The Life-Affirming Words of Katherine Mansfield in a Time of Pandemic
Near the beginning of her story ‘Prelude’, Katherine Mansfield makes one brief mention of Quarantine Island, in Wellington Harbour. The Burnell family are moving from their house near the centre of town to a more sprawling property in the country, and Lottie and Kezia, their two youngest daughters, are the last to leave. It is evening when they set out on a buggy sent for them, and it is the first time they have been out this late; excitedly, they turn back towards the neighbourhood where they have spent their entire lives, noticing how much smaller these familiar houses seem in the darkness, before seeing the stars in the night sky and the moon hanging over the harbour. It is at this point that they notice Quarantine Island’s lighthouse shining in the middle of the bay.
Though Mansfield does not dwell on this detail – choosing instead to follow the girls as their buggy reaches the top of a hill before they lose sight of the harbour altogether – the image of a lone, shining island in the middle of a glimmering bay anchors the rest of this scene, for that is where the overarching sense of hush evoked by the night sky, the city lights, the stars, the moon and the gold-tinged waves comes to rest.
I probably wouldn’t have recognised Katherine Mansfield’s Quarantine Island as the Matiu/Somes Island I knew from my Wellington days if I hadn’t visited the island myself during my first year in New Zealand, and if my then boyfriend and I hadn’t found the old cemetery for victims of the Spanish Flu pandemic near its tiny port. One has to veer slightly away from the main trail encircling the island to find the cemetery, tucked behind native bush. Some of its headstones are so tall that they tower over the scrub grass, and if one cares to have a look at these headstones, one will notice the names of siblings, and their ages, etched in the order of their deaths. Many of the dead were children, and I wonder how it felt for my boyfriend, who had emigrated from the Philippines with his family at the age of nine, to stumble upon the graves of these children who had likewise arrived in this country with their parents, only to meet their deaths before their ships could dock in Wellington. Some died within the same day, and some within the same week; some had parents whose names accompanied theirs on their family headstone, which also bore the name of the ship that had carried them to this small island on the other side of the world.
“There were so many incurable diseases back then, so people died young,” I remember my boyfriend saying. The sunshine that day made us feel as though these tragedies belonged to a faraway era, and within the safety of the present we dedicated a brief moment of silence for the dead. Visible from much of the city and the surrounding hills, Matiu/Somes Island is an everyday sight for Wellingtonians, occupying a permanent though peripheral presence in their lives. Even before the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the island was used as a quarantine station for immigrants from Europe entering New Zealand on board infected ships. Judging by her gentle description of the island in ‘Prelude’, I can imagine Katherine Mansfield growing up in its proximity, finding its presence quietly reassuring even when glimpsed from afar, in spite of its reputation for harbouring foreignness and disease.
Perhaps it was my nostalgia for New Zealand that led me to pick up my secondhand copy of Katherine Mansfield’s selected stories when much of the Philippines was placed in lockdown. I was about to leave for an artists’ residency in Japan when the airports were closed, and in a single day our movements became regulated and monitored in ways I never could have imagined just a few days before. Our neighbourhood had a speakerphone broadcasting orders from neighbourhood officials to stay at home; whenever we left our neighbourhood to buy groceries or medicine, we had to pass by the barangay office and tell them where we were going before we could be issued a quarantine pass. Checkpoints were everywhere, with armed police inspecting our quarantine passes before allowing us to proceed. In New Zealand, a country I had left a year and a half before for many different reasons, there were no such restrictions put in place yet, and my mind would often return to what my life was like two years ago, before I came back to a country slipping deeper into authoritarian rule.
My earlier attempt to read Katherine Mansfield had stalled; her patient, detailed style felt ponderous, and I had quickly moved on to contemporary fiction while promising myself that I’d eventually give Mansfield another go, once I had the time for her. It was this quarantine, in the end that would force me to slow down, to pay attention to her words while the threat of disease kept me rooted in my childhood home, unable to flee. At home with my mother, our days grew simple, unburdened of priorities that seemed to belong, as time wore on, to a different life. My thoughts were no longer directed towards a future that grew vague and uncertain as time passed, but towards the present and the everyday as I strove to maintain my own sanity within the confines of domestic life.
As the streets of our neighbourhood emptied out, the sound of birdsong began to emerge through the growing hush that seemed to hold us still. I began to sit on our front balcony in the mornings, reading Mansfield’s stories while pausing every now and then to observe native birds flitting through our bougainvillea bushes, and tiny green buds emerging from the bare branches of our guava tree, which had appeared to be on the brink of death before lockdown began.
