Flash Frontier

Celebrating Mansfield 2023: Redmer Yska, on getting to know KM

Interviews and Features

We are delighted to welcome Redmer Yska, who shares his adventure Katherine Mansfield and his new book Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station (2023). And we are delighted he begins this reflection with birds – a special contribution to this edition of Flash Frontier!


Connections: Place and people


Katherine Mansfield (KM) grew up beneath the hanging cages of songbirds, and always loved their sweet sweet’ chirruping. Writings about her childhood in the remote rural Karori valley on the outskirts of Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington often mention birds and birdsong. The 1903 story ‘About Pat’ fictionalises their Irish gardener based on real-life handyman Pat Sheehan. The story concludes with the nuggety Sheehan’s departure, the children in tears. He hands each one a goldfinch as a pet.

Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station (2023) locates the setting and background for ‘The Canary’, her most famous bird story. During 1922, KM stayed at Victoria Palace Hotel in Paris while being treated for tuberculosis. Here she spent days sprawled on the couch after X-ray therapy. From the window she watched the woman in a nearby apartment putting out her canaries in wicker cages. KM’s joy at the sight – and the sound – inspired the story. “How can one possibly express in words the beauty of their quick little song rising, as it were, out of the very stones … I wonder what they dream about when she covers them at night, and what does that rapid flutter really mean?” (Collected Letters, vol 5, 21 February 1922)


My initial interest in KM came from the most unlikely source – municipal drains.  In 2012 I was invited to speak on the social and historical background of 1890s Wellington at the time KM was growing up (she was born in 1888). My 2006 civic history Wellington: Biography of a City had explored public health themes: water, sanitation and infectious disease epidemics.

I was surprised by what I found. The accepted wisdom was that her family, the Beauchamps, quit inner city harbourside Thorndon in 1893 for lifestyle reasons. They headed out to green Karori, a wide valley in the country. KM’s masterpiece ‘Prelude’ tells the story of the move.

But when I read about the death in 1891 of Gwen, KM’s baby sister, from lethal typhoid disease, I began to see another explanation. It appeared the family joined a terrified exodus from the city, as hundreds of locals, especially children, died from a lethal epidemic caused by contaminated water. KM, who’d never much interested me, suddenly had my attention.

How does a city make a writer?

I began a three-year quest to reimagine KM’s childhood, a historical and literary study of the putrid bacterial city that hovers over her writing. ‘The Garden Party’, for example, addresses the risk of catching disease from ‘poverty-stricken’ people ‘in little mean dwellings’ on Saunders Lane. KM’s story used the name of a real-life slum across the road from the actual family home in inner city Thorndon: “When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch.’ (Short Stories, Vintage, 2008)

In 2017, Otago University Press published the result: A Strange Beautiful Excitement: Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington, 1888-1903. I realised I had other perspectives to bring. How many biographers have gone to the same primary school as their subject (Karori Normal), or have eaten lunch daily on the clay bank beside the subject’s memorial birdbath? How many biographers spent their childhood playing in the park by their subject’s home, and walked daily to school the same way?

Mansfield’s Europe – a pursuit by train

After Strange Beautiful Excitement, I thought I was done with KM. But in 2017, during a holiday to Europe, I couldn’t stop myself from calling at some resonant European locations where she’d lived. KM is often tied to literary London but Europe was the place where she was happiest, where she did her best work. Many of these places commemorated her stays there.

In Bad Wörishofen, Germany, for example, I found luxury apartments named after KM being constructed on the site of the place she’d lived and written in 1909. In the small town of Fontainebleau/Avon, France I spotted her name on more street signs and commemorative plaques than all of Wellington.

Then I met local M. Bernard Bosque, who looked after her tomb at Avon Cemetery, ran annual birthday parties there for KM admirers, of which there are many in France. Bernard is a school teacher and forest guide who has mapped out her trails through France and Switzerland, places she criss-crossed by train in the early twentieth century. In 2018, he invited me to visit the Swiss mountain where she wrote ‘At the Bay’.

