If you have been reading my blog for a while (and I’m very grateful if you have), then you might remember I wrote about hiking in the woods near Fontainebleau. On a later hike in the same woods we found route markers named in memory of Katherine Mansfield and a memorial plaque attached to a rock bearing the inscription:
“Life never becomes a habit to me, it is always a marvel. – Katherine Mansfield”
When I wrote that first post my friend Cathy in NZ insisted that we must go back to Fontainebleau-Avon and visit Katherine Mansfield’s grave in the Avon cemetery – “its your patriotic duty” she said. She’s right and we did make a return visit recently.
Katherine Mansfield’s grave in the Avon cemetery is plain and simple; a paua shell, a pink daisy growing in one pot and a variegated leafy shrub in another, the few mementos left by visitors. The inscription on the weathered tomb is hard to read, well obscured by lichen. The words are from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, she had used them as an epigraph to one of her stories: “but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower, safety.” The cemetery itself is just the kind of ordinary place – quiet enough to hear sparrows chirping – that KM might have written about with intimate, observant detail in one of her stories.
KM was born in Wellington in 1888 and died, aged 34, in Avon, France in January 1923 from a sudden fatal pulmonary haemorrhage – a consequence of Tuberculosis. She had moved to Avon to try and improve her health not long before her death. At that time a number of her short stories had been published and were already receiving highly positive reviews. Her stories and letters have since been published and reviewed over and over, as well as biographies written and television dramas made about her life. She has become a celebrated literary figure of whom we NZers are terribly proud. (You can find information about her and her writing here, along with links to her stories.)
Her stories are timelessly appealing. Reading my favourites* again now takes me straightaway to a place in my mind that’s somewhere between fond memory and vivid imagination. I can see and feel NZ so clearly in my mind’s eye.
I’ve also been reading her published letters; she was a knitter! I am in raptures.
In one letter (to Countess Russell, in October 1921) she wrote “John now mixes his wools thereby gaining what he calls a “superb astrachan effect.” Chi lo sa! I softly murmur over my needles – I find knitting turns me into an imbecile. It is the female tradition, I suppose.”, and later on 16 November 1921 writing to a friend (Dorothy Brett) to thank her for sending wool she says…..
“The Wools came today. They are quite lovely & I feel inclined to carry them about, just as they are, like fat dolls. J.M. was deeply moved by their beauty; he is an expert with the needles……..
Isnt leming yellow a fascinatingcolour. There is a very pink pink here too – aster pink, which is heavenly fair. I could get a wool complex very easily . . . These are simply perfect in every way.”
I get her thrill about the feel of the wool and the colours. Even more interesting is the hint that her husband John Middleton Murry was a knitter. Is that what she is saying? I’d love to know for sure.
It doesn’t really surprise me she was a knitter. She writes about knitting as deftly as a knitter works with yarn and needles that she had to have been familiar with knitting. There are several characters who knit in her stories; Kezia’s Grandma Fairfield in At the Bay, whips the wool twice round her thumb to cast on (just how my mother taught me to cast on), and counts stitches in threes. Her characters are often knitting something pink.
I wonder why most (maybe all) of her knitting characters are “typical” knitters; old, grey-haired, kind grandmotherly types and yet she herself was young, so interesting, unconventional and clever.
Imagine if she had given us young female characters knitting, or a man knitting……. such a tragedy that she did not get the opportunity.
Next visit I shall take flowers; lemming yellow if I can find them and Aster pink, heavenly fair.
Using the resources of Wikimedia Commons here is the essence of Lemming yellow (apparently the yellow Steppe Lemming) and Aster pink.
* My top favourite is The Dolls House.