Redmer Yska's A Strange Beautiful
Katherine Mansfield's Wellington
"It’s not enough to say I immensely enjoyed A Strange Beautiful Excitement … it’s simply splendid." – Dame Fiona Kidman.
Wallace Stevens said that "a vocation recognizes its material by foresight," illustrating his remark with a comment by Focillon on Piranesi's Prisons. In their initial state they were "skeletal," but "twenty years later Piranesi returned to these etchings, and on taking them up again he poured into them shadow after shadow, until one might say he excavated this astonishing darkness not from brazen plates, but from the living rock of some subterranean world."
Redmer Yska might find the comparison immodest, yet in his own way he has done something similar. In his latest book, A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington 1888–1903, we see him at work on some of his early plates into which he has subsequently cut much deeper. He has added a touch here and narrowed his focus there, but the extraordinary fact is that this work is of immediate significance to everything he has written before. His previous books can all be read as sketches of, or tentative probes into, that deeper layer of meaning of his chosen subject - the history and politics of his home town, Wellington.
Yska is a prolific and preeminent Wellington writer and public historian who grew up in Karori. In the 1990s, he produced two popular works on aspects of postwar New Zealand youth culture: NZ Green, the Story of Marijuana in New Zealand and All Shook Up, the Flash Bodgie and the Rise of the NZ Teenager in the 1950s . In 2001, he explored his heritage as a Dutch New Zealander with An Errand Of Mercy, Captain Jacob Eckhoff and the Loss of the Kakanui, and in 2006, Reed published his commissioned history Wellington: Biography of a City. Yska was awarded the National Library Research Fellowship in 2008 to write NZ Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People's Paper, which was published in 2010. Now Otago University Press have published A Strange Beautiful Excitement, the combined product of three years of deep archival archeology, a $60,000 History Research Trust Fund Grant, and an MFA (Hons) in Creative Writing at Victoria University.
Yska's latest book crowns the work of the others and in its final form could have been written by no other hand. Few academics have the intellectual equipment or first-hand knowledge to accomplish such a task - and of them even fewer possess the necessary daring. The clues may lie in a back issue of an old newspaper hidden in the National Archive or a set of letters or accounts sequestered in the Turnbull Librrary. You must know what kind of thing to look for and where. Much of the work will be tedious - and yet, when the detail begins to jump and proliferate, you must also have the strength to control it. The learned may help (Yska's book includes a flattering foreword by Vincent O'Sullivan, New Zealand's leading Mansfield scholar), but they cannot provide the power to establish apodictic facts or the stamina to seek them out.
The result of Yska's
impressive scholarship and minute research is an extremely
handsome publication, lavishly illustrated with a plethora
of attractive maps and colour plates, and written in
easily-digestible nuggets in his characteristically graceful
and accessible manner. This haunting volume vividly combines
fact and fiction, biography and personal memoir, as Yska
rediscovers Mansfield’s Wellington, unearthing buried
secrets about her childhood as he shines a new light on
familiar territory. He retraces her old stomping ground: the
sights, sounds and smells of the rickety, windswept colonial
capital, as it was experienced by the budding writer. The
result is not only informative, but also makes compelling
reading for anyone interested in Mansfield's writing and/or
the civic history of Wellington. In addition to informing
his own project, Yska's researches also revealed two early
letters and a previously undiscovered childhood story by the
author, who was then known as Kathleen Beauchamp, on the
Children's Page of the New Zealand Graphic issued on
October 13, 1900.
The obvious question is - why write yet another book about New Zealand's most celebrated author, who's life and work has surely already been covered from every possible angle? And the answer is - not quite. Yska's real subject is actually Wellington during the late Victorian era during which Mansfield was born and grew up. Like her contemporary James Joyce, Mansfield was a self-imposed exile from her home country and repeatedly returned to the city of her birth for characters and subject matter. She spent half her life and set most of her best known stories in Wellington.
The formative early events of Mansfield's childhood years inflected her writing in previously unknown ways, including a spate of lethal typhus and cholera epidemics that cast a shadow over the Mansfield family, precipitating their relocation from Thorndon to the then-rural neighborhood of Karori. Her estranged father, stalwart conservative banker Sir Harold Beauchamp, later wrote that the family's move was for "the benefit of the children's health." Official figures on the number of deaths were largely hushed up, but is estimated that nearly 500 Wellingtonians died of typhus and other infectious diseases between 1885 and 1891, when the total population was only about 30,000. Roughly one in every thirty-five Wellingtonians perished as a direct result of untreated sewage overflowing drains and the raw effluent washing into the harbour during heavy rains. Among the cloacal victims was Mansfield's uncle and her six-moth-old sister Gwen, who died of cholera in 1891.
The nature of the disease and the family's move had a direct influence on the rebellious Mansfield's subsequent obsession not only with unsanitary conditions, but also contemporary class structures, both of which can be traced throughout many of her stories. The Garden Party addresses the risk of catching disease from the "poverty-stricken" people who lived "in little mean dwellings" down the lane. In A Birthday, a character walks through Thorndon muttering "Everything here's filthy, the whole place might be down with the plague," and in The Doll's House washerwoman Mrs Kelvey has "untouchable" children.
Yska always writes in obedience to the foresight which enabled him to recognize his vocation as a popular literary and cultural historian. A Strange Beautiful Excitement is an important contribution to Mansfield scholarship in its own right, but it also serves as an idiosyncratic and stimulating witness to that vocation.