JANE: All right, Alan, I’m tantalized. Last time you said you had some thoughts as to how we might pin down national character… I’m eager to see what you have in mind.
ALAN: Yes, that’s right. I was thinking that fiction writers, whose material is derived from everyday life, give us a nice definition of what it means to be living in a given time and place.
Monsters Are Everywhere
Are you familiar with the New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield? She never wrote a novel, and during her life she published only two collections of stories: In a German Pension and Bliss and Other Stories. Two more collections were published posthumously: The Garden Party and The Dove’s Nest. So she was certainly not prolific. But many of her stories are steeped in the minutiae of daily life in colonial New Zealand in the early years of the twentieth century
JANE: I believe I’ve read some of her works, but I certainly am far from knowledgeable. Tell me more about Katherine Mansfield.
ALAN: She was born in Wellington in 1888 and died of complications from tuberculosis in 1923. She moved to the UK in 1907 and became part of the Bloomsbury set. Virginia Woolf is on record as declaring that she was jealous of Mansfield’s writing skills. Mansfield (probably) had a sexual relationship with D. H. Lawrence and I know that your PhD thesis was about Lawrence, so you may have come across her when you were researching Lawrence’s life.
JANE: That seems quite likely! Now I know why she sounded familiar. Go on…
ALAN: She tends to be a bit unpopular in New Zealand, mainly, I suspect, because far too many generations of school children have had her stories endlessly analysed in dull English classes. I remember her as a rather gloomy writer, but I re-read some of her stories recently and, while she certainly isn’t full of sweetness and light, she was nowhere near as dark as I remember.
JANE: When you say “steeped in the minutiae of daily life in colonial New Zealand in the early years of the twentieth century,” what do you mean by that? And how does “gloomy” reflect the national character? I found New Zealanders anything but…
ALAN: She had an enviable ability to invoke a time and a place. I think the only way I can tell you what I mean by that is to quote from her. Here are a few sentences from “The Woman at the Store”:
Jo rode ahead. He wore a blue galatea shirt, corduroy trousers, and riding boots. A white handkerchief, spotted with red so that it looked as though his nose had been bleeding on it, was knotted round his throat. Wisps of white hair straggled from under his wideawake—his moustache and eyebrows were the colour of old bones—he slouched in the saddle, grunting…
We were on the brow of the hill, and below us there was a whare roofed with corrugated iron. It stood in a garden, rather far back from the road and half in shadow—a big paddock opposite, and a creek and a clump of skeletal willow-trees. A thin line of blue smoke stood up straight from the chimney of the whare; and as I looked a gaunt woman came out, followed by a child and a sheep dog—the woman carrying what appeared to me a black stick. She made gestures at us.
I find the pictures painted in my mind by those words to be very vivid. I can see the landscape and the people and I’m sure she’s reporting very accurately just what she herself experienced.
JANE: Lovely prose. Wonderful use of color. I can see why Virginia Woolf admired her work!
Mansfield uses some very specific terminology. I realize you’re a late 20th, early 21st century Yorkshireman become New Zealander, so you may not be able to answer this, but I’m curious, would words like “galatea,” “wideawake,” and “whare” have been understood by a non-New Zealand audience of the time? For example, by the members of the Bloomsbury set who would have been her audience and – probably – her publishers, as well.
ALAN: Perhaps they’d be fine with “galatea” because of the classical links. “Wideawake” I’m not sure about. But I’m absolutely certain that “whare” would not have been understood. (It’s a Maori loan-word and it means “hut” or “house”. It is pronounced “foray”).
JANE: Uh… “Galatea”? How would a knowledge of classical material help with that? What comes to mind to me is the girl in the Pygmalion story, the one who started life as a statue.
Are you saying we’re to envision this man wearing a blue shirt printed with girls? Or statues?
ALAN: Galatea translates as “she who is milk-white” and the original statue that came to life was carved in ivory. Perhaps I’m wrong, but because of this I’ve always thought of the cotton galatea fabric as being white. The blue shirt that Mansfield refers to has presumably been dyed.
But a blue shirt printed with girls sounds like a wonderful garment to wear. It will be Christmas soon. Hint… Hint…
JANE: I’ll make sure that Robin gets that hint! And I think your idea as to the meaning of “galatea” sounds promising… but I like mine better!
