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Review: Katherine Mansfield, The Urewera Notebook

9781474400152.coverBook Review: Katherine Mansfield, The Urewera Notebook, edited by Anna Plumridge

Published April 2015, Edinburgh University Press, 128 pp, 20 b/w illustrations, £30

Chris Mourant

In late 1907, when Katherine Mansfield was just nineteen years old, she made a camping trip into the Urewera region of New Zealand’s North Island that had a lasting impact on her life and writing. After three years of schooling in London between 1903 and 1906, Mansfield was keen to return to England to pursue her ambition to become a writer. Before she left the country again in 1908, never to return, the camping trip that Mansfield made into the interior of New Zealand provided her with a final opportunity to see a side to her homeland that was beyond the bourgeois confines of Wellington. This expedition made a lasting impression on Mansfield, with some of her observations filtering into her later fiction. Furthermore, the writings that Mansfield made on this trip (variously in the forms of diary, letters, and random jottings) constitute a fascinating insight not only into Mansfield’s early attempts to formulate a unique prose style but also her engagement with the landscape, history and culture of New Zealand. Mansfield never intended to publish these writings, but ever since Ian Gordon collected them as a stand-alone work in 1978 under the title ‘The Urewera Notebook’ they have become an important – if sometimes overlooked – part of the Mansfield canon.

In this edition, Anna Plumridge presents a newly transcribed version of ‘The Urewera Notebook’ that is both rigorous in its scholarship and thoroughly accessible. In a book that exceeds one hundred pages, only 28 are given over to Mansfield’s ‘Notebook’ proper, which serves as an indication of the substantial supporting material and contextual commentary that Plumridge provides. A day-by-day itinerary, for instance, enables the reader to cross-reference Mansfield’s writings with contextual information about the places visited and the people met. Moreover, this edition is richly illustrated with previously unpublished photographs that offer a welcome window onto the contemporary landscape that Mansfield travelled through, and the inclusion of a map showing the campers’ route is testament to the care that Plumridge takes to detail specificities of place and region throughout her edition.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this book, though, is the textual and editorial history of ‘The Urewera Notebook’ that Plumridge outlines. After Mansfield’s death, her literary executor, John Middleton Murry, published sections from the text in The Life of Katherine Mansfield (1927) and the Journal of Katherine Mansfield 1904-1922: Definitive Edition (1954). Murry’s omissions were extensive: of the 85 folios that Mansfield filled during the camping trip, for example, only 34 were reproduced in their entirety in The Life of Katherine Mansfield, with 31 included in an incomplete state and 18 omitted altogether. As Plumridge argues, these omissions were significant in shaping a particular image of Mansfield’s life and work. Furthermore, Murry stylistically ‘airbrushed’ Mansfield’s writing style, ‘correcting’ spelling and unifying punctuation; as part of this ‘cosmetic editing’, he also presented Mansfield’s heterogeneous text as a recognisably popular literary genre, presenting scruffy notebook entries in the form of a deliberately styled diary. The account that Plumridge provides of Murry’s editorial practices is a well-rehearsed one within Mansfield scholarship. Murry continues to be routinely and somewhat unfairly vilified for what is perceived to be an exploitation of Mansfield’s writings for personal gain, and Plumridge appears to subscribe to this view: whilst she concedes that there ‘is a very real danger in holding Murry to standards that he was deliberately not striving to meet’, Plumridge argues that a ‘closer examination’ of The Life of Katherine Mansfield and the 1954 edition of her Journal ‘justifies Murry’s sullied reputation as an editor’.

What is a surprising and welcome addition to Mansfield scholarship, however, is the way in which Plumridge outlines how the personal motivations of editors who followed Murry also served to distort Mansfield’s text. When Ian Gordon published his edition in 1978, for example, it was with the express purpose of countering Murry’s presentation of Mansfield as someone dissatisfied with and uncomfortable in her homeland. Whereas Murry had always struggled to get along with Mansfield’s relatives, Gordon found himself in extreme sympathy with them; Plumridge suggests that he reciprocated the good will of the Beauchamp family by presented Mansfield in ‘The Urewera Notebook’ as a teenager who was entirely happy and content living in New Zealand. Whilst Gordon sought to provide a more faithful transcription of ‘The Urewera Notebook’ than Murry had, reproducing nearly all of Mansfield’s entries and retaining grammatical idiosyncrasies (such as Mansfield’s frequent use of dashes instead of more formalised punctuation, such as commas and full stops), he also sought to present a central ‘narrative’ running throughout the ‘Notebook’. As such, Gordon relegated certain sections of Mansfield’s text into appendices, making editorial judgements about the value of material in order to progress a self-contained ‘story’. In championing the view that Mansfield had enjoyed herself on the trip and was happy, Gordon systematically minimised evidence of her wretchedness, with her dismissive side-comments omitted or placed in appendices, for example. As Plumridge writes, then: ‘Gordon, perhaps no less than Murry, stage-managed his readers’ interpretation of the “Urewera Notebook”’. This is also reflected in the fact that Gordon presented his reader with what appeared to be a definitive interpretation of words that are almost indecipherable in Mansfield’s manuscripts.

