March 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Ghost writers

By Gail Bell
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

This time last year, I roamed through the over-furnished rooms of Katherine Mansfield’s birthplace house in Tinakori Road, Te Puakitanga, Wellington. Whenever I enter into one of these strange transactions I wonder what is missing in me, or perhaps slightly askew, that I must tramp to the author’s door and knock like a nosy neighbour hoping to catch sight of the goings-on inside. We pilgrims cannot behave like forensic investigators at a crime scene; we cannot even test the bounce of the bed or the weight of an inkwell. At best, we are left to sniff the air and ponder.

Mansfield wrote about the tyranny of connection in one of her letters: “How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you – you leave bits of yourself fluttering on the fences … little rags and shreds of your very life …” The Mansfield Trust uses these sentences, typed on a card in one of the rooms (and on the website) as a form of evidence that the author left telltale DNA in the house on Tinakori Road – a notion that worked perversely on me. In my mind, Mansfield sits, cat-like, in a canvas chair in St John’s Wood, London, or gaunt and ill in the garden at Villa Isola Bella, France, never in New Zealand. The rags and shreds in Wellington’s Te Puakitanga tell me only why she ran away and never came back.

A year before my Mansfield pilgrimage, I’d stalked the perimeter of Ernest Hemingway’s villa in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba, peering in through the generous, breeze-friendly windows and doors. (Admittance is to the grounds only, not to the house itself.) Oh Ernest, I thought, you really did it in style. All those dead-animal trophies on the walls, all those rifles and bullets and, if you leaned right in, the tender touches, the pencil marks on the bathroom wall. Our guide led us to a large, empty swimming pool. “There is a story here,” he said, “concerning Ava Gardner, the movie star.” I bent my ear. “One night,” said our guide, “Miss Gardner swam alone with no bathing costume. Papa, he watched, then in the morning, issued the instruction to his staff: ‘The water is not to be emptied.’”

In the early ’90s, during a long road trip across the United States, I drove to Lowell, Massachusetts, to leave a can of beer on Jack Kerouac’s grave. The flat, bronze plaque set in the grass emitted no sense of Kerouac the man. Graves, in my experience, rarely offer any clues to the life of the person they contain, but they can sometimes magnify the pilgrim’s personal identification with the work. Others, like myself, had left beer (crumpled Budweiser cans), along with single cigarettes, a tyre rim, a scrap of manic typing and a weatherworn paperback of On the Road. This pilgrimage gives us the book, not the man. Indeed, it could be argued that the book is the literary pilgrim’s only true entitlement.

At 22, in her first published essay, Virginia Woolf wrote: “I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys.” The idea of entitlement exercised her mind: “The curiosity is only legitimate when the house of the great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books.” Her essay subject is her own trip to Haworth and the parsonage where the Brontës lived, wrote and (in most cases) died against the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors. Woolf admits to “sympathetic imagination” upon first seeing the town and to a “thrill” on being shown Emily’s “little oak stool”. But in her later writing as an established essayist when she reviews a book by a confirmed pilgrim to writers’ houses she seems to distance herself from the common lot: “A writer’s country is a territory within his own brain; and we run the risk of disillusionment if we turn such phantom cities into tangible bricks and mortar.”

We are all capable of high-mindedness in the singular pursuit of our idols. At my first sight of Sissinghurst in Kent, England, I bolted for Vita Sackville-West’s tower, impatient to overtake two women deep in the throes of outrage at their recent discovery that a mother (Vita) could lock herself away in an eyrie while there were children at ground level needing guidance. I rested my cheek against the old stone and scanned the desk, thinking how I would have set it up. My pen there. My books there. No one else, I was sure, was making the same intense connections and extrapolations as I was, and for this reason I nursed a sense of thwarted entitlement.

Common sense, of course, tells me that if every visitor were given access to the furnishings there would be nothing left for posterity; the wear and tear, pilfering and souvenir hunting would soon take their toll. Yet in Australia, at Varuna, the home of the late Eleanor Dark in the Blue Mountains of NSW, not only is it possible to go through the barrier, but alumni and paying guests are also able to enjoy Dark’s comprehensive library, cook in her kitchen, shower using her prewar plumbing and crawl under the covers in her bedroom with a hardcover Jean Rhys novel, flyleaf inscribed with Dark’s fountain pen. This experiment in access has been a great success.

Ghosts seem to be part of the “sympathetic imagination” evoked by a dead writer’s territory. In 1980, when visiting Charleston farmhouse in Sussex – the former home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and with a rollcall of famous visitors and house guests – I dashed upstairs to look at the bedrooms and the Green Bathroom, then down again to see the Garden Room. There, over the mantelpiece, I caught sight of Virginia Woolf in the mirror. She was standing against one wall, as if in hiding or trapped. There was no mistaking her profile, the pose made famous by the Beresford photograph, the expression of sadness in the deep-set eyes and the jawline.

Wheeling around, I faced the ghost and met instead the ghost’s niece, 62-year-old Angelica Garnett. I apologised for interrupting (had I missed a “Do Not Enter” sign?). She said she’d come in to find something, then remembered it was open day. She kept a studio in the house: part continuity, part working base for the restoration, which she’d described publicly as “trying to prevent [her parents’] spirit[s] from flying out of the window”.

“Do you mind having people here? Among your mother’s things?”

“People have been remarkably kind,” she said, the sort of comment a widow makes at a funeral and a cue for me to demonstrate kindness by leaving her alone. I realised then that voyeurism carries certain responsibilities. If we want to look (and touch) then the onus is on us to join with the trustees in respecting the boundaries. Or stay away, as Woolf suggested, and read the author’s books “in your own study”.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

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