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Published: 23 July 2022

By Andy Ross

The Material Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield, Modernist writer

The writer, Katherine Mansfield, was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1888 and lived a short 34 years, dying of tuberculosis in 1923.

In a book recently added to the library, the belongings of the author that are now in the Alexander Turnbull Collections are photographed and described, revealing an extraordinarily rich dimension to our knowledge of Katherine. 

The book begins with a description of the writer using her own words and those of others who knew her. In this short introduction we learn that Katherine was unconventional in both appearance and character, and the following chapters, set-out in themes, are presented with photographs of costume and dress, jewellery, furniture, ephemera and other belongings with detailed notes about the pieces and a description. There are also photographs of the writer and her circle of friends and acquaintances, also described, including Ida, her lifelong friend and lover.

Looking at a life through the items they have owned is revealing. It helps to describe a person, offering an insight into the things they hold dear or that have had an impact, however small. A Ukranian folk costume is accompanied by extracts from letters to Samuel Solomonovich Koteliansky, a Ukranian who emigrated to London in 1911 and who gave the tunic to Katherine. A chair was also a gift from Samuel to Katherine, and this was subsequently owned by Mrs M Wells in London before being given to the New Zealand High Commission (London) who in turn gave it to the Alexander Turnbull Library in 1956; a piece of furniture with a rich history that ties countries and people together. Another piece brings together cultures in a red silk and flax kete and this is accompanied by an extract from The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks I in which cerise handbags are mentioned in descriptions of Rotarua with its thermal activity and distinctive smell. There are postcards too, and letters, and books, bookstands and bookcovers, sheet music and perhaps most charming of all, a red leather change purse, handmade, with a draw-cord and tassel. Inside the purse is apparently a note, "Katie's and Ida's fairy purse" and this remains inside, a secret forever because of the fragility of the leather.

 "... you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - little rags and shreds of your very life.." (To Ida Baker, 7th March 1922)