ARTICLE: Following Katherine Mansfield to Isola Bella, France

This story appeared in the New Zealand Listener

Isola Bella is an elegant old two-storeyed stone villapainted light pink, with narrow blue wooden window shutters. Set among palmtrees, its balcony has wrought-iron balustrades that curl like calligraphy, andlooks out to the blue Mediterranean Sea. The Italian border is a stone’s throwaway to the left and France’s glitzy Côte d’Azur coastline is on the right.

This is the house in the city of Menton where Katherine Mansfield lived and wrote from 1920-1921 while she convalesced from tuberculosis. This is also where recipients of the New Zealand Post Mansfield Prize (formerly known as the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship) have come to write for the past four decades. The fellowship enables a New Zealand writer to live in Menton for six to 12 months every year.

Not that they have free rein of Mansfield’s former home. Rather, they have access to a study in the house’s converted basement. The “writer’s room” is small and plain, furnished with a wooden desk behind which are two portraits of Mansfield. This was formerly the gardener’s quarters and possibly housed rabbits in a lapinerie. It’s as if Mansfield has been “joined by a hutch of her fellow countrymen burrowing behind her”, quips Vincent O’Sullivan, who held the fellowship in 1994.

O’Sullivan was among the writers who attended week-long celebrations in Menton at the end of last month to mark the 40th anniversary of the fellowship. Now worth $100,000, it’s one of our biggest literary prizes, and our longest-standing. The list of recipients reads like a roll call of New Zealand’s most acclaimed authors: Janet Frame, Michael King and Owen Marshall. Witi Ihimaera, Elizabeth Knox and Lloyd Jones. And so on.

The anniversary celebrations were co-ordinated by the New Zealand embassy in Paris and it was declared “New Zealand Week in Menton”. The programme included public readings in Menton’s famed gardens by past fellows O’Sullivan, CK Stead, Fiona Farrell and Stuart Hoar, and current fellow Jenny Pattrick. There was a guided tour of the city retracing Mansfield’s steps, screenings of New Zealand films, and 50 Mansfield scholars were brought together in a day-long academic symposium organised by the Katherine Mansfield Society.

So how did the city of Menton respond to all this Mansfield-inspired hoopla? Local dignitaries at the Mairie de Menton (the Menton Municipality) greeted it all very enthusiastically.

Luc Lanlo, former deputy mayor responsible for cultural affairs, says: “When we are lucky enough to have had a writer like Katherine Mansfield in Menton, we must perpetuate her memory.” He waxes lyrical about Mansfield, comparing her to the likes of Frida Kahlo and Simone de Beauvoir. “Women who had a cultural and intellectual force. Woman with character and a lot of tenderness but also pain.”

But aside from this week of celebrations, whose public events were well attended, the average Mentonnais is perhaps only vaguely aware a New Zealand author called Katherine Mansfield lived here 89 years ago, and even less aware of the writers that come here every year care of the fellowship.

Pattrick says that although the Mairie, which owns the writer’s room and is responsible for its upkeep, held a ceremony where it presented her with the room’s keys placed on a pink cushion tied up with a pink ribbon, she has had little contact with it since. And perhaps that’s just as well. One of the themes that emerges when talking to former fellows about the value of their sojourn in Menton is a sense of being somewhat cut off. Isolation brings with it fewer distractions than at home and the ability to really focus on writing.

It seems good things also come from plucking an author from the Antipodes and placing them in a life in France. Pattrick, who has been working in Menton on a novel set in Samoa in the 60s, explains it like this: “The fellowship has given writers a chance to come to this side of the world and to get the feeling of what it is like speaking a language you don’t know, living in a culture you don’t know, and that’s unsettling. It’s very valuable for a writer to be unsettled, to be taken out of your comfortable little place.”

Farrell, who was a fellow in 1995 and worked on the short-story collection Light Readings, says: “I think what happens is you come here and you speak a bit of French but language is more problematic and that has an effect on your sense of your own language, it sharpens your awareness.” She describes a double effect where “you’re not just a stranger here but also you’re a stranger from New Zealand. Home takes on a kind of clarity. It’s a kind of childlike clarity that I sense in Katherine Mansfield’s writing, too.”

Stead describes his time in Menton as like “being reborn in a foreign culture”.

The effect of living and writing under the shroud of Mansfield, who wrote some of her most highly regarded stories in Menton, has also rubbed off on fellows.

Stead went on to publish Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield: A Selection. O’Sullivan worked on volume four of her Collected Letters while here. Hoar arrived in 2007 with a sense of benign indifference to Mansfield, but became fascinated by what he calls her seductive spirit, which has led him to develop an outline for a feature film based on her life, for which he hopes to write a full screenplay.

It’s the work of a gutsy and dedicated trust and a string of happy coincidences that can be thanked for giving writers the passport to these experiences and inspiration. Surprisingly, funding has never come from government coffers; rather, the Winn-Manson Menton Trust has found it through benefactors, grants and sponsorship.

Trust chairman Richard Cathie says: “One might have expected in 40 years there would have been a recess [but] we’re imbued with this passion to keep the thing going. Writers have to be honoured and supported if they are going to thrive.”

The fellowship was the brainchild of Celia and Cecil Manson, committed Francophiles and writers themselves, who in the 60s enlisted the support of friend Sheilah Winn, part-heiress to the fortune of the shoemaking and retailing Hannah family. Despite Winn’s financial backing, the trust struggled in the early days to raise the additional capital necessary for a fellow to travel to and live in Menton. It could be a rough and ready experience arriving with little money and nowhere to stay.

In 1972, Stead spent four and a half weeks travelling by sea with his wife and three young children. Although they did find accommodation in a house with windows that opened out onto an olive grove, the writer’s room had no toilet and was chilly. “In retrospect, it was quite a brave thing to do,” he says.

Some fellows – notably Lauris Edmond and Marilyn Duckworth – were forced to bunk down in the writer’s room itself. This contravened its non-residential zoning and a small scandal erupted at the Mairie when Duckworth’s underwear was seen hanging up outside the room to dry. An apartment has now been secured for use by fellows, thanks to a chance meeting on a Menton beach by one of the trustees.

Fellows all seem to come away from Menton with a juicy tale or two to tell. One of Pattrick’s is how she broke her foot during the “moon walk” across the Italian border that an eccentric English gentleman takes fellows on every year.

Farrell emphasises that the value of the prize is a mixture of the personal and the professional. Fellows have fallen in love, and the marriages of others have broken up, she says. “It’s not just about going and writing a book, it’s about what happens to people when they are here. It is incredible that 40 of us have come. It has changed us all in some way and that is a legacy that Katherine Mansfield has left, too.”

Evidently, Mansfield herself was deeply affected by that time she spent in Menton. On a bronze plaque outside the writer’s room is a quote from a letter about the house that reads, “You will find Isola Bella in pokerwork on my heart.”

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