Elizabeth Price Letters – Genre Busting!

Elizabeth Price Letters – Genre Busting!

The letters by Elizabeth Price, known familiarly as Bessie, are located in the Cory Library in Grahamstown; they are among the most interesting that have been encountered in the process of carrying out Whites Writing Whiteness research. There are over 150 separate pieces of her writing, many vastly long, and they challenge definitions of what are letters, what are journals and diaries, what are reminiscences.

Bessie Price was one of the younger daughters of Mary Smith Moffat and Robert Moffat; she married the LMS missionary Roger Price in 1861. A particularly interesting feature is that many or even most of her letters are actually cross-genre writings which combine the characteristics of letters, journals or diaries and reminiscences, and indeed she can sometimes refer to them using all these terms within just one piece of writing. Many were written over periods of weeks and are internally sub-dated, while some others take the form of reminiscenses about past times. However, mostly their basic form is that of the letter, having personal address and signature and being written from one person to another with the expectation of both communication and response.

Bessie Price lived for most of her life in Kuruman (at the time in an independent kingdom, then Bechuanaland, then Northern Cape), Shoshong and Molepolole (in independent kingdoms, now Botswana) until Roger Price’s death in 1901. The content of the letters is richly detailed and provides an extraordinarily interesting body of information about important African peoples and what was happening to them internally, as well as the effects of external influences through the intrusions of white people of various kinds and with different agendas. For instance, debates concerning ‘the mfecane’,  that period of disturbance, turbulence and violence involving many peoples on the move across southern Africa from approximately the 1820s to the 1860s, take on a different complexion when seen through Bessie Price’s letters and their emphasis on the human scale of what was happening and the confusion and violence involved.

Bessie Price’s letters are fascinating too in tracking her increasing knowledge of the people she lived among at the different mission stations she and Roger Price were based at, and her changing views of them. The sense is gained that she uses categorical descriptions, sometimes in negative ways but not always, of people she did not know personally and had little knowledge of; but the people she knew at first-hand and whose lives closely intersected with hers and those of others of her family were increasingly either liked or disliked or loved in terms of their individual characters and behaviours and her response to these. She was also very aware that African rulers of the day were interested in having a missionary presence and kept missionaries much like pets – pleasant to have around, charming and entertaining, but not really on a par with the people who kept them. It is important here to keep in mind that most of these letters were written in the context of still independent African kingdoms and polities, with white people as missionaries, traders, farmers and so on present in a grace and favour way at the disposition of local rulers.

Some of Bessie Price’s preoccupations may now in race terms in particular seem mistaken, distasteful or odd. Alongside this, there is also her at basis liking for people and willingness to look for the good in them, her sense of being kept as a ’pet’, and her compassion and helpfulness towards people who were ill or suffering other misfortunes even though they may have belonged to categories she otherwise has negative views of. All of this conveys the sense of a basically kind-hearted woman of considerable insightfulness.

One way to get the measure of Bessie Price is through how she was seen by others. There was an occasion when one LMS missionary wrote to another that he had seen Roger Price and pitied him because his wife was no true Christian but more of a theist or Buddhist. He clearly disapproved, while her holistic, theistic, vegetarian and whole earth approach is likely to strike more of a spark with today’s readers.

Last updated: 20 January 2017


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