Historian probes deadly Mansfield undertones

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

Wellington at the end of the 19th century had a dirty secret - and it affected the early life of one of its greatest writers.

Katherine Mansfield's early years in Wellington, and how they influenced her writing, are the subject of a new book by historian Redmer Yska, who has just been announced as this year's major recipient of a New Zealand History Research Trust Fund grant, worth $60,000.

"I also want to pursue my theory that infectious disease epidemics cast a shadow over both Mansfield as a child and her family, precipitating the move from Thorndon to then-rural Karori," he says.

NO GARDEN PARTY: Redmer Yska at the birthplace of Katherine Mansfield in Thorndon.
KEVIN STENT/ Fairfax NZ

NO GARDEN PARTY: Redmer Yska at the birthplace of Katherine Mansfield in Thorndon.

Nearly 550 Wellingtonians died of typhoid and other infectious diseases, such as cholera, between 1885 and 1891.

The deaths, when the population was about 30,000, meant about one in every 55 Wellingtonians died - and the cause was raw sewage flowing into the harbour.

But the figures were "hushed" at the time, Yska says. Among the victims was Mansfield's 6-month-old sister Gwen, who died of cholera in 1891. Her uncle also died from a cholera-like disease.

CENTRAL SICKNESS: This map of inner-city Wellington in 1892 shows houses where occupants suffered from typhoid. The ...

CENTRAL SICKNESS: This map of inner-city Wellington in 1892 shows houses where occupants suffered from typhoid. The large dots are for 1892 and the smaller dots for an outbreak during the previous two years. In 1892 the outbreak was connected to certain sewers which overflowed during heavy rain.

Last year, Yska argued for the first time that the family moved to Karori to escape the grim conditions around Thorndon, where Mansfield was born.

Her father, Harold Beauchamp, later wrote that the move was for "the benefit of the children's health".

The disease and move had a direct impact on her later writing, Yska says. The Garden Party addresses the risk of catching disease from the "poverty-stricken" people who lived "in little mean dwellings" down the lane.

In A Birthday, a character walks through Thorndon muttering: "Everything here's filthy, the whole place might be down with the plague."

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In The Doll's House, washerwoman Mrs Kelvey has "untouchable" children.

Yska's grant is one of six awarded by the History Research Trust Fund, totalling $118,000.

Elizabeth Caffin's history of book publishing in New Zealand received $12,000; Peter Franks' history of the Labour Party got $12,000; Roger Horrocks' evolution of the arts got $10,000; Catherine Knight's environmental history of rivers got $12,000; and Jane Tolerton's study of women in World War I received $12,000.

 - The Dominion Post

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