Who wrote it? Emily Hobhouse’s Vrouemonument speech

Who wrote it? Emily Hobhouse’s Vrouemonument speech

On at least two occasions Emily Hobhouse sent things to Olive Schreiner asking her to edit them. One of these concerns the well-known Boer women’s testimonies of the South African War concentration camps published by Hobhouse and particularly Tant Alie of Transvaal. It also occurred regarding the speech Hobhouse was due to give in December 1913 at the unveiling of the national women’s memorial, commemorating the deaths of women and children, the Vrouemonument just outside of central Bloemfontein. In the event, for reasons of ill-health Hobhouse was unable to give the speech in person, but a written version was on the day – 16 December 1913 – read out by someone, distributed in a printed version, and also published in newspapers. But the question arises, who actually wrote it?

Regarding the testimonies just referred to, the signs are that OS re-translated them and presented them back rather differently from what was sent to her. She was highly fluent in the vernacular taal (Afrikaans did not yet exist at that time although it was at the start of being in the making) and also proficient in Dutch, although her written Dutch was not ‘proper‘ because she spelt it phonetically and used it idiomatically. This communicative proficiency is why she appears to have found the versions sent to her of woman’s testimonies problematic, because stilted and ‘proper’ and so not conveying the sense of the originals very well.

Subsequently, in a lengthy letter dated November 1913, which among other contents comments humorously on some of her dealings with the rather imperious Emily Hobhouse, she provides another example. This letter was sent to her much loved younger brother Will, and she wrote that,

“The other day she [Hobhouse] send (sic) me a long speech of 16 closely written pages – told me, not as a favour at all, to revise, alter & if necessary re-write the whole! I worked at it for two days sitting up till 3 o’clock at night & then broke down & could do no more – & sent it back to her. I think you will understand my funny & somehow distressed little note.”

The ‘long speech’ is what Hobhouse had prepared for the unveiling of the Vrouemonument. In letters to other people, she acknowledged that Olive Schreiner should in a moral and political sense have been the person invited to unveil the monument, but was excluded because she was seen as too radical by Boer political leaders of the day, so perhaps this was sent as some kind of reparation. Or perhaps it was instead that Hobhouse, not noted for her sensitivities, simply wanted guidance as how to best give the speech from someone who was both reluctant to speak in public and could move multitudes when she did so.

Certainly the published speech presents a radical view of the injustices of racism more consonant with Olive Schreiner’s political views than those of Emily Hobhouse. But the question arises, who actually wrote it, was this Olive Schreiner, was it Emily Hobhouse, and if some amalgam of the two then what belongs to which of them? The weight of the admittedly circumstantial evidence that exists is that this is Olive Schreiner.

The full letter, ‘warts and all’, by Schreiner to Will Schreiner will be found at https://www.oliveschreiner.org/vre?view=collections&colid=105&letterid=47

Last updated:  1 April 2021