Difficulties with the dead

Recently there has been the strange case of the wish in Wellington to have Katherine Mansfield dug up from her grave in Fontainebleau-Avon (near Paris) and brought back for re-burial in the capital. I was alerted to this by Gerri Kimber of the international Katherine Mansfield Society, who were all, it seemed, outraged. I sent first a letter to the NZ Herald, and then one to the mayor of Wellington, who had supported the repatriation idea because it would enhance Wellington’s place as New Zealand’s ‘cultural capital’:


To the Mayor of Wellington

Subject: Mansfield re-location

In response to the news of the plan to re-locate Katherine Mansfield’s remains to Wellington I wrote the following letter which appears in this morning’s NZ Herald:

The Saturday Herald reports that the Mayor of Wellington, together with the guardians of the Mansfield House and Garden, have written to the Mayor of Fontainebleau-Avon requesting permission for the removal of Katherine Mansfield’s body from its grave there for re-interment in an as yet unspecified grave in Wellington. The International Katherine Mansfield Society, of which I am currently Honorary Vice President, is objecting strongly to this, citing among other things, a letter from Katherine’s nearest surviving relative, Janine Renshaw-Beauchamp, which concludes ‘I wish it to be known that I am adamant in my decision for Katherine Mansfield to remain where she is buried – in Avon.’

Your report says that Mansfield had expressed the wish to be buried in New Zealand. This is quite untrue. She remembered her childhood fondly and wrote some of her best fiction about it; but her recollections of New Zealand were distinctly ambiguous. If there was ever going to be a reconciliation with her homeland it did not happen before her death, and cannot be achieved in retrospect by this ghoulish and parochial proposal.

C.K. Stead

There are a few points I need to add to this. Since holding the Winn-Manson Mansfield Fellowship in Menton in 1972 I have been a consistent researcher and teacher in the area of Mansfield studies. In 1977 I published a selection of her letters and journals, which continued in print as a Penguin Modern Classic for more than twenty years. She was a subject in some of my courses at the University of Auckland, and I have published a number of critical essays about her work. In 2004 I published my novel, Mansfield, which was short-listed for the Tasmania Pacific Fiction Prize; and in recent years I have been a regular contributor to the international Mansfield conference run by the Katherine Mansfield Society, delivering plenary papers at their 2008 (London), 2012 (Ruzumberok, Slovakia) and 2014 (Paris) conferences. I think I have read pretty much everything that exists of her fiction, poetry, letters and journals, published and unpublished, and I have never encountered any suggestion of a wish to be buried in New Zealand. This is corroborated by Kathleen Jones, and by Gerri Kimber, her most recent biographers – so wherever the idea comes from it seems quite groundless. I do seem to recall Mansfield recording a happy dream of a trip to New Zealand which turned into a nightmare when she realized she did not have a return ticket. This relocation plan is like the realization of her nightmare.

There is one sombre fact that should be mentioned. In 1929 a New Zealand visitor, wanting to pay homage, tried to find the Mansfield grave at Fontainebleau-Avon and was told her remains had been removed to the common fosse because the plot had not been paid for. This visitor notified her father who asked his son-in-law in England to sort it out. So for a second time the body was moved, this time back to its rightful place in the cemetery under the headstone prepared for it. One cannot know whether either of these moves might have compromised the integrity of the remains, but certainly we would not want to have the kind of ambiguity and on-going argument that exists now about the remains of the poet W.B. Yeats, who after World War II, was removed from the common fosse in Roquebrune Cemetery for re-interment in Ireland. These stories, once they begin, can never be laid to rest. This is another reason for not disturbing the current arrangement which is working so well. The grave is beautifully cared for by Bernard Bosque of the Katherine Mansfield Society; and the New Zealand Embassy in Paris always keeps an eye on it. The grave of the guru of her last year, Gurdjieff, is very close by, and the cemetery is not far from the building that housed his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man where she spent the last months of her life and where she died. To take her away from that and relocate her in Wellington seems quite alien to the spirit of the international writer she became. Wellington has her birthplace, her statue on Lambton Quay, and, in the Alexander Turnbull Library, the world’s finest repository of her papers. It doesn’t need her body.

Please abandon this parochial idea, which is in danger of making your city, and all of us in New Zealand, look ridiculous in the eyes of the world.

