A Madder Caress, Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis
In 1918, writers Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis ran away to Cornwall together to begin one of the most sizzling affairs in literary history.
This poem commemorates a time in Katherine Mansfield’s life after she put her grief behind her and enjoyed a brief period of happiness with her then lover, John Middleton Murry in Bandol.
But, ah! before he came
You were only a name:
Four little rooms and a cupboard
Without a bone,
And I was alone!
Now with your windows wide
Everything from outside
Of sun and flower and loveliness
Comes in to hide,
To play, to laugh on the stairs,
To catch unawares
Our childish happiness,
And to glide
Through the four little rooms on tip-toe
With lifted finger,
Pretending we shall not know
When the shutters are shut
That they still linger
Long, long after.
Lying close in the dark
He says to me: “Hark,
Isn’t that laughter?”
Katherine Mansfield and her lover and soon to be husband, English writer John (Jack) Middleton Murry, arrived in the South of France in November 1915. They had fled London after the devastating news that Katherine’s brother Leslie had been killed at the Western front. Of her four siblings, she had been closest to Leslie and she learned that his last words had been for her: ‘Lift my head up Katie, I can’t breathe.’
On receiving the news at their house in St John’s Wood Katherine had been acutely shocked. Murry made a note on that day:
Three minutes ago Tig had a telegram to say her brother is dead…I cannot believe it yet; and she cannot. That is the most terrible of all. She did not cry. She was white and said: “I don’t believe it; he was not the kind to die.” And now she has gone off to Kay for news….She wanted to know what day was the 7th. It was the day before she got his letter saying that he felt like a child of seven – the day she bought the badge of his regiment to wear. I don’t know what will come to be now. I feel terrified of the future: he was so much to her; and that last letter –
They had planned to host a dinner party that evening and Katherine insisted it should go ahead. Friends were told nothing and noticed she seemed unusually talkative and gay. But when one inquired about Leslie a few days later, Katherine gave her a look that was ‘queer, wild, hard’, then said, ‘Blown to bits!’ She did not appear to grieve openly but announced she could no longer live in the house where Leslie had visited them several times while on leave. Murry (Katherine’s name for him was Bogey) had received a certificate of rejection for military service on medical grounds, so there was little reason to stay in England. They headed for the sun.
Mansfield’s biographer Antony Alpers believes this bereavement changed Katherine’s life. It broke through her cynicism, and ‘released her creative stream’. It was a gradual process that began in private, with journal entries that she addressed to Leslie such as this:
You know I can never be Jack’s lover again. You have me. You’re in my flesh as well as my soul.
By the time they set out on the journey to the South of France, Katherine and Murry had become virtually estranged. She was clearly suffering but refused to discuss her brother’s death; in fact she hardly spoke to Murry at all and it was as if she blamed him. Reading her diary in secret, Murry found her entries were consumed with her love for Leslie, while it appeared that he was no longer counted.
Arriving in Marseille, they sought inexpensive accommodation along the coast where they could focus on their writing. They had been expecting warmer temperatures but the winter that year was brutally cold. Murry had food poisoning in Marseille and in Cassis the mistral blew, and they loathed their hotel. Consumed with her loss, Katherine wrote in her journal, ‘though he is lying in the middle of a wood in France and I am still walking upright and feeling the sun and the wind from the sea, I am just as much dead as he is.’
Walking around the point in Cassis one day, Katherine was overwhelmed by grief and it seemed as though her weeping might never stop. This drew an angry response from Murry, followed by remorse. He later wrote of the grief that had ‘absorbed’ her, creating a ‘barrier’ between them.
Searching for a better place to settle, they discovered Bandol, a village a few miles from Cassis. But by now Murry had had enough. In the notes for his edition of her letters (1951) he wrote: ‘I had resolved to return to England. I felt – no doubt foolishly – that her dead brother had taken the place in her heart that belonged to me. After spending two or three days at Bandol, while Katherine settled in, I returned to England on December 7, 1915.’ They agreed to reunite once she had taken the time and the space she needed.
Their friend D.H. Lawrence, who held Katherine in high regard, wrote her a sympathetic letter.
Do not be sad. It is one life which is passing away from us, one ‘I’ is dying but there is another coming into being, which is the happy creative you…Don’t be afraid, don’t doubt it, it is so.
He chastised Murry for leaving Katherine alone in her grief. But as her biographer C.K. Stead asserts, Murry was ‘well-meaning but not really up to the task. She was too brilliant for him to match, and too demanding for him to satisfy.’