Like life in our garden, Mansfield’s stories unfolded at a leisurely pace, taking in the way light fell across a lawn or gleamed through morning mist, or the way a flower with a tiny tongue at its centre seemed to be so lovingly shaped that it was ‘such a waste’ for it to wither and fall onto the ground. One of my writer friends once told me that reading Mansfield’s work was an unpleasant experience for many Kiwis who were forced to read her stories in high school, and I can see why her work would tax a young person’s patience. Katherine Mansfield’s stories draw their narrative pacing from the normal, unhurried pulse of everyday life, and one must recalibrate one’s sense of narrative time in order to appreciate the description of “a green wandering light playing over” a cup of coffee, or of a café proprietor whose longing pose beside a window seems to have become an unconscious habit of hers. I can imagine her stories being tossed aside these days by editors of literary journals due to descriptions and scenes that may feel laboured, inessential, or overindulgent to a contemporary reader. Accustomed to trimming away what we deem unnecessary in the service of efficient, ‘urgent’ storytelling, perhaps we have lost the capacity to appreciate the rewards of a meandering description of a beach, or of a room in an abandoned house.
Katherine Mansfield’s stories require a childlike sense of wonder to find magic in details that grownups often take for granted, such as the little almond doorknob in a gingerbread house that a young boy cannot stop thinking about in ‘Sun and Moon’, or the little lamp inside a doll’s house that Kezia can’t stop describing to her schoolmates in ‘The Doll’s House’. In a time when we are forced to slow down, to think in the present tense instead of hankering for what is not in front of us, I wonder if Katherine Mansfield is the writer we need right now, when our future feels uncertain and the present is all we can truly claim for ourselves.
‘Prelude’ was written a few years before the Spanish Flu pandemic, but the story takes place much earlier in time. Inspired by her brother’s visits to her London home, Katherine Mansfield began to write about her childhood in New Zealand, and time and distance were enough to soften her memories of a homeland whose narrow-mindedness and provincialism she had once chafed against. The Burnells closely resemble her own family, the Beauchamps, who also moved their young family from a smaller house in town to a larger property in the hills of Karori. Kezia, the more observant and imaginative of the three sisters in the story, may be Katherine herself. Katherine’s antipathy towards her family, expressed overtly in her letters, is absent in ‘Prelude’, while appearing in a gentler form in the subsequent stories she wrote about the Burnells such as ‘At The Bay’ and ‘The Doll’s House’. Her depictions of family life are loving and detailed, employing the smallest of gestures, mannerisms and endearments to paint a portrait of the Burnells that radiates with a quiet longing for the innocence of childhood and the safety of home.
Leslie, Katherine’s younger brother, was among the many young New Zealand men conscripted by the British forces to fight in World War 1. Leslie had many opportunities to visit his sister in London while he trained as an officer in England, and the memories they shared during his visits awakened a longing for her homeland, and her youth, that found full expression in a story ‘The Aloe’, which was to become ‘Prelude’. Her disappointment in her family and homeland was indeed justified: her parents did not exactly appreciate her literary ambitions, and her mother, worried that Katherine was exhibiting signs of same-sex attraction, once sailed all the way from New Zealand to England to take Katherine to a small town in Germany, where she underwent what is now known as gay conversion therapy. But Katherine adored her brother, and the childhood they shared, by all accounts, was a happy one. Much of Katherine’s earlier fiction was set in Europe, but Leslie’s visits offered her the possibility of reclaiming a past that was lost to her when she left for England, and of recreating in her fiction a cherished New Zealand that she could claim for herself.
It was grief, in the end, that fuelled her completion of ‘Prelude’; Leslie was killed in Belgium in October 1915. She began writing the earlier version, ‘The Aloe’ after Leslie died, and I can imagine the urgency she felt as she wrestled with the permanence of her brother’s death and the loss of a shared past. Reading ‘Prelude’ in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic that has made me contemplate the nearness of death in ways I never thought were necessary. I feel as though the story taunts mortality by showing what death cannot fully take away: the Wellington of Katherine’s and Leslie’s youth is intact, as is the feeling of childhood innocence that remains unmarred throughout the story by the petty squabbles and concerns of adults. Death, in the form of a duck’s surprise slaughtering in front of the children or the image of Quarantine Island shining at night, hovers in the periphery, but does not bring this story, with all its disparate and fascinating characters, to a complete pause.