Emeritus Professor
University of Auckland

The honorifics and the professorship were meant to impress upon him that this was Someone of Consequence who should be listened to. I might have mentioned that I am Poet Laureate but I forgot – and in any case it would have made no difference. I received in reply only one of those automatic machine-answers: the Mayor had received my communication. Among the letters of protest there was one from Gerri Kimber, current President of the Mansfield Society, asking would New Zealand next be wanting to have Earnest Rutherford disinterred from his place in Westminster Abbey and brought back to Nelson. This letter appeared in the Dom Post and seemed to be accompanied by a cartoon by Martin Doyle.

The case of Yeats

In 1987 I attended a gathering of W.B. Yeats scholars at the Princess Grace Memorial Irish Library in Monte Carlo and our deliberations were preceded by an assurance from French authorities that the remains of our poet, first buried in 1939 in the hillside cemetery at Roquebrune just along the coast, and disinterred following World War II for reburial in Ireland, was in fact the correct body, and that rumours to the contrary were unfounded. This reassurance was probably offered (unsolicited) because the novelist Anthony Burgess, then living in Monaco, had suggested in a public lecture the year before that the body now resting in a revered Irish grave in fact belonged to another. The authorities, he claimed, had exhumed the wrong man!

Far from reassuring everyone, the official declaration that this was not the case had the effect of igniting interest, speculation and doubt. The fact was that Yeats had been buried, as commonly happens in France, in a proper grave with a headstone, but in a cemetery whose limited space means that after the lapse of a certain period the body is disinterred and put in a common fosse. When the war ended and the Irish Government, remembering Yeats’s own lines about his death and burial (‘Under bare Ben Bulben’s head / In Drumcliffe Churchyard Yeats is laid’), wanted to make arrangements for the repatriation of the body, the French authorities had to go looking it.

Yeats’s son and daughter, were with us at the conference, and it was with them we visited what was left of the hotel Idéal Séjour, where the poet had died, and the cemetery where he had first been buried and where the first headstone was still to be seen leaning unused against a wall. (I took a photograph of them beside it.) The siblings, he an Irish Senator and Member of the European Parliament, appeared to dismiss the idea that a mistake had been made, and their presence put a damper on any discussion of the matter.

More facts emerged, however, as 1989, the fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s death, approached. The body, it seemed, should have remained undisturbed for ten years in its first grave, but had been transferred to the common fosse after five. When the time came for the recovery and removal of what were now skeletal remains, careful measurements had to be made of the bones, and the fact that they were indeed the poet’s seemed to be confirmed by the fact that he had worn, and been buried wearing, a surgical truss. The matter appeared to be resolved.

But now emerged the family of a certain A.G. Hollis who had died in Roqubrune in 1939 and had been buried in the grave alongside Yeats. This man’s remains had also been transferred to the fosse, and he had also worn a ‘steel corset’. His family now claimed they had reason to believe that their George, and not Willie, was the one buried ‘under bare Ben Bulben’. Could all the Irish nationalist pomp and military ceremony of the re-interment have been to place an Englishman in the honoured grave? Tiens!

The matter will remain unresolved unless permission is ever given for disinterment and DNA testing of the bones in Ireland; but if it should be George rather than Willie in the grave, what then? The other set of bones is lost in the fosse. I’m sure the Irish prefer the present uncertainty to a gamble which might leave them without a gravesite to visit and pay homage to. All of this adds a new rich layer of irony to the poem Yeats wrote about his burial, which ends with the ‘command’

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death –
Horseman, pass by!

I thought of all this when I heard of the Mansfield proposal. Already she had been moved twice – to the fosse and then back to her proper gravesite: now a third move was suggested. I remembered a particularly ghoulish story that emerged when a French scholar, Christiane Mortelier, revealed how, in the decades immediately after her death and before anything like biographical truth emerged, Mansfield was revered in France for ‘purity’, ‘spirituality’, even ‘sanctity’. This was a myth that could not be sustained once the facts of her erratic and sexually active life had emerged; but while it persisted there was a story that the first disinterment had revealed her relatively uncorrupted in the grave, which has been one of the Catholic church’s recognized signals of sanctity. This makes me wonder how soon after the burial the first disinterment occured, and how many years passed before the second (1929) – and what would be left, and how identifiable, now, after almost a century. It seemed to me that to disturb her remains yet again could easily create grounds for Yeats-style uncertainty.

