South African writer Pauline Smith (1882-1959) is remembered for works of realistic fiction chronicling life among Afrikaner settlers in the western cape region of South Africa. Her best-known volume, the short story collection The Little Karoo (1925), was praised by the South African novelist Alan Paton in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review in 1959 as "one of the most remarkable collections of Afrikaner stories ever written."
Childhood on Two Continents
Smith was born in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, on April 2, 1882, the daughter of physician Herbert Urmson Smith and his wife, Jessy (Milne) Smith, a nurse. Her parents had immigrated to South Africa from England during the 1870s in hopes of relieving symptoms of ill health that plagued Herbert Smith. He was the first trained doctor to settle in the area and he traveled widely to treat his patients. Smith accompanied her father, learning a great deal about the landscape and the people who farmed, herded goats, or raised ostrich in the fertile region.
The Dutch-speaking Afrikaners, also known as Boers, were descendants of Dutch colonists who were the first European settlers in the area. They subscribed to a strict interpretation of Christian doctrine and valued hard work. Their society was characterized by racial prejudice and gender inequality: one of Smith's stories, for example, concerns a father who sells his daughter in order to keep his farm.
Smith and her sister, Dorothy, enjoyed a happy though isolated childhood and were educated at home until 1895, when they were sent to school in Scotland. In a 1947 letter recalling this period and quoted by biographer Sheila Roberts in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Smith wrote: "In my own case, and my sister's, we lost far more than we gained by being sent to 'boarding school in England' 6,000 miles away from our parents—and the loss was our parents' too—I look back upon that break in our happy childhood as a tragedy for us all… ."
Smith's father died in 1899, and she left school soon afterward, in poor health and grieving for her father. During this period she began to write. She later noted in the essay "Why and How I Became an Author," which first appeared in the journal English Studies in Africa, that she hoped through her stories "to set down for [her] own comfort the memories of … happier days."
Smith's first published story, "A Tenantry Dinner," was published in the Aberdeen Evening Gazette and Weekly Free Press in 1902 under the pseudonym Janet Tamson, and she continued to contribute sketches and poetry, often with Scottish subjects, to the Gazette over the next two years. In 1905 she returned to Oudtshoorn for a visit and recorded her impressions of the region in what became known as her "1905 Diary."
Smith returned to Europe and began working on a novel and a series of stories for children. While vacationing in Switzerland in 1908 Smith met the English novelist Arnold Bennett, and he took an interest in her writing. Rather than flatter her with praise, Bennett offered honest assessments of weaknesses and strengths in her work and identified the unique value of her writings about Afrikaner life. Of this encounter she wrote in "Why and How I Became an Author," "The 'damning' of my novel brought me an astonishing sense of relief, and established my faith in the critic's judgment as no praise would have done. …I began to work, with a clearer purpose, for this self-appointed master."
The Little Karoo
Smith returned to Oudtshoorn for a year and worked on a new set of stories set in a region called the Little Karoo. Among these was "The Sisters," published in the New Statesman in 1915, and her first significant success, "The Pain," published by John Middleton Murry in the Adelphi. These stories and others, including "The Sinners," "The Miller," and "Ludovitje," were later collected in the volume The Little Karoo, which initially drew attention for documenting a passing era in a little-known colonial region. Bennett supplied an introduction for the volume in which he characterized his protégé's writing as a "strange, austere, tender and ruthless talent."
Among the best-known stories in The Little Karoo is "The Pain," a portrait of aging bywoners, or sharecroppers. In the story, an elderly couple—tenant farmers whose rustic, isolated existence has consisted of working relentlessly for their simplest needs—are thrust into the world of modern medicine in a regional hospital and cannot endure the pain of being separated by the regulations of the institution. Commenting on "The Pain," a contemporary review in the Cape Times, reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, asserted, "No lovelier tale of old age has ever been written, and it reveals at once the chief secret of the writer's power. She has a rare gift of insight."
Other stories in The Little Karoo treat themes of isolation, loss, injustice, oppression, suffering, and religious obsession, presenting an unrelenting tragic picture of life. In "The Miller," the title character waits too long to offer a gesture of tenderness to the wife he has treated cruelly, dying in her arms unable to articulate his remorse and repentance. In "The Schoolmaster," the teacher's stifled emotion, stemming from his desire for a female student, Engela, erupts during a drive with his pupils, when he wildly assaults the cart mules that will not cross a stream and gouges out their eyes. He leaves and later is found drowned in the same stream. "The Sisters" chronicles the dealings of two rival farmers, one of whom is driven to madness by his desire to extend his property. In his blind desire to acquire water rights from his neighbor, Burgert de Jager offers his daughter Marta to Jan Redlinghuis, who owns the land de Jager wants. Marta's sister, Sukey, is rebuked by Redlinghuis when she offers herself in place of her delicate sister. Eventually, Marta is humiliated by Redlinghuis who treats her as property, and she dies, with Sukey left trying to comprehend the situation in terms of the Christian meaning of sin and redemption.