The unending tragedies playing on a reel before us as we consumed the news in recent months made the unusual stillness that filled our days feel immobilising. While I was reading Katherine Mansfield at a leisurely pace on our balcony, doctors were dying of the disease; their beaming faces would flash on our TV screen as we learned about their ages, their specialties, their tireless work on the front lines until they themselves fell ill. There was a cardiologist admired by many in his field; a barrio doctor who had dedicated his entire career to serving the poor; a paediatrician who had closely monitored the disease’s spread in the Philippines before she herself fell ill; and a paediatric surgeon who was the only doctor in the Philippines capable of separating conjoined twins, who loved riding his motorcycle around the countryside whenever he had a free day. There was a husband and wife, both doctors, who fell ill and were kept apart from each other as they fought for their lives; the husband fought hard before succumbing to the disease because he was afraid there would be no else left to care for his autistic son.
Meanwhile, our President would deliver meandering late-night speeches peppered with insults and threats aimed at those who dared break the quarantine. In one speech, he told the police to shoot violators; the next day, a man who had lost his patience at a checkpoint and fought with the police was shot dead. In another speech, the President proclaimed that the doctors who had died on the front lines were lucky to be able to die for their country, adding, “If it’s your time to go, then it’s your time to go.”
A flight evacuating a Covid-19 patient to Japan burst into flames during take-off in Manila, killing everyone on board. A young doctor was on this flight, and shortly before boarding he told his friends on social media that he couldn’t wait for this pandemic to end. He was my age, and just a year younger than Katherine Mansfield when she died of tuberculosis at 34. It was at this point that I began to wonder if it was possible to grow numb from despair.
Katherine Mansfield was diagnosed with tuberculosis near the end of World War 1. Her doctor advised her to give up her writing so that she could live a longer life, thinking it was best for her to reserve her bodily strength for fighting the disease. Her writing took up much of her energy, but it was something she was unwilling to surrender in order to live. Giving death full control over her life was a kind of death in itself, and it wasn’t the kind of life she wanted. In her earlier work, death hovers at the corner of one’s eye, a constant yet peripheral presence in the lives of her characters, who have grown indifferent to its shadows despite its occasional and brief intimations. Most of the time, the brightness of life is an overwhelming presence in itself, especially for the children in her stories, who are just beginning to come into cognisance of the world in which they live. Death is a part of this world, but life, in its infinite brightness, simply outshines it.
It was during this period, in which she travelled from resort town to resort town in Europe in search of a cure for her illness, that Katherine Mansfield turned again towards her childhood in New Zealand, which seemed far removed from the darkness and pain that now overshadowed her life. She wrote vividly about her homeland during this time, most notably in her stories ‘At the Bay’ and ‘The Doll’s House’, in which the Burnells reappear, as they do in the loosely autobiographical ‘The Garden Party’, which takes place in her childhood neighbourhood of Thorndon. Absent from these stories is the kind of cynicism one would expect from a writer who knows she will die young. The same sense of childhood wonderment present in her earlier work suffuses the descriptions and characterisations in these later stories. Her impending death may have given her a greater urgency to record life as it presented itself to her, to preserve its sharpness and vividness in her writing, even as death, which was finally impossible to ignore, asserted its presence more clearly in her work. It is referenced in a conversation Kezia has with her grandmother in ‘At the Bay’, in which she asks why her Uncle William died young, before wondering aloud if everyone has to die. And in ‘The Garden Party’, Laura directly confronts the indifference of her wealthy family when a workman is killed in an accident right outside their estate – she is told that their garden party must go on, and that they cannot allow the death of a man they don’t know to ruin their happiness.
There also seems to be a greater amount of honesty surrounding casual cruelty in Mansfield’s later work: in ‘The Doll’s House’, for instance, she unflinchingly portrays the cruelty of children in the schoolyard as they gang up on the daughters of a washerwoman. Insulting the Kelvey girls by telling them they’re going to become servants when they grow up gives the other girls such a rush that “never did they skip so high, run in and out so fast, or do such daring things as on this morning”. Cruelty seems to coexist more closely with innocence and goodness in her later work, to the point that these qualities can exist in a single character: the Burnells’ Aunt Beryl, for instance, is shown to be a sensitive and perceptive woman in ‘At The Bay’, while in ‘The Doll’s House’ she shoos the Kelvey sisters away from the Burnells’ front yard “as if they were chickens”, after catching Kezia showing them the doll’s house that was never meant for their eyes. Guarding one’s innocence against the cruelties of the world, which is a recurring theme in Mansfield’s earlier work, becomes a seemingly impossible undertaking when these cruelties have existed all along within ourselves.