On 23 March came news that the mayor of Avon had refused permission for the relocation of the Mansfield remains. That surely ends the matter for now, and, let’s hope, for ever.

Another kind of difficulty with the dead comes in dealing with their literary heirs and copyright-holders – those whom Ian Hamilton in his book on the subject calls ‘The keepers of the flame’. These are frequently widows and/or children. Some are flexible, relaxed and permissive as to the use of material whose copyright they now control. John Middleton Murry has been criticised for not obeying Katherine’s instructions to ‘clean up my camping ground’ after her death, and exploiting it for monetary gain. Yet her instructions were ambiguous: ‘Destroy all that you do not use’; and again, ‘destroy… all that you do not wish to keep’. In fact, if he had destroyed anything at all he would have been condemned by the very people who have criticised him for the use he made of her letters and journals. Scholars owe him gratitude for preserving so much and keeping interest in her work alive at a time when she might have vanished into the shadows.

Being a ‘keeper of the flame’ can be difficult. Money and greed come into it; but more often there is an urge to protect the reputation of the dead writer. This can lead (as I think may be happening in the case of Janet Frame) to what amounts to interference in critical freedom. The dead cannot be defamed; but access to their work can be cut off by copyright holders denying permission to quote. Peter Ackroyd had to write his biography of T.S. Eliot without quotations because the widow, who held the copyright, forbad it.

John Middleton Murry died in the late 1950s after which the Mansfield copyright passed to his fourth wife, Mary, who seemed not to have a great grasp of literary matters. I remember Margaret Scott, co-editor of Mansfield’s Collected Letters, saying that Mary Murry sometimes, upon receiving a new little bit of income from the Mansfield estate, would celebrate by having a new hair-do. But at least that meant she was not difficult to deal with when one needed permission to use work still in copyright.

No one would expect my dealings with the estate of Allen Curnow post-mortem to be anything but amicable. I was one of the earliest to proclaim his pre-eminence among our poets. He was the mentor of my early years, and a colleague, friend and neighbour with whom I carried on a cross-street correspondence about poetry for half a century until his death. When I launched his last collection I was able to say it was 50 years almost to the day since, as a first year student in 1951, I had first met him. He dedicated the collection You will know when you get there (1982) to me, and I dedicated Between (1988) to him. I have written poems about him, all respectful; but there was one, written after his death, that caused a problem. Here it is:

His Round

(Allen Curnow 1911-2001)

‘Home’ for the boy had meant
somewhere between England

where God was still living
and the ground under his feet.

As a man he wrote of islands,
talked tides and distances,

and seldom bought his round.
Not Prospero, but like him,

he made words work and had
‘an abominable temper’.

His project was to catch
the heron’s deliberation

lifting itself over mangroves,
or on that opposite coast

the careless way a gull
could be tossed in an updraft.

These were his annotations
on a world that exceeded

all it could say of itself.
He fished for the brown cod

and had a name for those
who thought it inferior eating.

He summoned his dog by car horn,
looked hard into sunsets,

and called himself ‘an old man
who wouldn’t say his prayers.’

Stubborn, still owing his round,
he was towed at the last

headlong into the westerly,
tottering, leashed to his Dog.

When Allen’s widow Jeny first heard my reading this poem on the radio she rang to tell me she had sat in the car listening to it and had been moved to tears. When, later, she read it on the page she took offence because of its reference to the fact, often mentioned by people who encountered Allen, and some who knew him well, that he was frequently reluctant to buy his round or contribute his share. This was for me symbolic of something larger about him, a kind of egotism that tended to meanness. In my mind it went with his describing himself as ‘an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers’ and his ambiguous, partly Canterbury-snobbish, loyalty to, and yet keeping his distance from, the Anglican Church. He liked to claim the church and its authority, especially when there was a question of doctrine or dogma at issue. I can’t be sure what he would have thought of my daring to write My name was Judas, but I suspect he would have disapproved and considered me not properly qualified for such a task.

The poem appeared in a collection called Dog in which the title plays upon the word seen as God reversed – which is why the poem ends with him being towed ‘headlong into the westerly... leashed to his Dog’ (with a capital D). My attitude to this element in Curnow’s complex character was not solely negative. My novel The end of the century at the end of the world includes a young woman who says to the student with whom she’s flatting, that it takes character at breakfast to eat the last egg in the house – which she has just done. Allen had ‘character’ of that kind. A ‘nice’ person would leave the egg for you. Allen would eat the egg.

