From Mansfield to Morris, writing in Menton

As the 49th recipient of the Mansfield Menton Fellowship, Associate Professor Paula Morris has spent the past four months doing what she loves most: writing.

Paula Morris in Menton: "I want to write more than anything else in the world." Credit: Tom Moody

Based in Garavan, Menton's garden district, in a place she describes as "squeezed between cliffs and the sea," Paula had access to a writing studio at the base of the Villa Isola Bella where Mansfield spent some of the happiest and most productive months of her life.

"Katherine Mansfield arrived here in the winter of 1920, before American writers and artists, and the rich people who supported them, made the Riviera fashionable in the summer," says Paula.

"She brought with her the typically impossible dream of better health, after an earlier stint west along the coast in Bandol. Menton was mild in the winter and relatively cheap, so she could make the stipend from her father go as far as possible. For most of her time there she lived in the Villa Isola Bella which has now been divided into private apartments."

Paula found the sea at Menton quiet and calm. "There's little sense of tides, and only the windiest days make waves. Across the lane lie the train tracks and the long platforms of Garavan station, and these days Mansfield could have gazed out the window at the French police boarding every train from Italy, searching for illegal immigrants to drive back across the border."

When Paula and husband Tom Moody arrived in France, someone told them writers who came to Menton shouldn't spend their time working because they could do that at home. "Instead, he said we should spend our time soaking up the atmosphere of the south of France, and travelling about the place," she says.

"But I didn't go there for a holiday. Menton is visually stunning, with its ice cream-coloured Old Town, dramatic cliffs and perched villas, and certainly the region offers a ludicrous number of stimulating sights and experiences, from the Matisse Chapel in Vence to the covered market in nearby Ventimiglia.

"However, much as I would have loved to idle away more time along the coast, in Provence or in northern Italy, as well as visiting every museum and artist studio from there to Marseilles, I want to write more than anything else in the world. At home I find it fiendishly difficult to make time for my own work. I convene the Master of Creative Writing programme at the University and have many other professional and community commitments."

Menton, south of France. Credit: Tom Moody

Another writer warned her that the Mansfield studio, known locally as the Mémorial, was small, but she didn't find it so. "There was room for a sofa and other furniture, as well as my desk, and it's at least twice as big as the rooms I lived in as a university student. It's much bigger than my dining table at home, which is the shared workspace for me and my husband. And there was a blank wall for my pictures and notes and maps, and for squashed insects.

"True, the room could be a little musty, but I could always open the windows. In March it was chilly and cave-like late in the afternoon when the light seeped from the day, but by June, I appreciated the cool."

Most days she walked the ten minutes down the hill from her rented flat to the studio on the Avenue Katherine Mansfield. "I had big jangling keys to unlock the iron gate, the studio's faded blue door, and the bathroom-around-the-corner door. My notebooks and other materials were waiting for me. The wheeze of passing trains didn't bother me; I managed to ignore rat-like rustling in the bushes outside. I'd prop the windows open with heavy books from the cupboard, because on windy days they’d slam shut.

"Then I wrote, or read, or daydreamed — usually a combination of all three. I drank tea, sometimes Tom brought lunch. Few people walked past, and even fewer paused to peer through the iron fence rails and read the Mansfield plaques — in French and English. But if tourists walked through the open gate and knocked on the door hoping for a peep inside, I'd stay very quiet until they walked away."

The Villa Isola Bella — the studio is on the ground floor. Credit: Tom Moody

In common with Mansfield, who once vowed that "not one day shall pass without I write something — original", Paula was determined to produce new work in Menton.

"Mansfield wrote in February 1921, 'I must this evening, after my supper, get something done… I excuse myself, invent pretexts for not working. Yet is my desire to be idle greater than my desire to work?' In November 1920 at the Villa Isola Bella she wrote one of her greatest stories, The Daughters of the Late Colonel. The ending, she said, she 'wrote as fast as possible for fear of dying before the story was sent'."

In May 1921 Mansfield left Menton forever, seeking a cure or at least temporary relief in the cool of the Swiss Alps. "She was ill and weak, still hectoring herself to write more," says Paula. "Nothing was good enough — not The Garden Party, not At the Bay. She wanted to begin work on a novel named Karori. She dreamed of New Zealand, and wanted to return there for a year. But the road only led elsewhere in Switzerland and France, to the cold house in Fontainebleau where she died in January 1923."

As only the third ever Māori writer, Paula's Menton tenure follows a list of literary heavyweights which includes Janet Frame, Maurice Gee, Bill Manhire, Witi Ihimaera, Marilyn Duckworth, Michael King, Fiona Kidman, C.K. Stead and Lloyd Jones. In the past, she says, writers got "too little money, or lots of money, depending on the state of sponsorship".

"Some were able to stay for the best part of a year. Currently the appointed writers are here for at least three months, depending on how far they can stretch the money and how long they can manage time away from work at home." Next year is the 50th anniversary of the residency and the 100th anniversary of Mansfield's arrival. There will be celebrations in the town in September 2020 which Paula will attend.

"I'll go back for them, although by then a new fellow will be working in the Mémorial of course. One of the previous fellows, Chris Price, described the experience of the residency as a golden time, and she's right. I finished some things and made much progress on others. I read a lot of books, met interesting people, took day trips, shopped for food in markets. I've rediscovered my 'desire to work', as Mansfield described it, or at least made it central in my life again during those months in France."

She has also begun notes on something to which she'll return next year in France. "My niece Rebecca Hill visited in March and asked me to write something with 'glamour and mystery', a story that takes place in the days before cell phones ruined life (and books). We talked about Roman Holiday and about Bonjour Tristesse. Then we agreed, of course, that the novel should be set in Menton."

Applications for the next Menton fellow closed on 1 July 2019. The new recipient will be announced on 31 August 2019.

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Julianne Evans | Media adviser
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