Wellington's Storied Past

Virginia Woolf once wrote that the only writer she was ever jealous of was her friend and fellow Bloomsbury Group member Katherine Mansfield. D.H. Lawrence memorialized her as Gudrun, one of the sisters in "Women in Love."

Considered one of the 20th century's finest short-story writers, Mansfield was born and reared in this small colonial city at the turn of the last century. Although she fled at age 19 for the bright lights of London, her memories of Wellington stayed extraordinarily vivid. Some of her most luminous stories--"At the Bay," "Prelude," "The Dolls' House" and "The Garden Party"--were drawn from her childhood in Wellington.

The British, Japanese and French embraced Mansfield's writing long ago; many Americans are now discovering its haunting beauty. Like most New Zealanders, I was raised on Mansfield's stories.

After recently returning to Wellington from abroad, I felt a need to reconnect with the capital city's most famous literary export, so I decided to visit the places that played a role in her life and stories.

It's possible to trace much of Mansfield's early life in Wellington in a day. Although a sizable slice of Thorndon, the fashionable central-city suburb where she was born and spent most of her childhood, was cleared for a freeway in the 1960s, many of the places mentioned in her letters, diaries and stories still stand. They include two of the houses she lived in; schools she attended; and houses, gardens and buildings she visited, including the magnificent downtown Edwardian Bank of New Zealand headquarters (now a shopping arcade), where Mansfield's father, Sir Harold Beauchamp, was chairman.

Mansfield's family was a prosperous and conventional one. Her father was a self-made man whom she described as "thoroughly commonplace and commercial." Her mother was beautiful and socially ambitious but aloof and often absent from her children.

As the awkward middle child of four sisters and a brother, Mansfield was a rebel from the start. Overweight and bespectacled, she was known as the difficult one, an outsider intense in her feelings and given to outbursts of jealousy and fury.

Her childhood was not unhappy, however. She did not lack for anything, including large dollops of loving care from her mother's mother, Granny Dyer, who lived with the Beauchamps. And her father's riches provided a wealth of early experiences that Mansfield later captured with deep affection in her writings.

I began my tour in Thorndon, went next to the western suburb of Karori, where she grew up, and ended up in Muritai and Days Bay, where the Beauchamps spent their summer holidays. You can take the freeway to Days Bay, but I decided a more interesting and authentic option was to travel as the Beauchamps would have and take the ferry across Wellington Harbor from Queen's Wharf.

"It's a small town, you know," Mansfield wrote in "Daphne," "planted at the edge of a fine deep harbor like a lake. Behind it, on either side, there are hills. The houses are built of light painted wood. They have iron roofs colored red. And there are big dark plumy trees massed together, breaking up those light shapes, giving a depth--warmth--making a composition of it well worth looking at."


My first stop was the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace at 25 Tinakori Road, five minutes' drive from the central city. It was here that Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born on Oct. 14, 1888. (She was called by many names--Kass, Katie, Katiushka--but was known by most as Katherine.) The square, two-story timber house was built that same year by Mansfield's father, then a young merchant. He was later knighted for his services to commerce and banking.

The birthplace, today painted cream with a red iron roof, has been meticulously restored and furnished with antiques and replicas of the original wallpapers and furnishings. You also can watch a 50-minute documentary on Mansfield's extraordinary life. It celebrates her brilliance but also makes plain the high price she paid for her "new woman" ideals--an unplanned pregnancy, miscarriage, a gonorrhea infection and TB, which killed her at the tragically early age of 34 in France.

Katherine spent her first five years in this house. On the front lawn calla lilies grew wild, and the upstairs bedrooms looked out over the breakwater of the harbor. In "Prelude," Kezia is standing at an upstairs window when "the day flickered out and dark came. With the dark crept the wind snuffling and howling. The windows of the empty house shook, a creaking came from the walls and floors, a piece of loose iron on the roof banged forlornly."

Walking around the corner from Mansfield's birthplace, I came to Fitzherbert Terrace, in many ways the heart of Mansfield's life in Wellington and the place where she began her writing career. She attended school here, and it was her last home in New Zealand.

Today there is a small memorial garden dedicated to Mansfield on one side of the street. From age 12 to 14, Mansfield, with her older sisters, Vera and Chaddie, attended Miss Swainson's School at 20 Fitzherbert Terrace, in a large wood house that is now gone. (Miss Swainson's later moved to Karori and became the exclusive Samuel Marsden College.) At Miss Swainson's, Mansfield wrote her own "school magazine," featuring stories and jokes. Music also captured her interest at this time, and she learned to play the piano and took cello lessons with "old Mr. Trowell."

Five years later, in April 1907, within a few months of Mansfield's return from her first visit to London (where she completed high school with her sisters), the Beauchamps moved into a very large house at what was originally No. 4, then 47 Fitzherbert Terrace. (The U.S. Embassy now occupies the site.) Like its neighbors, this house was built of timber made to look like stonework at the front, with a handsome pillared porch. Mansfield had her own room upstairs, in which she spent much time writing.

