Three recent publications now available!

Three recent publications now available!

Liz Stanley (2020) ‘Afterword: writing lives, fictions and the postcolonial’ Journal of Commonwealth Literature 55(3) 469–79

This essay reflects on the writing of lives and fictions in a South African context in light of the contents of a journal special issue on biofictions, and draws parallels with some of the approaches adopted by the contributors. It discusses biography, autobiography, diaries, letters, and testimonies by or about Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Eugene Marais, Njube son of Lobengula, Cecil Rhodes, and Olive Schreiner, and problematizes some of the key terms in thinking about postcolonial literatures. In doing so, it explores interconnections between the factual and the fictive in different forms of life writing, the expanded boundaries of biographizing, performances, and transformations of the self, the use of fictions to tell truths, issues with representation and referentiality, the appeal of a return to “the facts” in some circumstances, the position of readers, and how the relationship between “then” and “now” informs writing practices. The conclusion draws on Olive Schreiner’s literary credo to propose that an alliance between writers and readers should be part of reconfiguring the biographical impulse in postcolonial literatures.

(2020) ‘Harriet Townsend and Networks of Settler Women in Business in the Eastern Cape, 1840–1848’ South African Historical Journal. DOI:10.1080/02582473.2020.1744707

Harriet Townsend was an Eastern Cape businesswoman who established a jewellery and retail shop in the frontier town of Cradock in the 1840s, importing superior goods via Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and using outworkers to finish plain goods to a high standard and make bespoke items to order. The business received considerable assistance from a group of merchant advisors. It developed rapidly and achieved a considerable turnover, with its customer base and the role of its outworkers providing information about networks of association. The extensive economic involvements of other women in Harriet Townsend’s family, and those who acted as her outworkers, are traced. A number of business records spanning the period it operated over are examined in detail to explore its scope and the impact of prevailing economic circumstances. A spiral of increasing business and stock purchases on one hand, and increasing debt on the other, had to be managed. Harriet Townsend’s remarriage coincided with a contraction of activity, but the business nonetheless continued although at a lower level, suggesting strong interest and commitment. The article shows that the settler women in the Townsend networks led busy economic and business lives, establishes the connections that supported this, provides detail of the business practices involved, and argues that the economic contribution of the Townsend business was at a financially important level. Harriet Townsend was a publicly visible businesswoman and the existence of her network of skilled outworkers indicates a more general pattern concerning settler women’s economic contributions.

(2020) ‘Ordinary letter-writing and the “actual course of things”: white colonial settlers doing the business’ in eds. Anne Chappel, Julie Parsons, Maria Tamboukou Handbook of Auto/Biography Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.165-84.

It is often supposed that letters are private exchanges concerned with personal and sometimes intimate matters, or literary productions requiring considerable skill to write, or written by people of public fame and importance, with published letters seen as of note in these respects. However, casting an eye around archive collections in different parts of the world, and doing so without cherry-picking just the ‘important’ letters, something very different can be seen (Lyons 2012; Whyman 2009; Whites Writing Whiteness 2019). This is that the large majority of the letters in archive collections when considered en masse are in fact not by people who are important or famous, nor are they of great literary or artistic skill, and nor are they concerned with private matters.

What the general run of letter-writing shows is that most have been written by ordinary people, often with few formal literacy skills, and they consist largely of exchanges about the mundane aspects of life, or in extremis ones of war and other cataclysmic events, have little literary merit, are often part of wider epistolary exchanges and face-to-face meetings, and are by no means confined to intimacies.

Within an auto/biographical framework (Stanley 1992), this chapter discusses letter-writing by people who were not famous or important, who wrote letters engaging with the actual course of things as part of facilitating relationships with the people they wrote to, and thereby helped make everyday life happen. The idea of the ‘actual course of things’ is discussed in Treva Broughton’s (2000) thoughtful exploration of the relationship between people’s lives and auto/biographical accounts of these, starting with how the term was used by Thomas Carlyle. In writing about ‘Biography’, Carlyle (1898 [1832]) points out that the business of everyday life involves the production of many different forms of autobiography and biography so that, for instance, conversation and all the things this includes are a more fruitful source for auto/biography than seeing the subject entirely in terms of subjectivity and interiority. Then, in Sartor Resorts (1987 [1836]), Carlyle expanded on these ideas by playing with the boundaries between facts and fictions around the reflexive presence of the—fictitious, and tedious—editor of this book.

Broughton points out the relevance of these ideas to the programmatic aspects of today’s auto/biography scholarship, which has rejected over-simple genre separations and instead turned attention to the complex overlaps between everyday forms of auto/biography and the interpretive role of the researcher. Here she uses the idea of ‘the business’ of everyday life to highlight the importance of recognising that mundane forms of auto/biography are essential to how the wheels of social life turn, for people are interested in others and routinely report on and debate their conduct, character and intentions. As a consequence, the activities and characteristic practices which produce different forms of auto/biography should be a focus for auto/ biographical investigation, and not just the products of such practices.

These ideas are explored in the chapter by reference to letter-writing by ordinary white people in South Africa. What was the ‘actual course of things’ for those concerned? What was ‘the business’ that their letters are expressions of? Did the different letter-writing practices involved result in letters that were different in kind, and not just degree? Letters by people from different backgrounds, living in different parts of the country, and writing at varied points in time, will be discussed. Although living different kinds of lives, they were in their own ways all ‘ordinary’, with their letters being representative of a type, and were chosen for this and not any out-of-the-ordinary characteristics. The letters are those of a missionary wife living in the north-west of what later became South Africa (Mary Moffat letters, written 1820–1870), a civil service and academic family in Pretoria (Voss family letters, written 1880–1965), and an Eastern Cape businessman who was a printer and newspaper-proprietor (Robert White letters, written 1850–1876). They can all be seen as family letters and will be briefly compared with letters written by members of a large Transvaal farming and entrepreneurial family (Forbes family letters, 1850–1935). Archival information for all the collections discussed appears following the References.

Last updated: 20 August 2020