11 November 1915: Dear Canon Mercer

11 November 1915: Dear Canon Mercer

An earlier blog commented on a ‘missing’ letter, which was happened upon in working through the Forbes diaries but then its location forgotten because no research note had been made of this (tsch tsch). Tucked within a diary’s pages, its whereabouts has now been tracked down. It is a letter by Kate Forbes, dated 11 November 1915 and addressed to Canon Mercer (Forbes 26b, 1914: 15/16 June, 4305-4306), and has been enclosed between the Forbes diary entries for 15 and 16 June 1914. The focus in this short discussion is on the letter itself, although it also comments on its relationship to the diary more generally.

It starts with the place it was written from, a date, is addressed to ‘Dear Canon Mercer’ and it is incontrovertibly a letter. It consists of a single sheet that is written on both sides of the paper. As the writing on the second side ends in mid-sentence, it clearly lacks a further sheet or sheets and a formal ending. The letter was perhaps a draft, but perhaps it was an ‘actual letter’ although for reasons now unknown not sent; and a further continuation sheet or sheets has not been found in any of the diaries or other papers in this voluminous collection.

The letter starts with outlining the steps needed to track down Canon Mercer’s address. He was associated with the Anglican Church Mission and had been based for nearly 20 years in the Piet Retief area at a mission station called Holy Rood. He had a particular brief for ministering to Kolwa/Christian communities in the area, and particularly the Kolwa workers on the Athole Estate, which was located close to the borders of Swaziland, Natal and the Transvaal. These people had been originally christianised by the Berlin Mission Society and he had in a sense inherited responsibility for their spiritual well-being. However, Kate Forbes’s 11 November 1915 letter marks a watershed. This is because other letters and diary entries show that Mercer had gone to England on furlough, and while there his period of service in South Africa was ended when he obtained a UK-based living, something which the Forbes and presumably others locally appear not to have anticipated.

What follows in the 11 November letter is concerned with telling Mercer of the ills experienced in 1915 up to when it was written, starting with the statement that ‘The year 1915 has not been a satisfactory one’. Kate Forbes’s eldest son Dave had broken his ankle; her eldest daughter Nellie had been in an accident and was quite seriously injured, including with a badly broken leg; her sister-in-law, referred to familiarly in the letter as Mrs Kopoy (a nickname) had been operated on for suspected breast-cancer, having had a lump similar to that which Kate’s younger sister Sarah died from; while her youngest son Jim had been kicked in the stomach by his horse, necessitating an operation. These are indeed a catalogue of ills, while later it will be considered whether there were other more cheerful events that had occurred and which were not focused on.

These comments take up much of the two sides of paper, and it is only at the end of the second side that a new topic is introduced. In the last three lines, the comment is made that Mercer will like to know how the ‘Kaffir Church’ is doing. This is immediately translated into a comment about youngest daughter Maggie’s school having about twenty children attending it and that ‘she is teaching them in kaffir’. How this description might have continued, and if comments about other aspects of the church were included, cannot now he told, for what remains ends in mid-sentence and there are no clues elsewhere that bear on this.

In other diary entries and letters, there is just a handful of spare references to the school, sometimes described as a kindergarten, and none of these provide detail as to numbers of students and what the school was concerned with. Nonetheless, it is clear that setting up the school was Mercer’s suggestion in 1903 and Maggie diligently took it up. The Forbes adult children were bilingual in English and siSwati and were fluent in some other African languages as well, something which would have given Maggie the edge as a teacher. However, although Mercer was an imported presence, it is likely that he too had become fluent in at least one African language.

As already noted, the very clear statement is made that ‘The year 1915 has not been a satisfactory one’. So what if anything does reference to 1915 diary entries add to the impression given by this? Was it actually so gloomy? The key things the diary contains up to November are largely quotidian matters concerned with the estate and its running. However, there are also more in passing comments on progress or lack of it in the Great War, Nellie being badly injured, and Lillie Purcocks aka Kopoy undergoing the operation for possible breast-cancer. There is in fact a diary entry for the same day that the letter was written, 11 November 1915. In full, this is:

Rain in the night and a drizzling rain all day
Dave planting out Kukue grass in the paddock
After lunch Dave went to see a calf of Robins that died he thought it was quarterevil but find it is not
Casper Bardenhorst came to see David about some business

Dave counted the lambs (Zozie) and there 19 short they say 7 are dead but there is only 4 since the dipping if the 7 were dead they are still 16 short
Got a letter from Jim he writes they have decided to be married on Dec 15th Daisy Mathews is leaving for England on the Dec 16th & Mrs Mathews has to leave Johannesburg it affects her heart so they decide to be married & not wait until the house is ready

Very cold wind
Temp 50 – 46 – 10 – SE
Rain 0.08

There is nothing here that pertains to the writing of letters or to Canon Mercer. There is also nothing in the 15 and 16 June 1914 diary entries between which the letter was enclosed. There is nothing either in diary entries for the seven days before and the seven days after 11 November 1915. However, there are a number of comments in these entries about Jim and Mrs Kopoy being in the same Johannesburg nursing home, and Jim reporting that he was recovering well but Mrs Kopoy less so. Doubtless being told earlier by a local doctor that the breast lump was similar to that which the much loved Sarah had died from in 1912 means that such comments from Jim are likely to have stirred up Kate’s feelings of grief and upset, the context in which this letter to Mercer was written.

The inserted letter is dated 11 November, so there were some six weeks left of the year. In this later period, an entry comments that a letter arrived relating that the surgery indicated that the lump was due to a broken rib and was not malignant, as well other entries being concerned with the death and funeral of Bob Walker, a friend who like the Forbes was one of the early settlers, the marriage of Jim Forbes to Olive Mathews and Kate Forbes having a Johannesburg and Pretoria jaunt around this, and with the year ending when nephews Cecil and Percy, sons of Mrs Kopoy, were crossing a river and their motor car was wrecked.

While the end of the year also contained upsetting things, then, there were some more positive aspects as well: Lillie Kopoy/Purcocks did not have cancer, Jim Forbes was married, and Kate Forbes had a jaunt.

So what does this say about the 11 November 1915 letter to Canon Mercer that Kate Forbes wrote and its relationship to the diary, which she also wrote?

While both the letter and the diary entries are representations, they are representations that exist in parallel and do not overlap in a major way regarding their contents and the dynamics of how they are written. By dynamics here is meant something similar to Derrida’s concept of the dynamis, a set of assumptions, ideas and working practices that become settled and contain their own mainspring. The result is that there is a complicated relationship between the diary and the letters.

They are both about the same material world, but they represent this differently; and they do so in parallel ways, in these two different ways of writing having their own typical patterns of inclusions and exclusions, understatements and emphases. In this sense, they are heterotopias; but rather than each one being a distinct representational world, they are more akin to countries having different histories and languages and located in different parts of the same world. Sprecken sie letter? Parlez vous diary?

And the question remains, is this a draft and a final version was sent, or is this the ‘real’ letter and it was never sent and its following pages have gone astray?

Last updated:  15 August 2019


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