In addition to the poignancy of its subjects and themes, the collection has been praised for rendering in English the rhythms and speech patterns of Afrikaans, but, with the exception of "Ludovitje," it fails to treat the important subject of race relations. In that story, a young boy who is not highly valued by members of his own family has a deep spiritual impact on the African laborers who serve as grave-diggers in the area. One worker is so moved by the boy's spirituality that when the boy dies the worker converts to Christianity and offers to prepare a special grave for the child. He is rewarded by the boy's family with a place to stay and the promise of favorable treatment.
Reviewing the volume in the Saturday Review of Literature, critic Brooks Shepard wrote that Smith "has succeeded overwhelmingly in breathing life into the Karoo, with its remote farms and hamlets, its laborious journeyings in a rumbling ox cart, its stern, sober, simple, shrewd men and women, its utter detachment from the world and civilization … ; but she has succeeded also in picturing the man and woman in each of us, so that the people and the country of which she writes with strange brooding pity seem only incidental to her brooding upon mankind." When the collection was reprinted in 1990, Sybil Steinberg, writing in Publishers Weekly, commented that "the stories still ring true in their empathetic yet clear-eyed portrayal of a stern, obstinate tribe of white settlers at war with an unforgiving God."
A more extended examination of Afrikaner life, Smith's novel The Beadle was published in 1926. Set in the late 19th Century, the story centers on Andrina, an Afrikaner teenager who is the illegitimate child of a woman now dead and Aalst Vlokman, a minor church official, who has never admitted his paternity. Raised by her mother's sisters, Andrina is seduced by a visiting Englishman and flees the community when she discovers that she is pregnant. Through her predicament, Vlokman gains the courage to publicly admit that he is her father and to go in search of her. Ultimately, the birth of Andrina's own illegitimate child brings reconciliation with her father.
Because of its setting within a pious, isolated community, "The Beadle" is often compared with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. George Dale, writing in Crux, asserted that the novel "ranks a high place in any company, for its theme is universally valid and the characterization convincing." South African novelist and critic Nadine Gordimer praised the simplicity and unity of the novel in a 1963 review in the New York Times Book Review, declaring, "This is one of the great novels that should never be allowed to go out of print. It will always be rediscovered with astonishment and admiration."
Later Career and Legacy
Smith's volume of children's fiction and poetry, Platkops Children, was published in 1935. Later considered interesting primarily for their autobiographical elements, the stories offer character sketches and scenic descriptions in a rhythmic language heavily influenced by Smith's early reading of the Old Testament. Critic Sheila Scholten commented in the book Pauline Smith, edited by Dorothy Driver, that the ballads "although not literary … are delightfully evocative," and she concluded that "[i]n the poems as well as the stories of Platkops … Smith has achieved an authentic picture of life in a small Karoo town at the turn of the century."
Smith wrote little after the death of her mentor Arnold Bennett in 1931, though she did publish a memoir of their friendship, A. B. " … A Minor Marginal Note, (memoir)" in 1933.
In an article published in 1945 in the journal South African Opinion and reprinted in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, the South African poet and novelist Herman Charles Bosman concluded: "Smith's stories are … for ever a part of South African literature. They depict South African life with a truth and a beauty which no writer has so far achieved in the short story form written in Afrikaans." However, Smith was not widely known when she died in Broadstone, England, on January 29, 1959. A revival of Smith's works coincided with the centenary of her birth in 1982, and after that various editions and collections were published with regularity. Her minor writings appeared in such volumes as The Unknown Pauline Smith: Unpublished and Out-of-Print Stories, Diaries and Other Prose Writings (1993) and Secret Fire: The 1913-14 South African Journal of Pauline Smith (1997), a result of continuing academic interest in Smith's body of work.
Driver, Dorothy, ed., Pauline Smith, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1983.
Roberts, Sheila, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 226: South African Writers, Gale Group, 2000.
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 25, Gale Group, 1988.
Crux, February 1979.
English Studies in Africa, September 1963.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review, October 18, 1959.
Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1990.