• 15 January 2023
  • Cherie Jacobson

On 9 January 1923, a public event was held at the Katherine Mansfield Memorial in Katherine Mansfield Memorial Park in Thorndon, Wellington, to mark the anniversary date of the centenary of Katherine Mansfield's death. The livestream recording of the event can be found here. Below are the speaking notes from Cherie Jacobson, Director of Katherine Mansfield House & Garden, along with a gallery of photos from the event by the wonderful Stephen A'Court. You can read a news report of the event here.

After days of rain, we were very lucky with the weather - a warm, windless afternoon with blue skies and tui singing in the trees, reminiscent of the first few lines of Mansfield's story 'The Garden Party'!

Tēnā koutou katoa, ko Cherie Jacobson toku ingoa; nau mai haere mai ki tenei kaupapa. Good afternoon and welcome, my name is Cherie Jacobson and I’m the Director of Katherine Mansfield House & Garden, the house just around the corner in which Katherine Mansfield was born on 14 October 1888.

Thank you all for joining me today as we mark 100 years since Katherine’s death in Fontainebleau, France – a long way from here in Thorndon, a place she knew so well from her childhood, and that she revisited in some of her best-known short stories.

A special welcome to one of our vice-Patrons, Witi Ihimaera. Witi has a long association with the legacy of Katherine Mansfield – to note just a few instances, in 1988 he published a book entitled Dear Miss Mansfield, and he was awarded the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in 1993. We are thrilled to have him as a vice-Patron of the house and especially pleased that he could be here today.

Welcome also to Mark Farrar who is here from Wellington City Council, a major funder of Katherine Mansfield House & Garden and therefore a key part of celebrating her legacy. The Council also looks after this park and this Memorial, which was repainted and the plaques polished just last year.

I’d also like to acknowledge the history of this area, once known as Haukawakawa thanks to the wind in the kawakawa plants. In the early 1800s Taranaki iwi migrated to this area and established a pā at Pipitea – in the area where we now find Old St Paul’s and Archives New Zealand. There were also kāinga or little settlements in this area, which was good for growing crops thanks to water flowing down from Te Ahumairangi and expanses of relatively flat land near the sea, which was much closer to this spot than it is today.

Of course, much had changed by the time Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born here in 1888 and there has been significant change since; but there are things she would still be familiar with including Te Ahumairangi, or Tinakori Hill as she would have known it, and some of the buildings around us today.

At Katherine Mansfield House & Garden we aim to inspire current and future generations through the life and literature of Katherine Mansfield. So even though she died approximately 20,000 kilometers from Wellington, we felt it was important to mark this centenary date and to invite others to join us in doing so.

For those who may not be so familiar with the significance of this location, Fitzherbert Terrace was where Mansfield went to school for a time – at Miss Swainson’s School - and later where she lived with her family. Neither house is still standing, all the houses on the Western side of what was once a wide central strip of grass and trees running down this street were demolished when the motorway was built in the 1960s, including the large house that once held Miss Swainson’s School. Katherine’s family home was located where the American Embassy now stands today and was also demolished in the 1960s.

The story of this Memorial structure itself is also connected to the motorway. When Katherine lived on this street it connected up with Murphy and Molesworth Streets and just over 10 years after her death her father, Sir Harold Beauchamp as he was by then, had a memorial tram shelter built at the intersection. It was designed by architect William Gray Young, who designed Wellington Railway Station and was a substantial structure featuring a brick ‘house’ at either end, connected by a trellised walkway. When the motorway was created, this street became a dead-end and the original memorial was demolished. That’s why this park was named Katherine Mansfield Memorial Park and this replacement structure was built, using some of the timber from the original structure. The original plaque was relaid here, alongside a new plaque from the 1969 opening.

