Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kezia Burnell

Katherine Mansfield
The child Kezia Burnell stands in for the writer Katherine Mansfield in her family stories “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” and the delightful story “The Doll’s House,” all set in New Zealand in the 1890’s. It is this little kid, resistant to class and wealth consciousness and fascinated by the world, that makes these family stories incomparable.

Kezia’s family moves from Wellington to a small suburb at the edge of a bay, a beautiful spot where the early morning mist recedes, leaving “the leaping, glittering sea so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it.” On the day of the move there is no room in the buggy for Kezia and Lottie, so they are made to stay in town with a neighbor, and go out with the store-man later. The neighbor boys tease them asking them whether they would like strawberries and cream for tea, when all there is to eat is bread and dripping. Kezia “sat with her head bent, and as the tear dripped slowly down, she caught it with a neat little whisk of her tongue and ate it before any of them had seen.”

The girls have never been out so late. Kezia falls asleep in the wagon and when she wakes they are stopping in front of a long, low white house with a verandah where the lights flicker from room to room as someone walks through with a lamp. It is Kezia’s grandmother, come to welcome them. In the morning Kezia explores the garden, finding a tall, mysterious plant, swelling up with cruel leaves and a tall fleshy stem. Her mother says it is an aloe, which blooms once every hundred years. When the cousins come to play the next day, they watch Pat the Irish handyman chop the head off a duck. The children are terribly excited, but Kezia wraps her arms around Pat's legs and demands he put the head back on. At dinner her father slices into the duck with great pride.

Stanley, Kezia’s competitive father, swims early in the morning in the bay. When he goes off to work each morning, the women folk he leaves at home heave a sigh of relief! The children rush to the beach to spend the day with their cousins, Kezia stopping to wait for her younger sister who cannot climb over the stile. Their aunt Beryl bathes with a cold society woman and their mother dreams the morning away in a steamer chair under a manuka tree, beside her latest child, a son. She has little energy and leaves the work of the household to Kezia’s energetic grandmother.

In the evening Kezia and her siblings and cousins assemble in the washhouse, each of them a different animal. Pip, the bull with a pack of cards, explains the game. “It was very exciting, sitting there in the washhouse; it was all they could do not to burst into a little chorus of animals before Pip had finished dealing.” It grows dark and the children wish someone would come to collect them. Finally, Lottie screams when she sees a dark face pressed against the window. It is their uncle, come to take the cousins home.

When the children are given a wonderful doll house so big it won’t fit in the house, it is put on wooden boxes in the courtyard. The side of the house swings back to reveal the rooms inside, carpeted and wallpapered, with furniture. “But what Kezia liked more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp.” The dolls were too big, looking like they didn’t belong, but the lamp was perfect. The Burnell children are allowed to ask their school friends, two by two, over to see the doll’s house, everyone except the Kelveys who are shunned because they are the daughters of a washerwoman and an unknown father. Kezia wants to ask the Kelveys to see the doll house, but her mother says she may not. When she does sneak them into the courtyard to see it one day, her Aunt Beryl surprises them and drives them off. Upon leaving, the younger Kelvey says to her sister, “I seen the little lamp,” sharing with Kezia reverence for the beautiful little object.

As a young woman Katherine Mansfield couldn’t stand the provincialism of her home and demanded to go live in England. “Prelude” was an early story published by Hogarth Press in 1918. The other two were written somewhat later, when she was no longer able to return to New Zealand due to her deteriorating health. She wrote to her father “the longer I live, the more I return to New Zealand. A young country is a real heritage, though it takes one time to remember it. But New Zealand is in my very bones.” Mansfield died of tuberculosis at 34.

Kezia is a nostalgic look back at a kind, resourceful and courageous little girl sustained by her wonderful grandmother. I doubt Mansfield herself was quite this perfect! But the intuition and the ability to see what was important must have been there. All of the members of the extended Burnell family are wonderfully described in the three stories about them. They each have their personality and their reasons, concisely and vividly rendered. I wanted for a long time to write a screenplay using the stories of this family in their evocative landscape. Mansfield’s stories are rightly celebrated, often feeling as if they were written yesterday. But none are richer than those with the little Kezia at their heart.

No comments:

Post a Comment