Lifetime literary challenge to self: Visit as many women authors’ museums as I can find in my travels and take inspiration from them. Buy a book, take a photo, read her work. It’s a project that has led me to an invigorating list of authors I might never have otherwise chosen.
Part of the fun of such a challenge is the occasional surprise that pops up in the hunt. If a woman author dies famous enough and long-ago enough to have a museum made of her home, most of us have generally heard of her, and might have read some of her writing. It is a pleasure, of course, to learn about her life and read her work more deeply, but it is a pleasure expected. More exciting for me are discoveries UNexpected—such as finding a museum of an author I don’t know and reading her for the first time—or to be traveling and accidentally come across an unknown museum of an author I do know. I was lucky enough to encounter both such gems on our recent trip to New Zealand, a destination we chose more for endemic bird populations and stunning landscapes than for literary treasures.
A blogging friend from New Zealand alerted me to the home of Dame Ngaio Marsh near the city of Christchurch on the South Island. Ngaio Marsh is not unknown to veteran readers of detective novels, but she was brand new to me. Her first name, pronounced Nyo, is of Maori origin and may have been borrowed from the ngaio tree, a toxic shrub endemic to New Zealand, once used by the native Maori people to ward off insects. Marsh’s museum and life turned out to be fascinating. Beyond her writing, she was also a professional artist, an interior designer, and a well-known director of Shakespearean Theater at Canterbury University in Christchurch. Much of her art and many framed photos of her theater productions hang in her home turned museum. She reportedly thought of herself first as a painter, second as an actress/director/producer, and third as writer, by hobby only.
Yet it was her writing, published mostly in the 1930s, that brought her international fame. Her signature crime solver was Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn, who appeared in no less than 32 published mysteries. Her stories were heavily influenced by her lifework in art and theater. Several are set with a cast of stage players, and Inspector Alleyn was married to a painter. Ngaio Marsh (1899-1982) was a contemporary of and favorably compared to the very English queens of mystery writing, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, and Margery Allingham. The title of Dame Commander was bestowed upon her in 1966 by Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to popular English literature.
Since our visit to Marsh’s home, I’ve enjoyed reading Vintage Murder and Colour Scheme, two of the four books she set in her homeland. Both are richly infused with the legendary landscapes and native Maori culture of New Zealand, a distinct departure from her British contemporaries. Her mysteries also break with the tradition of her time in that her murders don’t always take place at the beginning of the story, and often the reader learns the murderer’s identity early on. The mystery lies as much in how the crime was committed as in whodunnit.
Another day, same trip, during a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of the North Island city of Wellington, a double surprise showed up on the bus itinerary. Katherine Mansfield Birthplace! Double because 1) I didn’t know about her museum and 2) I had always assumed she was British, given her association with Virginia Woolf, a favorite author of mine. I hopped off. This was her childhood home, but she had indeed lived most of her short adult life in England.
Tragically, her life ended with tuberculosis at age 34, but what a legacy of stories she left behind. Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) had long lurked somewhere near the bottom of my list of classic authors to read before I die, but she held little interest for me until I came across her museum by chance and learned that she was reputedly the only writer Virginia Woolf was ever jealous of.
Perhaps I imagined she would be too dark or too dull. Quite the opposite. In her character portrayals, I found her to be as skilled as Jane Austen, but funnier. You get the feeling she’s forever poking fun, in a caricature kind of way, at the people she observes, knows, and loves. Her understated humor keeps you saying, haha, I know that person, or this situation, and I can relate with a memory of my own. Part satirical, part tragic, part comedic, always authentic, her stories have a depth of symbolism, warmth, rhythm, and poignancy that make them deeply satisfying reads. They present particular portraits of universal truths. Katherine Mansfield may become my new favorite author.
Two of her stories about death, I found remarkably absorbing. Combined, they evoke the beauty, the reality, and yes, even the humor of it all.
On the beauty of death, this, from “The Garden Party,” when young Laura gazes on the face of her neighbor in his casket:
He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy . . . happy . . . . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
And this, for the humor in death, from “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” adult sisters reflecting on the moment immediately after their father’s last breath:
. . . as they were standing there, wondering what to do, he had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then . . . went out.
As a result of our New Zealand expedition, I’ve sampled the work of two new-to-me authors and chalked up two more women author museums for my lifetime literary challenge. I may read more Ngaio Marsh mysteries, and I’ve definitely promoted the rest of Katherine Mansfield’s stories to the top of my bucket list. Oh, the joie de vivre that comes with the serendipitous discovery of a new author to enjoy. And lest we forget the reason for the trip, allow me to report that I added 56 species to my birder’s life list.
(Click here to see a 24 second video of the takahe, pictured to the right.)
Now, Dear Reader, it’s your turn at the keyboard: What classic author that you enjoy have you found relatively late in your reading career?