I started with Volume Five, ridiculous I know but it was about following Katherine Mansfield through those final years of her life which seemed like the right way to read.
I am very grateful to Peter who reads here and who e mailed with news of a real bargain over on the Katherine Mansfield Society website and a big thank you for the heads up because within minutes I had bought Volumes One and Two of The Katherine Mansfield Notebooks edited by Margaret Scott, published by Lincoln University Press and going for a song. Too good to pass up, and everyone else must have thought likewise because they quickly sold out.
I do spy a few copies in this edition and reasonably priced elsewhere though, so all is not lost, they are out there.
Thinking that the KM society seems to be based in New Zealand I had quite thought I wouldn't see the books much before 2010 but to my surprise they arrived within days and then I had to do that awful thing and go to London and be parted from them when I actually didn't want to put them down.
And what about the covers?
All those pictures of the original notebooks just speak to me very insistently.
These are dip-into browsing books to rank with the best, the source used by John Middleton Murry to compile the 1927 edition of the Journal of Katherine Mansfield, published after her death and despite requests in her will for 'as much as possible' to be destroyed. Yet he is credited with being faithful to his source whilst dealing with some very painful information, it can't have been easy to read so much about himself and often less than complimentary.
As well as diary entries there are short story outlines and ideas, poems, brief synopses of possible stories, shopping lists, household accounts, the intricate minutiae of a life lived, loved and lost. Open by chance on any page and it's hard to know whether you are reading fact or fiction but I can guarantee instant and complete involvement. Sometimes the doses need to be small because it is in these pages that the depth and blackness of Katherine Mansfield's frequent bouts of despondency and depression at her debilitating physical state come to the fore, sometimes the briefest of lines conveying so much.
'Jack left for London. The house if very quiet. I was ill all day - exhausted. In the afternoon I fell asleep over my work and missed the post. My heart won't lie down...how can I work when this awful weakness makes even the pen like a walking stick.'
But then the next page might be riddled with wry humour and I'm smiling again,
'Putting my weakest books to the wall last night I came across a copy of Howard's End and had a look into it. But it's not good enough. E.M.Forster never gets any further than warming the teapot. He's a rather fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be no tea. And I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered I think it must have been the umbrella.'
The transcribing itself must not be overlooked, Margaret Scott must have slowly developed an affinity with Katherine Mansfield's handwriting,
much of it to the new observer quite indecipherable.
I worked with a colleague many years ago whose handwritten records we would live in dread of having to take over. She used what can only be described in electrocardiogram parlance as a flatline script, minimal elevations and depressions with long deathly intervals in between. The only conceivable method of coming close to reading what had been written, and which we one of us discovered out of desperation when tasked to write a court statement from them, was to hold the page horizontally and at eye level and then to squint.
I plan to carry on with my journey alongside Katherine Mansfield, with the short stories, the biographies, the notebooks and the diaries, it is all an endless cycle of readerly insight and fascination and frequent little moments of wisdom,
'If only one could tell true love from false love as one can tell mushrooms from toadstools. With mushrooms it is so simple - you salt them well, put them aside and have patience. But with love you have no sooner lighted on anything that bears even the remotest resemblance to it that you are perfectly certain it is not only a genuine specimen, but perhaps the only genuine mushroom ungathered. It takes a dreadful number of toadstools to make you realise that life is not one long mushroom.'