But that’s enough historical context! The reason we’re here this afternoon is to mark the centenary of the death of a writer who has been described as one of the geniuses of 20th century literature and the “most emblematic woman writer of her time.” Her work has been translated into over 25 different languages – just last week I was alerted to a new translation of one of her stories into Persian – and new editions continue to be published. She is studied around the world at high schools and universities and there are some very moving stories of how her life and her writing, particularly her personal writing from journals and letters, has inspired people.

Katherine famously wrote ‘I’m a writer first and a woman after’ and her legacy as a writer is no doubt what she would want to be remembered for. But she also leaves an important legacy as a woman and a human being. Despite the strict social conventions of her Victorian and Edwardian upbringing, she was determined to live life her way, to push boundaries, and to experience the world. She was a young woman from a respectable family in Wellington, but she refused to accept what was expected of nice young ladies of her time and place.

Visitors to Katherine Mansfield House & Garden often finish reading the timeline of her life in what was originally her parents’ bedroom, and say ‘Gosh – she really managed to pack a lot into her 34 years didn’t she?!’ And they’re right! She published three collections of short stories and many other individual stories, poems and critiques in newspapers, journals and magazines; she wrote hundreds of letters; lived in five different countries; and mixed with key figures in 20th century English literature, art and philosophy. There were of course, many difficult and tragic events in her life and she suffered from periods of ill health from her early 20s until her death aged just 34. Like all lives, there was light and shade, but through it all she was keenly observant of the world around her and took much joy in the natural world.

Some of you may be aware that Katherine also loved music and her first ambition was to be a professional cellist. She began learning in her early teens and performed in concerts here in Wellington, including in what is now the Thorndon School Hall. Her parents wouldn’t allow her to pursue this early goal, but her musical training definitely influenced her writing. In a letter to her brother-in-law, she described reading aloud a story she was working on over and over again, as one would practice a musical composition to get the rhythm and moods right. So it’s very appropriate that today we have two cellists here to perform for us, Imogen Granwal and Jane Young.

The first piece Imogen and Jane will perform is by Sebastian Lee, a 19th century German cellist, composer and teacher. As well as French, Katherine learned German and spent time in the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in 1909. Some of her experiences there informed her first collection of short stories, In A German Pension, published in 1911.

Here are Imogen and Jane with Sebastian Lee’s Opus 37, Andante.

Cello performance 1

Thank you, Imogen and Jane.

Katherine continues to inspire writers today, as well as artists in other artforms, so I’m very pleased to have Cadence Chung here to read one of Katherine’s poems. Cadence was the 2021 winner of our annual short story competition for senior high school students in the Wellington region, but really that’s just a footnote in her list of impressive achievements. Last year she published her first book of poetry, Anomalia, and a production of the musical she wrote was staged at BATS Theatre. Not only did she write it - she played in the band! She is about to begin her second year at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington School of Music where she is studying Classical Performance.

I’ll now invite Cadence to read a poem written by Katherine in 1917.


'Now I am a Plant, a Weed…'

Now I am a plant, a weed,
Bending and swinging
On a rocky ledge;
And now I am a long brown grass
Fluttering like flame;
I am a reed;
An old shell singing
Forever the same;
A drift of sedge;
A white, white stone;
A bone;
Until I pass
Into sand again,
And spin and blow
To and fro, to and fro,
On the edge of the sea
In the fading light—
For the light fades.

But if you were to come you would not say:
“She is not waiting here for me;
She has forgotten.” Have we not in play
Disguised ourselves as weed and stones and grass
While the strange ships did pass
Gently, gravely, leaving a curl of foam
That uncurled softly about our island home…
Bubbles of foam that glittered on the stone
Like rainbows? Look, darling! No, they are gone.
And the white sails have melted into the sailing sky…

[End of reading]

Thank you, Cadence. As many of you know, Katherine is buried in the Cimetière d’Avon in the town of Avon, France, which is connected to the town of Fontainebleau. Her headstone reads:

“Katherine Mansfield

Wife of John Middleton Murry

1888 – 1923

Born at Wellington

New Zealand

Died at Avon”

On the horizontal stone of her tomb there is inscribed a quote from Shakespeare, from Henry IV, Part 1.