By now, 18 and having tasted London's cultural sophistication, she was bored by New Zealand and raged against her confinement in the small colonial city. She wrote bitterly of "this monotonous terrible rain ... the narrow, sodden, mean, draggled, wooden houses, colorless, save for the dull coarse red of the roof, and the long line of the gray hills, impassable, spectral-like." In her upstairs aerie she wrote several short prose pieces under the name K. Mansfield or K.M., and three were accepted for publication in Australia, a major achievement for an 18-year-old.

Mansfield lived there only until July 1908, when she left for England, never to return. I left Fitzherbert Terrace and spent an hour exploring other areas of Thorndon that Mansfield knew well. I walked around the corner into Hobson Street, one of the city's most exclusive thoroughfares. Nearby, at the corner of Aitken and Molesworth streets, is the National Library of New Zealand, which holds one of two major international collections of Mansfield's papers, as well as photographs and personal possessions such as her Chinese silk shawl. (The other major collection is at the Newberry Library in Chicago.) The National Library also recently acquired the journals of English writer and critic John Middleton Murry, who was first Mansfield's lover and then her husband.


I returned to my car outside the writer's birthplace and headed south toward Karori on Tinakori Road, past the city's beautifully tended botanic gardens, which Mansfield loved and visited often. The road is steep and winding, but the signage is clear, and the journey took about 20 minutes.

Karori was the first of the outlying valleys to be opened up for settlement in the new colony. In Mansfield's day it was Wellington's rural fringe. Today it is the city's biggest suburb and solidly middle class. It was at the valley's farthest end, beneath hills that led to the coast, that Beauchamp bought a 14-acre property called Chesney Wold in 1893. The family's shift from the city is preserved in "Prelude," and references to the Karori home and local school occur in several stories.

Mansfield was 5 when the Beauchamp family moved to Karori. She began her education at the Karori School, which has been at the corner of Donald Street and Karori Road since the 1870s. One Karori resident of the 1890s remembered how "every morning for several years I used to meet Kathleen Beauchamp, a fat little girl, trailing along well behind her sisters" as they walked to school. Her grades show that "Kass" was good at arithmetic and poetry, but poor at spelling and handwriting.

I stopped my car outside 372 Karori Road. In Mansfield's day, Chesney Wold stood in a large garden, surrounded by paddocks, orchards and various stables and farm buildings. The house faced east, at right angles to the road, and a circular drive swept around an area of lawns and flower beds.

Still a private home, the house has been substantially altered, and the gardens and paddocks have been replaced by more houses. However, Karori Park is still behind the house as it was in Mansfield's day, and the stream described in "Prelude," where Pat "the storeman" caught and beheaded the duck for dinner, continues to flow, ducks still living on its banks.

The Beauchamp family remained at Chesney Wold until Mansfield was 91/2. In her last two years here, Katherine, with her sisters, attended Wellington Girls' High School, and as I drove back into the city I thought of the Mansfield girls traveling by a "dreadful jolting bus" drawn by three horses along the winding road to school each day.


From the late 1890s, the Beauchamp family frequently spent summer holidays on the eastern side of the harbor, which was accessible only by steamer then. Today I had several choices: Drive around the harbor, take the bus or take a half-hour ferry ride directly to Days Bay. I chose the latter and made my way to Queen's Wharf, site of the ferry terminal.

As we crossed the water, I saw the big, bush-smothered hills behind these bays that inspired the setting of "At the Bay," as perfect a distillation of New Zealand's mystical beauty as there ever was: "Ah--aaah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again."

The Beauchamps' vacation houses are private homes now, but they provide an excellent excuse to stroll the narrow foreshore and get a view of the Wellington skyline in the distance.

Before setting out, I rewarded myself with a casual lunch of a chicken sandwich with spinach, feta, sun-dried tomatoes and basil pesto, topped off by a slice of decadent "chocolate fish cake" at the new Chocolate Dayz Cafe at Days Bay. As I ate I admired the view over the water and the relaxed beachfront atmosphere.

About 20 minutes' walk around the shore is pretty Eastbourne Village, with art and craft galleries, boutiques and other eateries. The Beauchamps' first holiday house is another 15-minute walk along Muritai Road, opposite Puriri Street. A white wood house with an olive gray roof and a white brick chimney, it can be glimpsed through trees behind 283 Muritai Road.

The old general store belonging to Mrs. Stubb, a character in "At the Bay," has long been demolished, and the paddock over which Stanley Burnell, another character in the short story, bounded to the beach in a broad-striped bathing suit is also built over with houses. When I returned to the Days Bay Wharf to wait for the ferry to Wellington, I looked north across the water to a cottage perched on rocks. Beauchamp bought the land and built the cottage for the family in 1906. The family holidays at Muritai and Days Bay later inspired some of Mansfield's finest writing.

"At that moment an immense wave lifted Jonathan, rode past him, and broke along the beach with a joyful sound. What a beauty! And now there came another. That was the way to live--carelessly, recklessly, spending oneself.... To take things easy, not to fight against the ebb and flow of life, but to give way to it--that was what was needed. It was this tension that was all wrong. To live--to live! And the perfect morning, so fresh and fair, basking in the light, as though laughing at its own beauty, seemed to whisper, "Why not?'"

For many of Mansfield's admirers, "At the Bay," written only two years before her death, captures the essence of New Zealand as vividly today as it did then.


Carole van Grondelle lives and writes in Wellington.