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Places of Cycling: A Modernist on the French Riviera

Words by Paul Maunder w/images frm Getty Images

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The Victorians may seem like a stoic bunch, never more at home than in smog-laden, stinky, freezing London, but they liked a holiday as much as the rest of us. And they didn’t just want sunshine for a bit of color on their pasty English skin. The dry, warm Mediterranean climate became famous as a cure for all kinds of conditions, most notably tuberculosis. For this, we can blame Dr. Henry Bennet. Believing he was dying, Bennet visited Menton, a small town on the French Riviera, in 1860, found himself miraculously cured, and promptly wrote a book on the subject, Mentone and the Riviera as a Winter Climate. It became a bestseller among the wealthy sick and the wealthy hypochondriacs, and Menton was soon invaded by sun-seeking Brits. Queen Victoria herself came to town in 1882.

Menton Beach circa 1920. Southern France. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images).

In the style of the Victorians, Menton was colonized. Grand hotels and casinos were built, elegant gardens were planted. Nestled on the coast between Nice to the west and San Remo to the east, Menton went from a sleepy fishing village to a well-heeled winter resort.

Katherine Mansfield came to Menton in 1920. The New Zealand-born writer was, like many other tuberculosis patients, looking for an environment to ease her suffering. Until that point, Mansfield had lived a tumultuous life. Since moving to London permanently in 1908 (she’d previously spent three years at school there, before returning to New Zealand) Mansfield had been married, divorced, miscarried a baby, and had many affairs with men and women. There were, however, some constants in her life. The first was her lifelong friend Ida Baker, whom she met at Queen’s College, London. The other was her second husband John Middleton Murry, a magazine editor who encouraged her writing. Mansfield and Murry’s marriage was fractured; she left him several times, though he remained loyal to her. Their relationship became the basis for the characters Gudrun and Gerald in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Mansfield and Murry had been close to Lawrence and his wife Frieda; in 1916 the two couples rented neighboring cottages in Cornwall.

Menton (Alpes-Maritimes). House where Katherine Mansfield lived. (Photo by Roger Viollet via Getty Images).

In the south of France Mansfield found somewhere to revive her spirits, somewhere she could work. She lived at the Villa Isola Bella, overlooking the sea, and there she wrote some of her finest stories. Sunshine seemed to bring life to the scenes around her. It suited her tone too; Mansfield’s stories often seem to be frothing with energy and joy, though usually undercut with a darker subtext. She did not come to France looking for inspiration. Some of her stories writes novelist Lorna Sage, ‘are set on the French Riviera, and feature characters from the endlessly shifting, motley, rootless population of towns like Menton. Mansfield’s immediate surroundings weren’t a major stimulus, though: she was working largely with themes and materials she had squirreled away in her memory.’

Mansfield was a modernist, a peer of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot. She wrote only short stories, and despite occasionally bemoaning her inability to write a novel, she was a master at her chosen form. If Chekhov was her starting point, by the premature end of her life, Mansfield had established her own place in the canon. Her style was lively, dry, ever-shifting. Her insight into human emotion was penetrating. Having herself moved from the southern hemisphere to Britain and then to continental Europe, her stories reflect the new restlessness of the times.

Portrait of Katherine Mansfield. Painting by Anne Estelle Rice (1879-1959). Wellington, National Art Gallery (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images).

As her illness worsened she felt pressure to get words on the page. She knew her time was limited. Fellow short-story writer Elizabeth Bowen later wrote, ‘How much ground Katherine Mansfield broke for her successors may not be realized. Her imagination kindled unlikely matter; she was to alter for good and all our ideas of what goes to make a story.’

During those last years, as she fought to express her vision of life, the simple pleasures of the Riviera at Menton meant a great deal to her. She wrote to her husband: “I’ve just been for a walk on my small boulevard and looking down below at the houses all bright in the sun and housewives washing their linen in great tubs of glittering water and flinging it over the orange trees to dry. Perhaps all human activity is beautiful in the sunlight.”