Shortly after Murry’s departure, Katherine developed a fever and a bout of severe rheumatism. While storms raged outside she lay in her bed at the Hotel Beau Rivage, with its sea view, and was waited on by a ‘spry’ maid who lit crackling fires and brought her meals and lime flower tea. She wrote to Murry, ‘it is as wild a day as ever I have seen – a sky like lead, a boiling sea, the coast hidden by thick mist, a loud noise of wind and such rain dashing on the windows. It is very cold, too: and (3.30) dark already.’ She dreamed of her brother and long dead Grandmother and once awoke with the sensation that she was holding Leslie’s hand.
Her mourning for Leslie led her to warmer reflections about her birthplace, New Zealand, which she had rejected seven years before. Thoughts of the family from whom she’d felt estranged came flooding back. She wrote to Murry: ‘I should like to embrace my Father this morning. He would smell of fine cloth, with a suspicion of cigar added, eau de Cologne, just an atom of camphorated chalk, something of fresh linen, and his own particular smell’.
Although Katherine gave the impression to friends that she was proud to be single, in the face of Murry’s abandonment she was reduced to a state of loneliness and dependence. Her daily missives were needy: ‘I am so bound up in you that ‘us’ is become a kind of separate and loving being that I can scarcely bear to part with and cannot understand why it should ever really leave me.’
Some of her letters were reproachful and flashed with jealousy and rage despite their lyricism. She would paint a picture of the ideal happiness that would be theirs if only they could be together, but if Murry guiltily promised to return she would tell him not to. This was the beginning of a pattern of closeness, misunderstanding, disappointment and separation that would characterise their complex relationship until its end.
C.K. Stead wrote that under normal circumstances (without her subsequent tuberculosis) their relationship might not have endured.
She’s questing always, straining at the leash, wanting more of Jack than he can give, looking for alternatives. Lawrence advises her to learn to be alone; to stop seeking always to be “in love”. She says, “But I want to be in love”, and Lawrence says, “Yes, and children want sweets.”
When feeling more robust Katherine would note down her observations at the hotel:
Oh Bogey, it is the most heavenly day. Every little tree feels it and waves faintly from delight. The femme de chambre called to the gardener just now as she beat the next door mattress out of the window – ‘Fait bon?’ and he said, ‘Ah, delicieux!’
She documented the hotel’s clientele whom she came to know well; an encounter with a fascinating woman who spoke in the strong accent of the Midi, and told her about the coast and places of the region, ‘and as she talked I began to see this place – not romantically, but truly. I like it more and more than like it.’ There was the shy Englishman, ‘a queer delightful good-natured person’ who knocked on her door to offer a ‘most marvelous cure’ for her rheumatism. And at six, when she descended to the salon for dinner:
A New Lady appeared in tight purple velvet, low neck and short sleeves, tiny waist, large pear-shaped derriere, big fat shoulders, marabout scarf, little round head with curls like escargots on the forehead. I was quite overwhelmed.
In her journal she wrote:
There is a long stone embankment that goes out into the sea. Huge stones on either side and a goat path in the centre. When I came to the end the sun was going down. So, feeling extremely solitary and romantic, I sat me down upon a stone and watched the red sun, which looked horribly like a morsel of tinned apricot, sink into a sea like a huge junket.
Returning to Bandol from a ramble in the woods one evening, also at sunset, she encountered a funeral in mid procession down the Avenue des Palmiers. Four small boys carrying a cross and incense braziers walked before a chanting white-haired priest, followed by four men each carrying a corner of a black and silver cloth. Behind them a coffin was borne aloft on a table by six men, and what seemed like the ‘whole village’ followed on foot. ‘It was extremely fantastic and beautiful in the bright strange light.’
She visited the markets in front of the square near the ‘curious little Church’ that at Christmas were full of ‘branches of roses – branches of mandarins and flowers of all kinds.’
Katherine wrote to Murry that since being alone, she had been able to face the reality of her brother’s death. Whereas previously she had shrunk from it, she had now entered into her loss and felt the worst of the pain had passed.
With her improving health, Katherine’s spirits lifted and she wrote to friends of her growing happiness. Murry started making plans to return, writing: ‘We shall go from sunshine to sunshine.’ Katherine answered: ‘Yes, that is just what I feel. Today, too, my brother smiles.’
She described to Murry the ‘perfect villa’ she had discovered on the outskirts of Bandol:
It stands alone in a small garden with terraces. It faces the ‘midi’ & gets the sun all day long. It has a stone verandah & little round table where we can sit & eat or work…It is very private and stands high on the top of a hill. It is called the Villa Pauline.
Hearing Murry was on his way, Katherine ordered provisions and wood for the stove.
All the windows are open – all the doors – the linen is airing. I went to the flower market and stood among the buyers and bought wholesale you know, at the auction in a state of lively terrified joy 3 dozen rose buds and 6 bunches of violets.
