• 15 December 2021
  • Cherie Jacobson

In May 1921, Katherine Mansfield travelled from France to Switzerland, seeking ‘fresh air treatment’ for her tuberculosis. She spent seven months in the Sierre district, staying mostly at the rented Chalet des Sapins in Montana. She enjoyed an intensely creative period, writing some of her now best-loved stories such as ‘At the Bay’, ‘The Garden Party’ and ‘The Doll’s House’. In late January 1922 she travelled to Paris for painful X-ray treatment, returning to Switzerland in June that year where she finished her last completed story ‘The Canary’ and made her formal will.

The Chalet des Sapins, where Mansfield stay for much of her time in Switzerland. From Katherine Mansfield: The Woman and the Writer by Gillian Boddy.

On Tuesday 16 November 2021 the Embassy of Switzerland to New Zealand and Katherine Mansfield House & Garden held an event for members of the diplomatic and consular corps and other invited guests to celebrate the centenary of Mansfield’s time in Switzerland. Ambassador Winzap gave a short address, which set the scene of Crans-Montana as a popular location for those suffering from tuberculosis at the turn of the 20th century and seeking a cure. Dr Théodore Stephani chose Crans-Montana for its climate and average sunshine hours, as well as its natural beauty.

Ambassador Michael Winzap with the Swiss and New Zealand flags.

A trio from the Haydn String Quartet then played a movement from Streichtrio, op. 46 (1950) by Paul Müller-Zürich (1898-1993), a Swiss composer who was born only ten years after Mansfield, but died 70 years later at the age of 95.

This was followed by a fascinating and evocative talk by Dr Gill Greer, a Mansfield scholar who stayed in the Chalet des Sapins, in the very room Mansfield herself had stayed in, before it was demolished.

As Gill recounted:

“Finally, I was standing where she had stood, and seeing what she had seen. But was I really? Over the next few days, as I looked across the hillside, peaceful valley, the dark green trees and the sun-touched, snow-frosted mountains beyond, I asked myself the same question.

She had stood here too. But for much of the time she was here, she did not see what I saw. Instead, she saw feathery toi toi close to a glittering sea, the sun touching the drops of dew. She saw her little sister making islands in her porridge, under the careful eye of her grandmother, at a beach cottage at the far end of the world. At night under a very different sky, she had seen the Southern Cross above Days Bay and heard the morepork, and through an open window, the smooth, soft voice of Harry Kember from the shadows, “Won’t you come for a little walk? …There’s not a soul about.”

From this balcony one day, she followed two ragamuffin girls as they walked past Farmer Logan’s cows on their way to the Karori school. She, like them, heard the bullying mockery of other children in the playground, as the washerwoman’s two little daughters sat alone, eating their sandwiches from jam-soaked newspaper. “‘Yah, yer father’s in prison!’”

And so, on this balcony on a late afternoon, looking at the mountains, I realised properly, for the first time, that the internal landscape some people see is far more real and present than the external, physical landscape that is in front of them.”

Prior to Gill’s talk, actor Heather O’Caroll gave a beautiful reading of an excerpt from ‘At the Bay’ with its description of the seaside village during the quiet after lunch, and Kezia and her grandmother’s conversation about death. Heather ended the evening with an excerpt from ‘The Garden Party’, perfectly capturing Laura’s newfound love for workmen and the excitement shared by herself and her brother about the party, little knowing what’s to come.

After the event, guests enjoyed Swiss wine and canapés, as well as the opportunity to gather in person while observing government guidelines for events at the time. For some guests it was their first taste of Mansfield’s writing and they were eager to go home and discover her work properly. For others, Heather’s readings inspired them to pull out their copy and re-read a few stories over summer. The perfect outcome of a lovely event!

The Board and Director of Katherine Mansfield House & Garden extend warm thanks to Ambassador Winzap and the staff of the Embassy of Switzerland in New Zealand for their enthusiasm for marking the centenary and their wonderful hospitality.

If you’d like to read more about Mansfield’s time in Switzerland see some present-day photos of sites familiar to Mansfield, Padraig Rooney, an Irish writer living in Switzerland, has an written excellent blog post with lots of photos.

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