When I was asked to give the ‘Allen Curnow’ reading at the Out West Festival, Jeny e-mailed asking me not to read ‘that poem’. I thought about how my old mentor would have reacted to such a request and decided he would ignore it, as I intended to do. I believed that Jeny’s first reaction to the poem was right – it was really an affirmation and a kind of tribute. And if it was not taken in that way but construed as an attack, then also relevant to the decision ‘to read or not to read?’ was the matter of Allen’s poem ‘Dichtung und wahrheit’ in which he savaged (unambiguously and brilliantly) our colleague Mike (M.K.) Joseph for his novel, The Soldier’s Tale. I was fond of Mike and felt sorry for him; but I admired the poem and thought Allen was not wrong to have published it. Poems choose their own occasions, make their own rules and tell their own truths. If they spring from something truthful and are authentic, then they must stand or fall as works of art.

When the tenth anniversary of Allen’s death was approaching which was also the centenary since his birth I wrote a poem which I called ‘The Gift’:

The Gift

(Allen Curnow, 1911-2001)

Brasch in his velvet
voice and signature
purple tie

complained to his
journal that you had

I wasn’t sorry.
That was Somervell’s
coffee shop

Eighteen months
later you and I

were skidding on the
tide-out inner-
harbour shelvings

below your house
from whose ‘small room with
large windows’ you saw

that geranium ‘wild
on a wet bank’
you suggested

was ‘the reality
prior to the
poem’. Son of

Christchurch and the
church you’d come north
to be free perhaps,

to be employed and
in love, and were
making the most

of it in poems that
gave to old ‘summer’
new meanings.

Ten years ago
we launched your last
book, The bells of St

Babel’s overlooking
that same inner
harbour with

its shallow bays
and touch-and-go
tides. You wrote in

my copy (sure I
wouldn’t have
forgotten the source)

‘To Karl, always
“somewhere in earshot”.’
What you left out

was ‘for the story’s
end’. You must have
guessed it was close.

Today no end
to your occupation
of the bland

nor of wild
Karekare where we

shared Lone Kauri
Road. The pipe across
Hobson Bay is

replaced by a
tunnel. Tohunga
Crescent has some

new polish but
nothing you would
deplore. The tuis

still quote you
and even cicadas
manage a phrase

that sounds like yours.
Storms too in wooden
houses sometimes

creak of you. But
this ‘blood-noon breathless’
Auckland summer

is the season you
gave us in making
it your own.

The form is 13-syllable triplets of the kind I also used at the end of each chapter in My name was Judas and the line Curnow partly quoted (‘somewhere in earshot’) comes from Yeats’s ‘Introductory Rhymes’ to his 1914 collection, Responsibilities. (‘Pardon old fathers if you still remain / Somewhere in earshot for the story’s end’.) I sent ‘The Gift’ to the London Review of Books, and read it at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where I had been invited to be the representative writer receiving the scroll that would appoint New Zealand as the Book Fair’s guest country for the following year, 2011. Also at Frankfurt I read ‘Without’ (my Collected Poems p. 427), a poem about Allen’s loss of faith when, as a young man, having just completed training in Auckland for the Anglican ministry, he was returning to Christchurch to take up a post in the church. I thought I recalled he had told me that it was while crossing Cook Strait it came to him that he could not make a life as a vicar and would have to find something else to do with himself – so I made a sort of dramatic fiction of that in which, as this truth comes to him, he throws his Bible into the sea.

Introducing the poems, and turning the handover of the scroll into a sort of Curnow-memorial occasion, I spoke of him as ‘New Zealand’s preeminent writer’. As it happened Linda Cassells, Terry Sturm’s widow, who in consultation with Jeny was editing her late husband’s biography of Curnow, was present, and told Jeny of the reading and what I had said. When the poem appeared in the LRB Jeny e-mailed: ‘Thank you so much. Your poem is even better in the LRB. It reads and looks so well. The inscription brought tears.’

By the inscription she meant, of course, the one Allen had written in my copy of his last book. I told her that when I read the poem called ‘Without’ I always explained I had invented the bit about his throwing his Bible into the sea. In response she sent me a transcript of what Allen had dictated about that time in his life, which confirmed it was while crossing the Strait that he had lost the will to follow his father into the church. She didn’t seem to mind about the Bible overboard. She wrote, ‘He never discarded the church’, but she added cheerfully, ‘Your fiction may become the fact.’

