I can never forget the Thistle Hotel. I can never forget that strange winter night.
I had asked her to dine with me, and then go to the Opera. My room was opposite hers. She said she would come but – could I lace up her evening bodice, it was hooks at the back. Very well.
It was still daylight when I knocked at her door and entered. In her petticoat bodice and a full silk petticoat she was washing, sponging her face and neck. She said she was finished and I might sit on the bed and wait for her. So I looked round at the dreary room. The one filthy window faced the street. She could see the choked dust-grimed window of a wash-house opposite. For furniture the room contained a low bed, draped with revolting, yellow, vine-patterned curtains, a chair, a wardrobe with a piece of cracked mirror attached, a washstand. But the wallpaper hurt me physically. It hung in tattered strips from the wall. In its less discoloured and faded patches, I could trace the pattern of roses – buds and flowers – and the frieze was a conventional design of birds, of what genus the good God alone knows.
And this was where she lived. I watched her curiously. She was pulling on long, thin stockings, and saying ‘damn’ when she could not find her suspenders. And I felt within me a certainty that nothing beautiful could ever happen in that room, and for her I felt contempt, a little tolerance, a very little pity.
A dull, grey light hovered over everything; it seemed to accentuate the thin tawdriness of her clothes, the squalor of her life, she, too, looked dull and grey and tired. And I sat on the bed, and thought ‘Come, this Old Age. I have forgotten passion. I have been left behind in the beautiful golden procession of Youth. Now I am seeing life in the dressing room of the theatre.’
So we dined somewhere and went to the Opera. It was late, when we came out into the crowded night street, late and cold. She gathered up her long skirts. Silently we walked back to the Thistle Hotel, down the white pathway fringed with beautiful golden lilies, up the amethyst shadowed staircase.
Was Youth dead? … Was Youth dead?
She told me as we walked along the corridor to her room that she was glad the night had come. I did not ask why. I was glad, too. It seemed a secret between us. So I went with her into her room to undo those troublesome hooks. She lit a little candle on an enamel bracket. The light filled the room with darkness. Like a sleepy child she slipped out of her frock and then, suddenly, turned to me and flung her arms round my neck. Every bird upon the bulging frieze broke into song. Every rose upon the tattered paper budded and formed into blossom. Yes, even the green vine upon the bed curtains wreathed itself into strange chaplets and garlands, twined round us in a leafy embrace, held us with a thousand clinging tendrils.
And Youth was not dead.
Images from the movie Room in Rome directed by Julio Medem.
It is hard to believe that Mansfield wrote this astonishingly precocious and sophisticated little story in 1907, at the unbelievably young age of 19! One has to overlook the few and very small mis-steps it contains, because under the powerful spell of this seamlessly compelling narrative, they tend to go unnoticed. It is impossible to stop the succession of potent and insistent images that seem to spring up with each line – and each interiorised and avidly described moment.
The perfectly captured blandness and world-weariness, and the sense of tedium and nothing-much expected, would hardly be questioned in someone several years older – and it emphatically attests to Mansfield’s ability to inject an alter ego into a ‘mise en scène’ and persona of her own devising, within which she evokes a time and place and condition which is utterly removed from what one could expect to be that of an ordinary, sheltered, bourgeois, turn-of-the century colonial girl of such tender years.
Mansfield would only live another 16 years after this little opus – she died when she was just 34 years old – but before that she changed forever the way our minds grasp and follow the slender thread of extraordinary ordinariness through the progress of a story.
The Thistle Inn, on lower Mulgrave Street, in Mansfield’s ‘Leves Amores’ was a real location, situated close to Wellington Harbour in New Zealand
Here is the link to the site of Ishtar Films that features clips from two short movies – one by Kate Chopin, ‘The Story of an Hour’, and another, ‘The Thistle Hotel’.
‘The Thistle Hotel is based on Mansfield’s ‘Leves Amores’
And here is a little poem by Arthur Symons published in 1921 called …………’Leves Amores’! I don’t know what to make of the coincidence – Did Mansfield somehow read Symon’s poem before 1907? Or was Symonds somehow able to read Mansfield’s story and take it for his inspiration?
There is no record (that I could find) of the two ever having met. Mansfield’s ‘Leves Amores’ was found among the papers of her former Oxford schoolmate Vere Bartrick Baker, and published in 1988 in the appendix of Claire Tomalin’s biography of Mansfield A Secret Life.
I don’t know if I shall ever find the solution to this little mystery, but if someone else does, I would like to know it!
Your kisses, and the way you curl,
Delicious and distracting girl,
Into one’s arms, and round about,
Inextricably in and out,
Twining luxuriously, as twine
The clasping tangles of the vine;
So loving to be loved, so gay
And greedy for our holiday;
Strong to embrace and long to kiss,
And strenuous for the sharper bliss,
A little tossing sea of sighs,
Till the slow calm seal up your eyes.
And then how prettily you sleep!
You nestle close and let me keep
My straying fingers in the nest
Of your warm comfortable breast;
And as I dream, lying awake,
Of sleep well wasted for your sake,
Of your young life-blood beat, and beat
With mine; and you are mine; my sweet!
Arthur Symons (1865-1945)