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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Groove Book Report: A Strange Beautiful Excitement - Redmer Yska (Otago University Press $39.95)

How does a city make a writer? Described by Fiona Kidman as a ‘ravishing, immersing read’, A Strange Beautiful Excitement is a ‘wild ride’ through the Wellington of Katherine Mansfield’s childhood.  From the grubby, wind-blasted streets of Thorndon to the hushed green valley of Karori, author Redmer Yska, himself raised in Karori, retraces Mansfield’s old ground: the sights, sounds and smells of the rickety colonial capital, as experienced by the budding writer. Along the way his encounters and dogged research – into her Beauchamp ancestry, the social landscape, the festering, deadly surroundings – lead him (and us) to reevaluate long-held conclusions about the writer’s shaping years. They also lead to a thrilling discovery. This haunting and beautifully vivid book combines fact and fiction, biography and memoir, as Yska rediscovers Mansfield’s Wellington, unearthing her childhood as he goes, shining a new lamp on old territory.

I know writer Fiona Kidman well.  So when she describes a book as 'ravishing, immersing..." I'm inclined to believe her.  Wellington born scholar and writer Redmer Yska has an eye, or should that be 'feel', for what makes the soul of a city.  In one sense Katherine Mansfield was always going t be an easy choice because Mansfield's writing is so ingrained in the blood of the Capital.  As an historian he has a perfect fascination with what it was like to walk in our beloved writer's footsteps.  So this book is very much about that journey - or journey's.

Young Miss Beauchamp came from a privileged but decidedly down to earth family who traveled as much as possible around her city and further abroad.  Her wanderlust eventually took her to England and to Europe, as we know but her earlier excursions were clearly the inspiration for her stories.  So we get glimpses into her city (or town, as it was then).  The neighbors, the way they dress, some backstories and some approximation of life as it was in a burgeoning colonial city.

Kathleen Beauchamp, through Yska's writing is firmly set in her raw, vibrant, energetic Welly-town. Put in her pen, 'the singular charm and bareness of that place.'  The book starts with a trip to Karori School (Karori Normal School) to visit a very humble bird bath, in memorial to Mansfield.  This is something of a touchstone, that unravels the process of the suburb's most famous resident as she constructed the story that began with the working title At Karori and eventually became The Doll's House.  Yska chooses to weave his own 'Karori' experience, growing up in the area.  He talks about the school house that's fictionalized in her story and the huge pine tree that also features, for real, in the playground.  And from there we deep dive into the place, learning about the minutest details and how they feature.  We learn of people that lived close by when the bird bath memorial was opened in 1933 and many other 'lost' facts that contribute to the untold stories behind her stories.  I love that.  This is what brings the legend and the fiction of Mansfield to life with almost day-glo vibrancy.

Much of the narration follows a style I got used to when I took a number of walking tours around Cambridge and Oxford during my OE.  They were books that encouraged me to take a few steps, look up, or down, left, or right and observe a feature - then read the backstory and contemplate what I was looking at.  This is how it goes in Yska's book, too.  Not exclusively but it does use the formula that weaves contemporary landmarks like the American Embassy in Thorndon with forgotten features such as the springwater outlet in Grant Road (now hooked up to the mains, alas).  This was only the start, the book dives into letters between a young Kathleen and her cousins, and other correspondents.  And, even more fascinating, it looks at the influencing literature of the day.  He goes deep into the bowels of Wellington's Public Library to find pages from the New Zealand Graphic's Children's Pages, from the 1910's and 20's and cartoons, etc.  this all shows us what and did influence the way she spoke and wrote.  He also found two of her earliest letters.  Again, the deep dive into the soul of her city.  This is a Pokemon game for book lovers.

But what I'm really excited about is Yska's discovery of her published story His Little Friend which appeared seven years earlier than the publication of Vignettes in the Native Companion (Melbourne) in 1907, which was previously thought to be her earliest story published outside school magazines.

The discovery of the story His Little Friend is at the heart of a new book on the life of the young Katherine Mansfield by Wellington author and historian Redmer Yska, who made the find while researching in the archives of the Wellington City Library.  Previously unknown to Mansfield’s modern readers and scholars, the short story, by the 11-year old Kathleen M. Beauchamp, was published on the Children’s Page of the New Zealand Graphic on 13 October 1900. It is reprinted in full in Yska’s new book, along with a well earned yarn about how it was discovered.  For an 11 year old it's a very astute and well written piece.  Almost a little precocious but a wonderful insight into who she was to eventually become.

Reproduction of the publication of His Little Friend
I've only started to explore this book but I'm prepared to say, even now that this is quite possibly the most intimate and approachable book on our most famous daughter.  A Strange Beautiful Excitement is a delightful and engaging intermingling of fact, fiction and biography that fleshes out the colonial cityscape that influenced Mansfield during her youthful years. It delves into previously untold aspects of her childhood, ancestry and social surroundings.  One of Yska's drivers was to biography her 34 years in New Zealand.  Many British writers only start to notice her when she lands in the UK but her connection to the land here is undeniable, as it was when she wrote about 'home' when abroad  As a Wellingtonian, if you didn't feel you owned her before, than you will now.

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