katherine Mansfield Centenary.
Born into an affluent middle-class family in Wellington – a much smaller city in the 1880s than the bustling capital it is today – Katherine grew up with many privileges. But she would eventually rebel against the claustrophobic rigidity of colonial Edwardian society. Her boredom and frustration is evident in her writings.
Cursed with a free spirit that many of us travellers will recognise, she eventually reached that ‘there must be more to life than this’ moment. As soon as she came of age, she packed up and left. She headed to London, where the family had spent a few years previously.
The katherine mansfield house and garden
On a sunny Friday morning I visited the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden for the first time, despite my having lived within stone-throwing distance for several years. The house is now a museum dedicated to Katherine’s life and works.
I soon discovered that there was a lot more to Katherine than I previously realised. In London, her modernist thinking and love of writing soon brought her into contact with the likes of Virginia Woolf and other members of the so-called Bloomsbury Group of artists and writers, who were known for their liberality and promiscuity.
Like the Bloomsbury members, Katherine was talented, spirited, independent and uninhibited. She enjoyed a string of affairs with both men and women. When not in London she spent time in Menton, France, and in Switzerland where her cousin Mary Annette Beauchamp (the writer Elizabeth von Arnim) owned a chalet. It’s not hard to see how much Katherine drew on her life experiences in these places, and on her memories of her early life in New Zealand, for her short stories and novels.
Visiting the home of someone famous can make you feel closer to them. I remember having the same sensation in England when I visited Charles Dickens’ home in Broadstairs, and Agatha Christie’s summer home near Dartmouth. Passing through rooms that they spent time in, seeing their desks and pens that they would have used, looking at their family photos, is an intimate experience. In some ways it feels like an invasion of their privacy, but it also gives a great sense of privilege.
Katherine’s early life
Katherine was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888, not long after the family had moved into this newly-built house at 11 Tinakori Road, Wellington. Her father Harold was an up-and-coming businessman who would eventually become the Chairman of the Bank of New Zealand.
Along with her siblings, Katherine would have enjoyed a very comfortable childhood in the house, before the family moved to an even larger house when she was 5 years old.
The young Katherine would have been nursed in the Night Nursery, while her older siblings would have slept in the other, interconnected bedrooms. The night nursery and one other bedroom are furnished as they would have been in her time.
Another bedroom has been adapted for use as an exhibition space. At the time of my visit, there was a display of amazing dolls’ houses – something that Katherine would no doubt have loved, as she was very fond of dolls and dolls’ houses.
Victorian New Zealand style
Anyone with an interest in interior decoration will enjoy a visit to the Katherine Mansfield House. A recent substantial restoration uncovered remnants of period wallpapers, which were copied to reproduce those which appear on the walls of the house today. The influence of Japanese art and the Art Nouveau style, which were fashionable when the house was built in the late 1880s, can be seen throughout the house.
As is often the case with Victorian homes, the decor and furniture of the house seem dark when you first enter. I remember my maternal grandparents’ home being the same.
The scullery and kitchen are, naturally, very simply furnished and decorated. It’s only when you step through the servery area into the dining room that things become more colourful. Here, the family would have entertained visitors and the room is dressed to impress.
After passing through into the drawing room, which is also beautifully decorated and furnished, visitors can head up the impressive staircase to the bedrooms.
The master bedroom has been set out as a reading area. On the wall is a fascinating timeline of events in Katherine’s life. It was by reading through this timeline that I fully appreciated all the works she had written, all the places she had lived in and visited, and the many friends and lovers who were part of her short life.
A life less ordinary
What I really enjoyed, as I passed through the various different rooms, were the exerpts from Katherine’s works and letters which have been placed around the walls. These have been thoughtfully chosen to bring out an aspect of life that would have taken place in a particular room.
For example, in the Night Nursery, there is a quotation from her story ‘Prelude’, in which one of the main characters, Kezia, refers lovingly to her grandmother. We are told, in the written commentary panel about the room, that Katherine was very fond of her own grandmother, who would often spend time with her in the nursery. In fact, reading ‘Prelude’ is almost like reading about events that took place in this very house.
Along with the quotations, you can also see family possessions throughout the rooms, including photographs, books and an old typewriter which belonged to Katherine’s father Harold. He supported her financially throughout her life, even though he did not always approve of her lifestyle, nor her writing!