As a result of that experience, I decided to follow in her footsteps and rail trails across the continent: Germany, Switzerland, Italy and especially France – and write about it. My subsequent book Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station became part homage, part pursuit: an attempt to pick up her traces through the tobacco-stained cafés, brasseries, fish markets, hotel lobbies, cake shops, slimy quaysides, train tracks and public gardens she once frequented.

Through Bernard I became aware of the community of European KM devotees and knowledge holders. Roberta Trice, an Italian author and academic, became a valuable contact. She curated a major exhibition in San Remo, Italy on KM’s stay there. In 2009, Trice persuaded the city to create a lookout or ‘belvedere’. Henning Hoffman is her literary bloodhound in Germany, and we became friends. In 2018 Hoffman persuaded Bad Wörishofen to erect a statue to her. This amazing group of individuals was keeping her flame alive – and few knew about them. And new memorials to her keep popping up.

Over time KM’s Europe: Station to Station grew into a book-sized account on what endures of the locations KM knew a century ago, and if and how she is remembered in those places today. In 2019, Creative NZ funded the project.


One of my literary heroes is the British writer Richard Holmes, biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft and poets Shelley and Coleridge. He calls biography ” not merely a mode of historical enquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith”. In his 2016 memoir This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer, he insists the serious biographer must leave the desk, ready and willing to physically pursue his subject through the past. What he calls ‘Footstepping’ allows a narrative to build on clearly visualised scenes.

And it was Europes’s wonderful trains that took me to all these places across the continent. My stay at Victoria Palace Hotel in Paris, where, as I mentioned, ‘The Canary’ was inspired shows the footstepping experience in action. I stayed there for three nights in 2019, on the third floor. One day I gained access to KM’s astonishing jewel box of a suite on the sixth floor, still the biggest, most expensive room in the hotel.

Here KM spent whole days by the window. It was incredible to open the old latches on what looked like the original windows and look out across the same enclosed internal courtyard. I learned the setting was structurally identical to the time KM lived here. Being there really did allow me to step inside the story. To my amazement, I learned the hotel was about to be gutted: 60 old-fashioned rooms to become 90 modern ones. Within weeks her jewel box was crushed; I felt unbelievably lucky. Fortunately I’d arranged a stunning photographic record which is in the book.


Research and Discovery

A stack of notebooks

Over three separate visits between 2017 and 2019, I crossed Europe by train, filling in notebooks, writing down what I was seeing. The result is a composite: dispatches woven from a stack of A5 notebooks, interview transcripts, misty photographs snapped on a cellphone, email and text message printouts, and a bulldog clip of boarding passes and hotel receipts. Cakes of rosewater soap from Victoria Palace Hotel added a Parisian scent.

Importance of good visuals

I’ve often felt that when I’ve got the photographs, I’ve ‘got’ the book. And when Conor Horgan, an Irish friend and professional photographer, sent me the results of his work on KM’s suite in the Victoria Palace Hotel, this maxim applied again. Conor’s gorgeous photos are based on three separate shoots in Paris and Fontainebleau/Avon. Bernard’s postcards of some of KM’s hotels and locations from a century are also hugely atmospheric. Maps also bring the locations to life and make KM’s Europe: Station to Station more of a practical guidebook.

France and the K-Files archive

Official diplomatic records located in New Zealand helped me appreciate the extent to which France discovered KM before her homeland did. In many ways, the French taught Kiwis how to appreciate her. After her death in 1923, her writing was nationally celebrated there, her tragic story retold across mass media, even turned into broadcasts for school children. Images of a bobbed KM were even held up by some as religious icons.

I discovered that France’s love affair with ‘Katherine’ baffled incoming Kiwi diplomats who’d heard little of her at home.  Direct government-to-government links between France and New Zealand began during World War II, but in 1949 New Zealand diplomats flew into Paris to open a legation. Their surprise is woven through official records that I unearthed and examined in detail: ‘France/New Zealand Relations: Educational and Cultural Relations – Katherine Mansfield’. At Archives New Zealand in Wellington, the records, encased in hard green plastic folders, were wheeled out to me on a trolley. The ‘K-Files’ comprise various files: typed memoranda, notes to diplomatic counterparts and newspaper clips among them.