And yet there remains a certain optimism in her later stories that allows for the celebration of goodness in the face of cruelty, even when it is tempting to be cynical about the lasting effects of kindness in a cruel world. The girls in ‘The Doll’s House’ ostracise the Kelvey sisters because they are told by their parents not to play with them, and their parents, who look down on Mrs Kelvey and suspect her husband is in jail, view the Kelveys’ ‘moral dereliction’ as a contagious disease that their children could contract through close association. It is Kezia’s innocence that renders her immune to the prejudices of her parents and peers, allowing her to invite the Kelveys to her family’s front yard, where the doll’s house is on display, because she doesn’t see why the Kelvey sisters shouldn’t see this precious little house with its treasured little lamp she has told the entire school about. In the end, it is Kezia’s kindness that the two girls remember, not “the cross lady”: they trade smiles by the side of the road after Aunt Beryl shoos them away, and one of them says, “I seen the little lamp.”
As I seek to tread carefully between joy and mourning through this pandemic, wishing to honour both without negating either feeling, I wonder if it is possible to find sanctuary in my own happiness without becoming numb to the tragedies taking place around me. Guarding my own happiness is the only way I can persevere, but how do I do this without pushing away my grief, which is also necessary for my healing?
It is indeed tempting to give in to a creeping sense of futility when none of us know when this pandemic will end, and when it continues to take the lives of the best and kindest among us. But I also think about the way Katherine Mansfield lived in the presence of death, and that a recognition of her own mortality allowed her to write honestly about death, even as life, and human kindness, continued to shine through her work. I find it difficult to ignore the light her stories have given me access to during this pandemic, especially when the alternative is to give in to the nihilism and callousness perpetuated by our President in his nightly speeches. I want to honour the lives of these doctors and nurses who have died fighting this pandemic, but I cannot give in to despair, because if their deaths are to have any meaning, this world for which they sacrificed their lives must contain some kindness in it, some light.
Among the stories I’ve read by Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Garden Party’ is what has given me the most solace during this pandemic. A worker is killed in an accident outside the Sheridans’ estate, and while Laura, their daughter, feels it is inappropriate to continue with a garden party her family has been preparing for weeks, her sister and mother dismiss her plea. Mrs Sheridan tells her, “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now,” while her sister Jose says, “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental.”
Despite Laura’s protests, the party goes on as planned, and while Laura continues to think about the dead man whose family inhabits one of the “little mean dwellings” on a street leading up to their house, she also basks in the perfection of the afternoon as she receives compliments for her beauty from guests and enjoys the music played by a hired band, whose cheery sound she had worried would bring pain to the dead man’s grieving widow. After their guests leave, Mr Sheridan mentions the man’s death and the family he has left behind, and is immediately censured by his wife: “‘My dear,’ said Mrs Sheridan, holding up her hand, ‘It nearly ruined the party. Laura insisted we should put it off.’” For a passing moment, even Laura finds her father tactless for mentioning the man’s death, quickly catching herself when her mother comes up with the idea of collecting leftovers from the party in a basket for the grieving family, in addition to some arum lilies, because “People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.”
Carrying the basket, Laura descends the hill towards the dead man’s house, and while she had merely intended to leave the basket outside his door, to her horror she is pulled inside when his family answers the door. While the Sheridans are determined to keep the squalor of the impoverished neighbourhood near their property at bay, the dead man’s family seems intent on bringing Laura into their world and exposing the rawness of their grief to her. Even as Laura tries to escape, the dead man’s sister invites her into the bedroom where the dead man is lying, drawing away the sheet covering his face for Laura to see:
There lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy…happy…All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
“It was simply marvellous,” Laura tells her brother upon her return. She tries to explain what she has just glimpsed, but no words can capture what she has understood about life just by looking at the dead man’s face. She has seen life’s beauty in its fullest form, and she has also felt its ache.
Davin, Dan. “Introduction.” In Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield. London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Stretton, Julienne, director. A Portrait of Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer [film]. Marigold Productions, 1987.