You can buy copies of the author’s works at the Katherine Mansfield House, and some other related books of interest. There’s also a small selection of cards and gifts suitable for book-lovers.
This neighbourhood, which is called Thorndon – or Pipitea in Maori – is one of the oldest, most historic and most attractive suburbs in Wellington. Being close to the CBD, it is home to the Prime Minister’s residence and various embassies and ambassadorial residences.
There is no cafe on site, but a short 10-15 minute walk will take you to Tinakori Village shops, where there is an excellent pub called the Shepherd’s Arms and a selection of cafes and restaurants.
The Wellington Botanic Gardens also start here – the main entrance is on Glenmore Street. Although the gardens cover 25 hectares, the Thorndon side includes the Lady Norwood Rose Garden, the cafe and the Begonia House. It’s a lovely place for a picnic, lunch or afternoon tea on a sunny day.
Travel more in your own backyard
I have been meaning to visit the Katherine Mansfield House for many years. But, as is so often the case, places of interest in your own town often get pushed down the bucket list in favour of more exotic, far-flung destinations. We can visit our own local places any time, or so we think. The trouble is, we often don’t get around to it at all.
I lived in Thorndon for several years, and somehow never found the time to take that 15 minute walk down Tinakori Road! In some ways it was worth the wait, because I gained the advantage of the restoration and all the new information which this brought to light.
Now I’m keen to read more of Katherine’s works. If I gain any further insight from doing so, I will update this post.
Update, 3 November 2020
I had the great pleasure of returning to the house last Sunday for a ‘Katherine Mansfield tour’ of the neighbourhood of Thorndon, one of the many exciting events held during Wellington Heritage Week.
Our group set off in the morning drizzle to visit just some of the locations associated with Katherine other than the house itself. Some of these places featured in her own life, such as her old schools and Old St Paul’s Cathedral, while others featured in her stories. Even though Thorndon has changed considerably since the turn of the 19th century, not least because of the motorway that now cuts through it, we could still appreciate the connections.
I now want to read some of those stories, particularly ‘The wind blows’, ‘Leves Amores’, ‘Her first ball’, ‘The garden party’ and ‘Taking the veil,’ to see if I can spot the Thorndon references! What’s more, I learned that at one time, the Beauchamp family actually lived in the same Thorndon street that I lived in during the early 2000s. So I’m keen to find out whether it was even the same house. You never know!
Hosted by official tour guide Kim, we were shown around the Parliamentary Library, where Katherine spent many hours writing and studying. At that time it was known as the General Assembly Library, and Katherine’s privileged access was the result of her father’s eminence and high social standing. The library still holds a log book with Katherine’s signature in it.
Finally, we walked across to the National Library to view some of the Katherine Mansfield treasures held in the Alexander Turnbull Library’s collections, including photographs, rare books and ephemera. And to enjoy tea, coffee and biscuits!
The tour was brilliant, largely thanks to our hospitable and very well-informed hosts: Cherie, Director of the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden; Kim from the team of Parliamentary tour guides, and Joan from the National Library. Huge thanks to them all.
Update, 10 May 2021
I’ve just read through a collection of Katherine’s short stories, including ‘The wind blows’ – which is just so reminiscent of Thorndon! It even mentions the zig-zag path that we were told about during our walking tour. Most of the others were set in Europe. I really enjoyed those too, as they resonated with my own experiences as an expat – the sense of adventure and excitement mixed with the occasional longing for home and loved ones left behind.
Update, 28 March 2023
100 years after Katherine’s untimely death, 2023 is being celebrated as the centenary of her creative legacy. A programme of events is planned in New Zealand and in France. Further details can be found on the centenary website.
If you enjoyed this article and are interested in literature, you might enjoy my post on Four classic British travel books on Spain. One of the authors I discuss – Gerald Brenan – was linked to the Bloomsbury writers. Another, Laurie Lee, encountered a Bloomsbury acquaintance on his travels. Both authors faced similar struggles to find their place as modernists in a conservative, rigid society. Inevitably, they, too, ended up making their escape.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April inspired my husband and me to take our honeymoon in Liguria, where the story is set. You can read more in my post Enchanted June – a magical honeymoon in Liguria.
If you are interested in New Zealand, you might like my posts on Marlborough Sounds, Russell, New Zealand English, Dunedin, Wellington street art, best beaches in Wellington, Whanganui and Queenstown.
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