Margaret Scott’s transcriptions of all of Mansfield’s notebooks, published in a two-volume edition, has long been recognised as an epic undertaking that helped to counter Murry’s editorial distortions. These transcriptions are rightly seen as authoritative versions of Mansfield’s often-illegible writings, with Scott having taken incredible pains to decipher numerous previously unidentified words and phrases. Yet Plumridge also suggests ways in which Scott’s editorial decisions may have been motivated by emotional commitments. Plumridge observes that, like Murry’s, ‘Scott’s life was shaped by Mansfield’s literary legacy’; in times of personal crisis, Scott viewed her life as progressing in parallel with Mansfield’s biography. This idea of a spiritual affinity with Mansfield found expression in Scott’s editorial confidence in her ability to ‘interpret’ the ‘real’ intention behind the use of idiosyncratic punctuation. Whilst Scott retained most of the dashes in Mansfield’s notebooks, for example, on occasion she also used her own judgement to interpret these dashes, formalising them as commas and full stops. As Plumridge notes: ‘Despite her exalted intentions, Scott’s editorial methods inevitably led her to act as a subjective “filter” of Mansfield’s voice’. Furthermore, the absence of the scholarly apparatus of contextual referencing in Scott’s edition results in the notebooks being presented without the necessary information needed for a general reader to identify the people and places mentioned, to understand Maori words, or to interpret editorial ambiguities.

In outlining this editorial history to ‘The Urewera Notebook’, Plumridge not only highlights how Mansfield’s writings and posthumous reputation have been moulded by the different preoccupations and commitments of different editors, but she also provides the rationale for her own edition. Where Murry’s editions include significant omissions, Plumridge’s edition is exhaustive in its comprehensiveness. Where Gordon’s edition relegates material from the notebooks into appendices to create a central ‘narrative’, Plumridge doesn’t make value judgements about inclusion; for instance, her only appendix is a letter written by Mansfield to her mother whilst on the camping trip. Where Scott formalises some of Mansfield’s many dashes, Plumridge is at pains to retain all of them, giving us vital access to Mansfield’s hasty, breathless, impressionistic early writing style. And where all previous editors fail to give adequate contextual information, Plumridge provides a wealth of supporting scholarship. This edition includes photographs of Mansfield’s manuscripts from the camping trip that reveal the incredible difficulty of transcribing and editing her early work. Plumridge doesn’t pretend that her edition is definitive. Instead, her footnotes make clear where other editors have arrived at other interpretations of words or phrases, and she states when a word or passage is illegible, or when something has been crossed out, inserted, or amended by Mansfield. Rather than attempting to unify the text into a coherent whole, moreover, Plumridge gives a sense of its fragmentariness. By indicating when a new folio begins, for example, the reader gains a sense for how the notebooks progress and how Mansfield’s words are presented on the pages of her original manuscripts. In short, this book takes us closer than any previous edition to the original writings Mansfield made whilst on the 1907 camping trip across New Zealand.

Yet, in outlining the editorial history to the text, Plumridge also concedes the impossibility of ever editing something from a position of neutrality, stating that ‘an editor cannot expect to avoid introducing a degree of interpretation into the text’. This prompts the question: in what ways is Plumridge’s edition also driven by an editorial agenda?

Rather than viewing Mansfield as someone who viewed Maori culture as ‘primitive’ and was dissatisfied and uncomfortable when away from England (as Murry does) or alternatively as someone entirely happy and settled in New Zealand (as Gordon does), Plumridge responds to a new wave in Mansfield scholarship that seeks to re-position the writer as a ‘liminal’ artist, at home neither in New Zealand nor England, who was constantly writing from a position ‘in-between’. Angela Smith, whom Plumridge quotes several times in the book and thanks in her Acknowledgments, has been at the forefront of this critical reappraisal of Mansfield as a writer of non-belonging. Some of Plumridge’s most astute observations are made from this critical standpoint. For instance, she highlights the ways in which Mansfield romanticised Maori culture and transposed her ‘European imagining’ onto the landscape of New Zealand; to support this, she points out that Mansfield describes feeling ‘blissfully happy’ when at the ‘Taupo campsite, which was not set amidst the New Zealand bush, but in the miniature England of the Terraces Hotel grounds’. At the same time, however, Mansfield’s notebooks demonstrate disdain for ‘ultra-Colonial’ people who don’t engage meaningfully with Maori culture; to support this, Plumridge contrasts a description by Mansfield’s friend Millie Parker that mocks Maori attempts at speaking English with Mansfield’s more sympathetic rendering.

In presenting a comprehensive edition of ‘The Urewera Notebooks’, therefore, Plumridge reveals the complexities and nuances in Mansfield’s attitudes to both Europe and New Zealand that support a contemporary reappraisal of her as a writer at home in neither location.

Chris Mourant is a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in English at Nottingham Trent University. He received publicity in 2012 for his discovery of an unknown story, ‘A Little Episode’ (1909) by Katherine Mansfield, among the papers of the late Miron Grindea, editor of the French/English literary journal, ADAM International Review. At the time Mourant was a PhD student at King’s College, London.