Sadly, I fear that “wideawake” means nothing to this American except for what I’m not until I’ve had my shower. No, that’s not fair. I have a vague idea that it’s a sort of hat. But I have no concept as to what sort of hat.
ALAN: Sorry – I can’t help you there. It means nothing to me either.
JANE: Okay. We’ll toss that one to our readers. They’re wonderful at figuring out such puzzles.
I was interested in what those words might mean in context because, as a former English professor, language like that would be the sort of thing I would need to make sure my students understood, rather than breezing over. “Breezing over,” then admitting confusion, is a pretty typical response.
Help us out! We need help if we’re to understand what New Zealand is…
ALAN: The words may well have been unfamiliar (particularly whare) but the approximate meaning can be deduced from the context. So to that extent I think she is playing fair with her audience.
JANE: Maybe… Now, how about Ms. Mansfield’s “gloomy” aspect? As I said, that didn’t seem representative of the New Zealand character when I was there.
ALAN: As for gloomy – well, she herself wasn’t the happiest person in the world. Many of the relationships between her characters are quite tense and there is a dark undercurrent of violence. We’re probably just seeing a reflection of her own personality. But that doesn’t invalidate the word pictures she painted.
JANE: I agree… But I think there’s more to “national character” than simply landscape descriptions and idiosyncratic vocabulary.
ALAN: Oh, definitely. It’s the people who live inside those descriptions that bring the whole thing to life. “Prelude” is a story about the Burnell family moving house from Wellington to a country village. They are only moving six miles, but that distance, small though it is, is huge in terms of lifestyle changes. I think that contrast is a valuable indicator of just how people lived at that time.
JANE: Hmm… I see what you’re getting at. However, in terms of pinning down national character, I think we’re a century out of date. No wonder the school kids don’t identify.
ALAN: True – but you could say the same about Mark Twain and the way he chronicled the American life and times. He couldn’t describe modern day America, but that doesn’t make his work any less valid as an exploration of the time and the place in which it is set.
JANE: I agree, but while I’ve enjoyed some Twain, I wouldn’t put him forth for anyone trying to understand the “character” of the modern U.S. In fact, it would be a stretch to say that such trickster, law-bending characters as Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, or even the Connecticut Yankee (of King Arthur’s Court fame) were representative of any but a small fragment of the population even at the time Twain was writing.
After you reminded me about the link between Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence, I started remembering that she’d had a very open mind for the time, both regarding sexual relationships and race relationships. I went and double-checked and the rather nice write-up on Wikipedia confirmed my memories.
Mansfield was apparently fairly honest about being bisexual. One of the great loves of her life was not only a woman, but a Maori woman. In other discussions about New Zealand – including our recent one about politics – you mentioned New Zealand’s liberality in both of these areas.
So, would you say that Mansfield reflects New Zealand’s character in this way? That her fiction being a staple in schools provides a subtle indoctrination, perhaps?
ALAN: It’s certainly a reflection of New Zealand as it is today, but I don’t think the ideas applied in Mansfield’s time. One of the reasons that she left the country was because of her frustrations with the provincial life of colonial Wellington. She described the journal she kept at this time as consisting of “…huge complaining notebooks”.
JANE: Ah, well. It was a nice idea.
ALAN: Mansfield’s gloomy aspects have had an interesting side effect. A couple of years ago, New Zealand writers Matt and Debbie Cowens published Mansfield With Monsters which took some of her iconic stories and, just as she descended into existential angst, they introduced a zombie or a vampire to take over the drama. It was a surprisingly effective ploy. They caught Mansfield’s style perfectly and the joins didn’t show at all.
JANE: Would you consider these readable by someone unfamiliar with Mansfield’s work? So many parodies rely on familiarity to be funny.
ALAN: Yes, I would. The book won a national award in New Zealand in the year it was published and many of the voters would have had little familiarity with the original.
JANE: While I’ve really enjoyed discussing her works, I’m not convinced that Katherine Mansfield would be a good gateway to understanding the national character of New Zealand. Do you have any other authors you’d like to put forth to add to my understanding of New Zealand – whether then or now?
ALAN: Yes, I do. But you’ll have to wait until next time to find out who they are!