The sun was shining when Murry returned on the first day of January, 1916. Despite the war raging in the north, they settled into one of the most peaceful periods of their life together. In fine weather, they would walk along the coast, on the bar that encloses the harbour, or explore Bandol’s ‘little lanes and crooked ways bordered with olive trees.’ They enjoyed days ‘warm as a bird’s nest’, watching the fishermen pulling in their nets and the old sailing boats with their red sails setting out to sea, and they drank coffee at the quayside café in Sanary.
When I woke this morning and opened the shutters and saw the dimpling sea I knew I was beginning to love this place – this South of France. Yesterday I went for a walk. The palm trees after the rain were magnificent, so firm and so green and standing up like stiff bouquets before the Lord.
But most of the time they worked. On one side of the kitchen table Murry was writing his first book, about Dostoevsky. On the other side Katherine initially procrastinated and worried whether she still had the urge to write. She wrote to Lady Ottoline Morell of ‘this hour of bright moonlight, when the flowering almond tree hangs over our white stone verandah a blue shadow with long tassels.’
In her journal Katherine noted that she wanted to write an elegy for her brother and to achieve something unlike anything she had attempted before. Her subject was to be the ‘recollections’ of her native New Zealand.
I want to write about my own country til I simply exhaust my store…. in my thoughts, I range with him over all the remembered places. I long to renew them in writing…I want for one moment to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World. It must be mysterious, as though floating. It must take the breath.
She was aiming for ‘a radiance, an afterglow.’ By mid February she began to revise The Aloe, a short story she had written the previous spring. It was inspired by her brother’s last visit to them in St John’s Wood. Sitting under a pear tree in the garden, she and Leslie had played a game of nostalgia: ‘Do you remember?’ From this mood she started the first of her haunting evocations of an adolescence set in Wellington.
Initially she had intended to use it as a chapter in a first novel about New Zealand but now she had other plans. As she started the story afresh the weather grew cold and windy, and she and Murry sat by the fire, writing side by side all day. Katherine’s health was stable and her confidence grew as she realised the work was good.
The final version of this story became Prelude. It honours the childhood memories she shared with her brother. Even though she was so far from her homeland and would never return, she had a gift for squirrelling away her observations and selecting them later at will, as if from a box of photographs. It also helped that the view from Villa Pauline across the bays towards Sanary reminded her of the coastlines of New Zealand.
Prelude was quite unlike anything she’d written before. It follows the Burnell family as they relocate from town for a new life in the country. But the plot is secondary to an innovative literary structure driven by an exploration of the psychology of the characters. Over twelve scenes, Prelude shifts seamlessly between multiple perspectives that question assumptions about maternal instincts and the role of women in a patriarchal family. Completed in 1917, it was one of her longest and finest stories and her first major work. Virginia and Leonard Woolf much admired it and it became their second publication at Hogarth Press.
While on a brief trip to Marseille to see her sister in March, Katherine captured the nature of her happiness in a letter to Murry:
Life isn’t half long enough to love the different things about you in. I shall die in the middle of a little laugh at some new funny thing that I adore you for…Perhaps I didn’t quite know until I came away what these months have brought, or how they have changed everything.
But their time in Bandol was drawing to a close. Army rules were changing and Murry would shortly be required to enlist for non-combat service. They accepted an invitation from D.H. Lawrence to stay with him and his wife Frieda, in a cottage they had reserved for them in Cornwall. But of Bandol, this golden period, John Middleton Murry later wrote:
It was, without a doubt, the happiest time of our life together – one to which we looked back, with love and a certain incredulity, in the after years. We could have written, like R.L. Stevenson: ‘Happy? I was happy once – that was in Bandol’. It was not by any effort of will that we ignored the war, which was then at one of its blackest periods – the carnage around Verdun. We did it spontaneously, and without a tremor of conscience. Whether we deserved our happiness is not for mortals to decide. But we had it, and it was precious. And in that experience were laid the foundations of a conviction which has grown more solid with the years – that the only power which will ever put an end to wars is love between individual men and individual women. Only in that relation is the fundamental egoism of men and women really overcome.
We will take up their story again in Zennor, Cornwall.
When she was younger, Katherine Mansfield had been a cellist who hoped for a musical career. In Wellington she had studied cello with Thomas Trowell, whose twin sons had followed her to London to study music. They were a brilliantly musical family and on her birthday they presented her with the score of this haunting piece by Dvořák.
In London Katherine studied at Queen’s College London from 1903 to 1906 and used to dress from head to toe in brown to match her instrument. Eventually, realising she would never make the grade as a musician, she transferred her musical practice with all its ‘passion for technique’ to writing, to which she also applied musical terminology, striving always to find the ‘middle of the note’.
This was a live performance of Dvorak’s New World Symphony by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa, featuring Yo Yo Ma as soloist at the Smetana Concert Hall in Prague.
