Travel Long Haul: Catch a sense of Bliss

The formative years of the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield were spent in a quiet house in Wellington, now a gently evocative museum.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WE CAME in search of one of New Zealand's greatest writers - and it was almost as if we really did find her. However, Katherine Mansfield's museum is not really her house at all, at least not in the sense that the house was the formative location of her life.

True, she lived at 25 Tinakori Road, Wellington, for five of her childhood years, but to say that Katherine Mansfield lived in any one particular place would be something of an exaggeration.

She was born in Wellington in 1888 and left New Zealand for a life of pioneering modernism as a short story writer at the age of 19. She never returned, dying of tuberculosis in 1923 in Fontainebleau, near Paris. Her sparsely written but supremely evocative short stories were put together on her travels around Europe but many contain references to her beginnings on a Wellington hillside.

The museum is on a quietish road above the main motorway that cuts past Wellington's Inter-Island Ferry terminal and station. It is about a 15- minute walk from the city centre and steep in parts, but the views over the harbour are good. The walk gives you justification for a good, long, contemplative sit-down in the museum - all very appropriate when dealing with such a subtle writer.

However, given the roving nature of Katherine Mansfield's life, it would have been difficult to gather together a collection of personal material and memorabilia. Sensibly, the museum doesn't try to do that. Instead, it hopes to give you an idea of her background, in what was then suburban and affluent Wellington around the turn of the century.

The house is decorated and presented in the contemporary style. Some parts of the rooms and some furnishings are marked by quotations, in context, from the relevant short stories. The idea, successfully achieved, is to create the mood and atmosphere of the house at the time she lived there.

A film about her life plays in one upstairs room. It includes sequences shot in the house and has excerpts from her stories in voice-over.

This is particularly effective as it allows you to slow down and let your memory run over the stories, as her memory must have run over thoughts about her home on the other side of the world. The story that deals most directly with Tinakori Road is "Prelude" in the Bliss collection of short stories.

After ambling around the house, it is pleasant to sit in the garden which is as well-kept as the museum, though a little noisier than it must have been in Mansfield's time, thanks to the motorway. It also gave me the chance to chat to fellow Mansfield readers as we queued to take pictures of ourselves outside the house.

Katherine Mansfield's house is a well-thought-out small museum with realistic aspirations. It is not like the Bronte parsonage, which is filled with manuscripts and personal memorabilia - but it does give some focus to a writer who composed and wrote in whichever place she happened to be in.

Katherine Mansfield's House, 25 Tinakori Road, Thorndon, Wellington; open Tues-Sun 10am-4pm, adults NZ$4, children NZ$1