Archives in France proved equally useful. I examined a frail document at the church in Fontainebleau where KM’s funeral was held, a document that really belonged in a temperature-controlled archive. From a wooden shelf, the vicar handed me the official deaths register from 1923, a slim, green-edged ledger. In blotchy blue ink was a recent death, a ‘Katherine Middleton Murry’, described as ‘une femme de lettres’.

Other discoveries

A glimpse of KM’s rising ambition, from as early as eleven years, was evident in her first published letter that I found in bound copy form at Wellington Libraries, in the children’s page of society weekly, NZ Graphic: ‘I have such a pretty garden. The border is double purple primroses, and my initial ‘K’ is in white primroses in the centre’. As if. The letter was published in A Strange Beautiful Excitement.

With the help of a pharmacy historian, I was able to conclude that KM began taking morphine daily from 1918, likely for the rest of her life. A London doctor first prescribed ‘hydrobromic acid’ for her TB cough. She variously described it as containing ‘opium’ or ‘codeine’. It provides an explanation for KM’s mental confusion and hallucinogenic sleeplessness in Italy in 1919. Two years later, KM came clean to a Menton doctor about her opiate use, and undertook to quit, but a 1922 journal remark shows her continuing to take the substance in Switzerland.

I was surprised by KM ‘s role as a gunslinger. While living in a remote Italian location in 1919, she was loaned a small revolver as protection against marauders. She learned to fire the weapon, loading and unloading, and practicing in her back garden. She writes in letters that it made her feel like ‘a new being’. Her mental state, however, saw her holding – and in letters articulating – violent thoughts against companion Ida Baker. She came to like her gun so much that she kept hold of it, referring to it in Switzerland, in 1921. ‘On my bed at night, there is a copy of Shakespeare, a copy of Chaucer, an automatic pistol and a black muslin fan. This is my whole little world.’ (Collected Letters, vol 4, late May 1921)


Mansfield’s own voice

An underground river

The beating heart of Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station is KM’s incorrigibly gorgeous letters, all five volumes of them. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. For the biographer letters and diaries provide what you might call an underground river, an entry into a subject’s mind and heart, their inner life.

KM’s mountain of correspondence was mostly speed-scribbled in fountain pen as fast as any 21st century texter on a cellphone. I read them all several times, but my focus was on those from Europe, her ‘Wish You Were Here’ letters: they became my maps.

Connecting past and present

I decided that food was an ideal way to connect past and present, to bring the past to life, to help readers relate to KM. So I decided put references to food from her letters centerstage in the book.

Take KM’s quote from her Paris flat in 1915: ‘I’m tired of this disgusting atmosphere of eating hard-boiled eggs out of my hand and drinking milk out of a bottle.’ (Collected Letters, vol 1, 24 February 1914). We can almost smell the peeled egg on KM’s breath.

A few years later, in the South of France, a famished Katherine dreamed of food, as she wrote to a friend. ‘I’m so hungry, simply empty, and seeing in my minds (sic) eye just now a sirloin of beef, well browned with plenty of gravy and horseradish sauce and baked potatoes. I nearly sobbed. There’s nothing here to eat except omelettes and oranges and onions.’ (Collected Letters, vol 1, 4 March 1916).


It felt natural to start the book at the Memorial Rocher in the heart of Fontainebleau Forest, site of KM’s fiftieth birthday party, looping back to conclude across town at her storied grave at Avon Cemetery.

It was heartbreaking writing about someone facing such a serious, life-shortening disability. Katherine Mansfield couldn’t walk after 1920; she was spitting blood. We know how it ends – on a staircase in Avon. She dies there a hundred years ago this year. Aged only 34.


Redmer YskaWriter and historian Redmer Yska has written across a range of subjects including post-war teenagers, Dutch New Zealanders, Wellington and a history of NZ Truth. His biography of Katherine Mansfield’s Wellington childhood, A Strange Beautiful Excitement, was longlisted for the Ockham NZ Book Awards, and his latest book is Katherine Mansfield’s Europe: Station to Station. Readers can find more about it at the OUP page, here.

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