“…but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.”

Katherine had included it at the beginning of Bliss and Other Stories, her second collection of short stories published in 1920. A slightly longer version of the quote is "’Tis dangerous to take a cold, to sleep, to drink; but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety!" It speaks of the risk inherent in life, but that to find safety we sometimes have to take a risk – something Katherine knew all too well. One of her best known quotes is ‘Risk! Risk anything!’ It’s especially appropriate that the quote on her grave refers to safety as a flower amongst the dangers of nettle. Katherine loved flowers and gardens.

This coming Saturday the city council of Avon is holding an hommage at Katherine’s grave, at which floral tributes will be laid. Although we can’t be there to make our own offering at her grave, we can still honour that intention and her legacy by doing so here today.

In a moment I’ll invite Witi to say a few words, then lay the floral tribute we have here against this plaque laid in Katherine’s memory by her father, followed by anyone else who has brought their own to contribute. Imogen and Jane will then play an arrangement for cello of ‘To a Wild Rose’ by American composer Edward MacDowell.

As this happens you might like to take a moment to think about what brought you here today to mark this date and this writer. Is it a favourite story that you have connected with over the years? Some of Katherine’s letters or journal entries that have echoed your own feelings or inspired you? Her short life of creativity, courage, determination and humour? For anyone to be remembered and have a group of people gather to celebrate their legacy 100 years on is a special thing, so thank you all for being here to share in this today.

Witi, please go ahead.

Witi speaks, wreath and floral tributes are laid

Cello performance 2

Thank you to everyone who brought a floral tribute, and to Imogen and Jane for their beautiful performance. ‘To a Wild Rose’ was written in 1896 originally for piano, and was hugely popular, so was likely a song Katherine was familiar with as a young musician.

I’d like to end this commemoration today by reading some more of Katherine’s own words. This time, a journal entry, written on her 34th birthday as she prepared to travel to the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, hoping to finally find a cure for her tuberculosis.

“Life is not simple. In spite of all we say about the mystery of Life, when we get down to it we want to treat it as though it were a child's tale….

Now, Katherine, what do you mean by health? And what do you want it for?

Answer: By health I mean the power to live a full, adult, living, breathing life in close contact with what I love—the earth and the wonders thereof —the sea—the sun. All that we mean when we speak of the external world. I want to enter into it, to be part of it, to live in it, to learn from it, to lose all that is superficial and acquired in me and to become a conscious direct human being. I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be (and here I have stopped and waited and waited and it's no good—there's only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun. About helping others, about carrying a light and so on, it seems false to say a single word. Let it be at that. A child of the sun.

Then I want to work. At what? I want so to live that I work with my hands and my feeling and my brain. I want a garden, a small house, grass, animals, books, pictures, music. And out of this, the expression of this, I want to be writing. (Though I may write about cabmen. That's no matter.)

But warm, eager living life—to be rooted in life—to learn, to desire to know, to feel, to think, to act. That is what I want. And nothing less. That is what I must try for.”

One hundred years on, we know that tragically Katherine didn’t get to see these aspirations become reality. She died just three months after writing it. But I think what she expressed in that journal entry is wholly appropriate for today as we remember and celebrate the life she did live – bold, uncompromising and creative – and what she did achieve through her dedication to her craft and her unique vision.

Thank you again for being here today and playing a part in honouring Katherine’s legacy. Special thanks to Cadence, Imogen, Jane and Witi, and to those who have helped set up today. There will be more events and activities held throughout this centenary year, so we hope you’ll join us again at some point to continue the celebration of the life and work of an extraordinary woman born right here in Wellington who went on to make her mark on the world.

I’d now like to invite you to join us at the house, just around the corner at 25 Tinakori Road, for afternoon tea. Thank you again.


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