Seeing Mrs Brown

Seeing Mrs Brown

Looking at Mrs Brown in this photograph, she appears the quintessence of respectable colonial Victorian womanhood, seated on a chair with the figure of her ?protective and/or ?controlling husband (the Reverend John Brown, an LMS missionary) beside her in all his bearded splendour. Yes, at first sight they could be taken to embody ‘the Victorian respectable couple‘. But things are rarely quite so simple.

Eliza Brown was the daughter of a renowned missionary, Rev John Read junior, and the granddaughter of another of the same name known as James Read senior. Her paternal grandmother was Sara Elizabeth Valentyn, a Khoisan woman, and her white mother Anne Barker was the daughter of another renowned LMS missionary. Anonymized, in one of Olive Schreiner’s essays Mrs Brown is represented as lamenting she was ever born, such was the discrimination and prejudice she experienced as a mixed race woman. And it is likely her high social status otherwise was a factor in this, the disjuncture between matters connected with skin colour and matters connected with class and religion. As for the Rev Brown and Mrs Brown’s mother and her paternal grandfather, there was likely more to them than meets the eye if one can only see the colour white. And looking again at Mrs Brown, there is both an air of resignation and a quiet determination that can be read on her face.

Last updated:  11 November 2021


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