Our e-mails were always very brief. Remembering her asking me not to read ‘that poem’ I said, ‘So pleased you’re pleased. I think you have sometimes doubted my loyalty to Allen but I don’t believe it has ever wavered.’ She replied, ‘No I never doubted your loyalty to Allen. There were just the odd differences between you and me, never permanently fixed.’

When she died I wrote a poem called ‘The widow will not be returning’ (New Zealand Books, 103, Spring 2013).

No difficulties with Frank Sargeson whose literary executor was the eminently reasonable, totally literary, intelligent and devoted Chris Cole Catley; and permissions are now handled by the Frank Sargeson Trust she set up.

Recently I had a message from Duncan McLean, Orkney short story writer, playwright and wine merchant, who had won a trip to New Zealand as a reward for his promotion of our wines in Orkney. Duncan is a great Sargeson enthusiast and proposed to make his visit a sort of Frankish pilgrimage as well as a wine one. On the Friday of his first weekend in New Zealand Graeme Lay took him to the Sargeson bach in Esmonde Road, and on the Saturday Kay and I and Kevin Ireland took him to McHugh’s at Cheltenham in which appropriate setting, looking out over the Hauraki Gulf, we had lunch and talked about Frank. After that Duncan went on to meet many more New Zealand writers, some of them still with memories of Sargeson. He has reported that it was an entirely successful visit and he has now to write a piece about it for the London Review of Books.

For Duncan McLean, however, Kay and I had another interest than the Sargeson one. In 1958, when I was a PhD student in Bristol on a scholarship from New Zealand, the Orkney-born poet Edwin Muir had visited the university for a few weeks, and because Kay and I had a car (our first, a Ford Popular) we were driving him to and from his hotel. To meet two people who had anything at all to report first hand about Muir was, it seemed, quite as exciting for Duncan McLean as the fact that we had known Sargeson – indeed more so because rarer, so much more time having elapsed since Muir’s death. We did not have a lot to say on the subject, but I was able to find something I’d written about Muir in a yet to be published memoir.

A visitor to the university during the winter of 1958, as Churchill Professor, was Edwin Muir, often described (with Hugh MacDiarmid) as one of the two major Scottish poets of the first half of the twentieth century; and because he’d admired something of mine Knights had shown him, and (more important) because we had a car, Kay and I were put in partial charge of him for the month he was there, picking him up from his hotel and driving him about. He was a gentle, very serious and rather sad-looking man, born in Orkney and then spending his late childhood I think in Glasgow. I wrote home that he had none of the manner of the literary lion, was rather ‘old and frail’ (he was in fact only 70, but would die the following January); that he was ‘clear in his judgements’, and that I had been gripped by his lectures.

T.S. Eliot was an important part of my thesis subject some small part of which Muir had read in typescript. In conversation he joked about Eliot, who at 68 was said to be taking dancing lessons again. Eliot had taken his oldest friends by surprise, upsetting some including (so the gossip went) John Hayward with whom he had shared a flat for ten years, by secretly marrying his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, in the early hours of a winter morning, the previous year, a ceremony without guests or any celebration apart from the couple’s own. I told Muir about the Daily Express headline I’d clipped (and still have):


He told me something Eliot had recounted over a lunch, about James Joyce, famously egotistical and egocentric, who used to affect, when he and Eliot met in Paris, not even to know the American wrote poetry – but then one day was greatly excited to have seen a hippopotamus, and let slip, as they talked about this, a reference to Eliot’s poem about the hippopotamus church – after which the affectation of ignorance could not be sustained.

I had clipped a poem of Muir’s, I think from the weekly Time & Tide, about the petrol shortage caused by the recent Suez crisis, a time he had welcomed for its ‘silence as of a peace / after a fifty-year-long war.’

The planes are hunted from the sky,
All round me is the natural day.
I watch this empty country road
Roll half a century away.

And looking round me I recall
That here the patient ploughmen came
Long years ago, and so remember
What they were then, and what I am.

I think this was typical in its slightly clumsy reflective sadness – the good times were rural, agrarian, and they were over like his childhood in Orkney. I could respect this kind of nostalgia but was too full of the excitements of the present and the promise of the future to bathe in it.

– C.K. Stead