Mansfield mania

By Nicky Pellegrino

There are those who remember exactly where they were when John Lennon was shot or Diana, Princess of Wales, died. Sarah Sandley is among a smaller yet more devoted group, those who recall exactly where they were when they first read Katherine Mansfield.

"I was 19," says Sandley. "She spoke to me directly. It was like bang, my life changed."

Sandley went on to complete a PhD in Mansfield's work but then left academia and headed for the corporate world. Now chief executive of New Zealand Magazines, publisher of titles such as the Listener and New Zealand Woman's Weekly, she remains a Mansfield fanatic in her spare time.

Along with a group of similarly minded fans, she's recently set up an international society devoted to our most famous author.

There's already a website (www.katherinemansfieldsociety.org) to provide a focal point for members and the society has a list of ambitious goals.

"Although we're a group of people who are passionate about Mansfield this is not a fan club," emphasises Sandley. "We aim to achieve meaningful things."

The society sprang from a conference held at the University of London last year, at which Sandley presented a paper.

"The organiser, Gerri Kimber, raised the idea," she explains. "There are societies for prominent authors like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence and yet there wasn't one for Mansfield and it seemed that it was timely."

Officially launched in January, the society is on track to achieve its first goal of attracting 400 members within the first year. "We've got people from places as diverse as the Ukraine, Poland, France, Italy and the United States," says Sandley.

There will be regular newsletters and a biannual conference. But the society's lofty central aim is to create a scholarship to send leading arts students to top British universities Oxford or Cambridge to further their studies. Plus, they'd like to see a statue of Mansfield erected in her hometown of Wellington and the publication of a volume of her complete works of fiction.

"It's a long-term project and we're in our infancy," says Sandley. "For all of us it's a labour of love. We're squeezing this in to our spare time after doing busy jobs."

For Sandley, who's chairperson of the society, it's been worth the hard work. Chief among the plus points has been the opportunity to interact with likeminded people around the world.

"It's been lovely," she says. "We've become quite close very quickly. You wonder, as you get on in life, at what point do you stop making new friends and I now think the answer is never."

Sandley believes Mansfield strikes such a chord with readers because she's a writer who has an acute understanding of people who feel slightly on the fringe of things. "What I detected at the conference was that she speaks to certain
people," she says.

Until then she'd suspected her own passion might be slightly, well, nerdy. Holidays, for example, were often spent making pilgrimages to places where Mansfield lived or worked. "I'm an object of ridicule in my family for this," Sandley admits. "But it's meaningful for me and it turns out there are lots of people who do it."

She hopes the society has positive spin-offs for this country, attracting more Mansfield tourists to visit places such as her childhood home, Katherine Mansfield House, on Wellington's Tinakori Rd.

"So many places that were important to her are still there," says Sandley. "On Karori Rd, what is now the Mexican Embassy is the house they moved to in the country that is in her story Prelude. The zig-zag path they used to drive down is still there, the esplanade and the school they went to."

Mansfield, of course, spent her most fruitful writing years overseas and was linked to London's literary Bloomsbury set. She died in France in 1923, aged 34.

Although the society is global, Sandley also sees it as an opportunity for this country to stake our claim to her.

"The reason I agreed to get involved is I feel passionately as a New Zealander that we can't lose Mansfield out into the global ether," she says.

"To me it was vital that this country had strong representation on the board and that the society be incorporated here."

However, what might the author have thought of the society?

Sandley laughs.

"That's an interesting question. I think she'd have hated it. She might have hated all of us, too. But she was quite a good hater so we won't take it personally!"

- Herald on Sunday

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