26 July 2018

The peculiar wretchedness one can feel while the wind blows

As a writer, Katherine Mansfield absorbed the Wellington wind as deeply as the Romantics, making it something like her literary accomplice, even if its vehemence often tested the relationship. She wrote, '[I]t moves with an emotion I don't ever understand'. The wind stirs beneath her words, snuffling, as she puts it, around the corners of the page. In 'The Wind Blows' she asks: 'Hasn't anyone written poems to the wind?'...

Wind adds a feather-ruffling frisson to many of her stories. She often uses weather - especially the wind - as a conventional literary device to evoke mood, setting and narrative jumps. In 'Psychology', 'a cold snatch of hateful wind' underlines the anguish of the parting. In 'The Wind Blows' the gale is centre stage, the noisy, lurching main actor. The story 'Revelations' ships the tempest to France where 'un vent insupportable' roils the protagonist: 'the wild wind caught her and floated her across the pavement'. 'The New Baby' gives the breeze a calmer quality, with 'the soft moist breath of the large wind breathing so gently from the boundless sea'.

In her hands, her hometown wind also gains omnipotent powers, sometimes for better, mostly for worse. 'A Birthday' illustrates its impact on the civic mood. A doctor reassures a patient: "'You're jagged by the weather," he said wryly, "nothing else"'. And like most Wellingtonians, Katherine Mansfield was highly sensitised to the breeze: 'To remember the sound of the wind - the peculiar wretchedness one can feel while the wind blows'. 'The Wrong House' evokes the same mood: 'It was a bitter autumn day; the wind ran in the street like a thin dog'. In 'Juliet', she says of the protagonist: 'the wind always hurt her, unsettled her'.

Wellington's is no ordinary wind. 'A Birthday' outs its gales as pitiless, dominating, even bullying: 'A tremendous gust of wind sprang upon the house, seized it, shook it, dropped, only to grip it more tightly'.

- Redmer Yska, A Strange Beautiful Excitement. Katherine Mansfield's Wellington 1888-1903, Dunedin, 2017, p.72-3.
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