Digging up Katherine Mansfield’s gardener 13 Sep 2012
Why did Katherine Mansfield write so much about her childhood?
In1915, when Katherine Mansfield’s brother Leslie, serving in the New Zealand forces, died on the Western Front, she decided to focus her writing on the idyllic five years their family had once spent at Karori, a rural area about five miles from Wellington.
Of her Villa Isola Bella in Menton, she wrote: “This little place is and always will be for me – the one and only place, I feel. My heart beats for it like it beats for Karori.”
Mansfield as a child
Katherine had three sisters and a brother. Plus, out at Karori [where she was from five years old through to 10], there were also cousins who lived next door. She was a chubby little thing with bulging cheeks and brooding eyes and wore steel-rimmed spectacles. People later described her as difficult, awkward, careless, and messy. Despite reading a lot, she was no good at spelling.
Their property at Karori was called Chesney Wold. It must have been like a Garden of Eden for the kids, what with horses, cows, pigs and poultry, two orchards, and 14 acres of paddocks to run around in. There was also Karori Stream below the house where she loved to splosh around and catch little fish in a jar.
The family had an Irish gardener/handyman/coachman called Pat Sheehan. He was a natural storyteller and entertainer to the children and the adults all liked him. Every evening, wearing a brown bowler hat, he would take the horse and cart into Wellington to collect Mr Beauchamp [who did the downhill, one-hour walk to work every morning to keep fit].
The Doll’s House
The story “The Doll’s House” tells of a large wooden doll’s house that’s delivered to Chesney Wold. It stands in the driveway outside and the kids are fascinated when the front is removed and they can see inside it into the rooms and the people shown there. There’s a sense of a facade being stripped away. At the end of the story, Kezia (who represents Mansfield as a child) breaks the rules and allows two working-class children through the gate to inspect the doll’s house.
I have often wondered where Mansfield got her class-consciousness from, her stunning use of dialogue, her super-awareness of plants and flowers, her sense of other lives being lived apart from those of the wealthy. I now think it came in part from Patrick Sheehan. He would have evoked all of those qualities himself during the five heavenly years in Karori. Note, too, in “The Doll’s House”, it’s “Pat” who uses his penknife to unlock the doll’s house so they can see inside for the first time.
The Garden Party
Pat occurs many times in her writing, even the Thorndon-based story “The Garden Party”: “The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns...” And the dead man, lying in state in one of the peasant cottages, whom the protagonist triumphantly visits, is described as being “a carter” whose horse had thrown him.
Whatever happened to Pat?
The five-year lease on Chesney Wold finally ended. Mansfield recalled:
“When we left that house in the country and went to live in town, Pat left us to try his luck in the gold-fields. We parted with bitter tears. He presented each of my sisters with a goldfinch, and me with a pair of white china vases cheerfully embroidered with forget-me-nots and pink roses. His parting advice to us was to look after ourselves in this world and never to pick the flowers out of the vegetable garden because we liked the colour.”
Where did he go? Did he ever find gold? Did he ever have a family? We’ll never know.
My own belief is that Katherine Mansfield honoured Pat Sheehan through references to him and gardeners in her writing, her theatrical use of dialogue, and countless mentions of different types of flowers, vases, and ... gold. For example, a sunny day in France, in her journal became a “gold-dust” morning.
Katherine’s close friend Ida Baker described the adult Mansfield as a great “actress” and “mimic”. Mmm, interesting; I wonder who she was taking after...
Is Chesney Wold still there?
As it happens, I live in Karori. Not long ago, I was quite surprised to find that the Chesney Wold house still exists. It’s not a place tourists are pointed to. I must have walked and driven past it hundreds of times without knowing. It’s been butchered around a lot over the many decades but is still a noble house to look at. Of course, there are no longer any farm animals and the “14 acres” are now a huge park that’s used for cricket in summer and football in winter.
Appropriately enough there is still a little driveway in front of the house and, just like in “The Doll’s House”, there are gates. When I walked past today, they were firmly locked. Yet, although Life has firmly moved on, Katherine Mansfield’s stories about this place are like the vases with forget-me-nots and pink roses that Pat gave her. And she never did forget.Photo credits:
Historical images of Chesney Wold and Katherine Mansfield aged approximately 10 years old
Main drawing: Chesney Wold - Martin Doyle
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