In 1935, five years after Katherine’s death, her friends, D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda came to stay at the same hotel: Bandol’s Hotel Beau Rivage. They intended to winter here for Lawrence’s health. By this time no-one could ignore his dreadful hollow cough. He was dying of tuberculosis as Katherine had. Some say she caught the disease from Lawrence when she and Murry lived with them for a time in Cornwall’s Zennor. Lawrence had tried every cure – mountains, sea, hard work, no work, being alone, being with others. Everything worked for a little while, followed by relapse.
Lawrence had just published Lady Chatterley’s Lover and was enraged to receive a press clipping describing it as ‘the foulest book in English literature.’ He and Frieda had grown apart. She no longer read his proofs or helped him with his business letters. She was having an affair, which Lawrence knew about, and had been taking off for little trips on her own to Baden-Baden, Florence and Alassio.
The Beau Rivage was a gentle, comfortable place, where their friends could stay. It was run by a hospitable woman who did not turn Lawrence away because of his cough as some had done. Lawrence’s declining energy put limits on his writing. He discovered he could quickly toss off short articles on contemporary themes for London newspapers. His article ‘Insouciance’ is the elegant plea of a dying man, not to clutter our lives with the abstractions of politics but rather, live ‘through our instincts and intuitions’. He wanted to ignore the two white haired women prattling on to him at the hotel about Signor Mussolini and ‘the empty desert of spaces of right and wrong, politics, Fascism, and the rest’. Why, he wondered, do ‘modern people almost invariably ignore the things that are invariably present in them.’ Lawrence wanted to be ‘allowed to sit like a dandelion on my own stem’ and contemplate the ‘sulky’ mountains, the cherry blossom and the two men scything the lawn.
The winter passed slowly but pleasurably. A succession of friends came to visit. Some were young writers who looked up to Lawrence and wished to benefit from his experience. Rhys Davies, a young novelist from Welsh mining stock, found the Lawrences amiable and direct: she, full of laughter and generosity, Lawrence less so, with hints of maliciousness and the odd stinging rebuke. After their three-course lunch at the hotel, Lawrence was often too tired for walking and lingered on the hotel balcony looking at the view, or sat by the water telling Davies stories from his childhood. In the mornings they would stroll around the local market in the church square, watch the fishermen or take occasional walks in the forest above the village.
Another friend observed that Lawrence rarely wanted to be alone. There was a lively atmosphere around him and he would amuse, with anecdotes of human absurdity. Visitors cheered the couple and soothed their irritations. Bandol represented a time of peace and relative harmony for them, as it had for Mansfield and Murry before them.
Bandol is a thriving seaside town between Marseille and Toulon. It has a gently curving bay and a sandy beach that was packed with bronzed bodies by noon. On Tuesdays the promenade and its delightful Place de la Liberté square are lined with market stalls. Early in the mornings the produce of Provence glows in the sun against the backdrop of the sea. The rough rocky hills that form a natural amphitheatre behind the town produce some of the most distinctive red wines of the South and these are sold here too.
The town has been modernised since Katherine’s day. I asked about her at the tourist office and the woman had never heard of her. All that remained of the Hotel Beau Rivage where she and D.H. Lawrence had both convalesced was the sign. And I had heard that Katherine’s tiny love nest, Villa Pauline on 75 rue des Ecoles, is obscured from view by a large house also called Villa Pauline, and cannot be seen from the street – I didn’t have the heart to go there.
Yet the strange little church remains, the markets are flourishing, and I can see how the wide bay glistening in bright light with the forested hills in the distance could bring memories of Wellington flooding back for her. It could be easy to be happy here.
The 1986 television documentary A Portrait of Katherine Mansfield was shot in five countries and documents Mansfield’s difficult relationship with her birthplace, her turbulent life, writing and early death in France at the age of 34.
A short film about Katherine Mansfield’s work from the Women Writers, Voices in Transition series, produced by The Open University, featuring Delia Da Sousa Correa, Senior Lecturer in English.
A BBC Open Book episode featuring Ali Smith talking about Katherine Mansfield with Mariella Frostrup.
Kirsty Gunn on why she loves Prelude.
The Bandol Tourism website.
Antony Alpers, The life of Katherine Mansfield, Oxford University Press, 1988
Ted Jones, The French Riviera: A Literary Guide For Travellers. Tauris Parke, 2007
Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield’s Letters to John Middleton Murry 1913 -1922. Constable & Co. 1958, Ed. John Middleton Murry
Katherine Mansfield’s Men, Eds. Charles Ferrall & Jane Stafford. Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society & Steele Roberts, 2004
Jeffrey Meyers, Katherine Mansfield: A Darker View. Cooper Square Press, 2002
Squires, Michael. D.H. Lawrence and Frieda: A Portrait of Love and Loyalty, Andre Deutsch, 2008
Claire Tomalin, Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life. Viking 1987