As with John Murry, Ida Baker’s life was irrevocably altered by her relationship with Katherine Mansfield. Ida had a severe nervous breakdown after Katherine’s death and said afterwards that she had never completely recovered. She also believed, like Murry, that she had a special connection with Katherine beyond the grave.
There has always been considerable speculation about the nature of Katherine and Ida’s relationship. But friends testify to Ida’s complete sexual innocence, and Katherine’s diaries and letters reveal that, although she relied on Ida’s support with various physical tasks like shopping and household duties, she felt considerable physical revulsion for her. Ida’s feelings for Katherine were of a different order. Friends suggest that Ida had in some way become totally fixated on Katherine early in their lives while they were still at school. When they met in 1903 Ida was vulnerable, having just lost her mother and made Katherine the total focus of her emotional life. This position never altered.
After Katherine’s death Ida looked after Murry because she believed that that was what Katherine would have wanted. Murry however, although needing to be looked after, did not want to live with Ida. So the relationship broke down and Ida made a dignified exit. She kept many of Katherine’s belongings, and all the letters that she and Katherine had exchanged after 1915.
By 1971, almost everyone who had known the Murrys had published their version of Katherine’s character and her relationship with her husband. Even Mary Middleton Murry wrote a memoir of her life with John Murry and his invisible other, called To Keep Faith, which she published in 1959. Antony Alpers had published the first full and supposedly objective biography in 1953, relying heavily on conversations with Katherine’s family (who were concerned to reveal as little as possible of her scandalous youthful exploits) and on the memories of John Murry. Alpers also visited Ida Baker, but made it clear that he did not put much reliance on her recollections or opinions, and his biography when it was published relied on Murry’s view and put Ida’s part in Katherine’s life in a rather poor light. It was at this point that Ida Baker was persuaded to tell her own story, to provide another perspective on Katherine and her life with John Murry by someone who had witnessed events at close quarters. Critics remarked that there was ‘the whiff of gunpowder’ about Ida’s memoir. Alpers’ betrayal figures large in its pages. ‘In 1947, [he] came from New Zealand to write a biography of Katherine. . . A friend . . told me he found him sincere and honest and thought I should help him as much as possible with his book. For four years I did all I could to interpret and explain Katherine’s life for him, and to tell him of those parts of which I alone had knowledge. I found later that he had not always accepted my interpretations, not trusting my knowledge and judgement and thinking among other things that I had been enslaved by Katherine and had suffered from that cruel sickness, jealousy.’
The memoir was particularly revealing of the author’s personality. The Mansfield scholar Margaret Scott stayed with Ida for several weeks around the time of its publication and could see quite clearly why, despite Katherine’s reliance on her, Katherine had found her so irritating. ‘I recognised [her] big helpless hands, her inconsequential observations, her lack of intellectual stringency. . . I could understand absolutely how desperately trapped one would feel if, because of ill-health, one could not escape.’
The big drawback of Ida’s memoir was that lack of intellectual stringency. She wrote from a memory which, at eighty three, was not entirely to be relied on for detail. Although frequently the sole observer of particularly important events in Katherine’s life (her early pregnancy, her mistaken marriage), Ida had for the sake of her friendship, often refused to ask questions and turned a blind eye to what was actually happening. At Katherine’s request, she had burned all the letters and diaries from this difficult period in both their lives. And when she recalled events later, Ida, totally innocent in worldly terms, often drew the wrong inferences. But she is not always wrong and even when small details and exact dates have gone awry there is a strong emotional and spiritual truth about her recollections.
Her assessment of Murry’s character seems to be particularly acute. ‘The guiding necessity of Murry’s life at the time seemed to be to find firm ground on which to stand. He needed the absorbed devotion of a patient, loving soul to stand by and help him resolve the tangled problems of his undeveloped personality, which struggled with a far more mature intellectual self.’ He relied on the women in his life to give him this ‘firm ground’, and when they needed things from him was totally unable to give them anything. Ida condemned his lack of generosity – not only on the emotional plane but in every other aspect of his life. Their last meeting was acrimonious. ‘By then he was printing everything of Katherine’s that he could get hold of, including all her private, personal papers, I was angry and told him it was very wrong.’ They never spoke to each other again, but Ida did invite his fourth wife, Mary and her companion Val to the publisher’s dinner to celebrate the publication of the memoir of her life with Mansfield. (A strange and bizarre event!)
The consequences of publication for Ida were tragic. In writing about Katherine she found that the comforting presence of her dead friend which had sustained her for so many years had vanished. ‘My treasured personal secret is gone – people talk and talk – till even I feel K.M. has gone too and just become “a writer Katherine Mansfield” . . . I do feel resentful perhaps at having made my secret K.M. just common property.’
Ida died shortly afterwards and there is now no longer anyone alive who knew either the private or the public Katherine. ‘Ownership’ of Katherine Mansfield seems to have returned to New Zealand, where her birthplace is a museum and a large part of the Alexander Turnbull Library is devoted to her manuscripts and a collection of donated artefacts including many that had belonged to Ida.