Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Not either an Experimental Doll: The Making of the South African Heroine

Elizabeth Lawson

I remain a writer not a public speaker: nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction (Gordimer, "Living in the Interregnum")

" What I aspired to be, and was not, comforts me."

(Robert Browning quotation at end of Olive Schreiner's Introduction to Woman and Labour. )

For congenial reasons I had to leave Adams, due to the fact that I was never meant to be a stone but a human being with feelings, not either an experimental doll. (26/7/51)1

My paper, collapsing four complex texts to mere paragraphs, tells a few brief stories and uses the title of Shula Marks' edition of letters titled Not Either an Experimental Doll (1987) to give coherence to my own story of the making of the South African fictional heroine in her mostly white form. With the tragic exclusion of the writer of the words that make up that title - the real young woman of South African apartheid, whose pseudonym in the text is Lily Moya, and who is almost certainly living out her destroyed life in Soweto today - none of these assertive heroines could, in the end, be called an "experimental doll," though their lives are set within ideological systems meant to make them so. Through a discursive paper spanning one hundred years, I argue that in the South African heroine, feminism and revolutionary politics meet in changing ways, not only as they do in many literatures of the recent decades of the feminist revival (as for instance in the novels of Isabel Allende and Toni Morison) but from their beginnings with Olive Schreiner's classic, The Story of an African Farm (1883).2

Like Lily Moya and her forebears, Olive Schreiner was brought up on a colonial mission outpost. Many essentials of her early life story are written in the fictional lives of Lyndall and her composite character, Waldo, in The Story of an African Farm. African Farm is many things including what we mean by an imperial text, but before any of them, it is an early classic of imperial and colonial protest predating Heart of Darkness (1902) by just on twenty years (Heart of Darkness was in fact first serialised in Blackwood's Magazine from February to April, 1899). As a novel proclaiming and exploring the nineteenth century values of individualism and heroism, African Farm is a bitter feminist and post-colonial parody of the classic Bildungsroman. It is also, as I write elsewhere, one of the first distinctively multi-cultural novels in English.

Both Lyndall (defeated nineteenth century heroine of the Farm), and Lily Moya (defeated little schoolgirl of mid-century South Africa) exercise insistent independence of mind and will to get such access to formal "academic" education as they manage, pathetically it must be said, to gain. For both it goes badly wrong. Lyndall reviles the finishing school for young ladies her energies land her in, but learns reactively from it her satiric, powerful brand of feminism. In particular, Lyndall seeks sexual freedom and, well in advance of her time, grasps and lives by it, pragmatically dismissing and satirizing her conventional suitors by the way. By contrast, Lily Moya's childish struggle, it would appear, is compromised exactly by her defensive sense of her right to freedom from sexual molestation.

Lyndall's feminism in African Farm defies most specifically the rigid Victorian values of her author's early home, that rigid system of daughter control exported as perhaps the anchor pin in the domestic/social strand of imposed reproductive empire. Here feminism speaks anti-imperial protest. Lyndall's feminism has its symbols of resistance in her denunciation of confidence trickster and tyrant, Bonaparte Blenkins, and her window breaking and burning to escape imprisonment on the farm. But the story fans out to denounce the imperial project generally. Blenkins' flogging assault on Lyndall's alter ego, who is Waldo the shepherd boy (and also, in the pastoral narrative of the novel, colonial anti-type of imperial swain and anti-imperial Christ), connects Napoleonic brutality to twentieth century fascism. Similarly, in the letter to Lyndall she is never to receive, Waldo recounts his labours on the ox wagon and his terrible self-confessed descent into "brutishness": "You may work and work and work till you are only a body, not a soul." "I was like an animal. My body was strong and well to work, but my brain was dead" (256). His words mark the brutalization of the individual caused by the master/slave attitudes of the imperial project, attitudes which, Schreiner recognizes, are to fuel the racist labour system of South Africa in the next century. They were attitudes whose wide practical usefulness was hinted early in the novel where Bonaparte imprisons, flogs and terrorizes Waldo after his "theft" of books from the loft (books - part imperial signifier but individual window on freedom from imperialism, as Schreiner's use of Herbert Spencer's First Principles shows).

In both Lyndall and Waldo we can see the struggle to recreate from harsh European traditions, a new postcolonial value. So Waldo is child of his father's sins of simple Lutheran belief, and of the western nineteenth century agony of religious doubt. But his story transforms this imperial theme, carving out a tolerable, new world spirituality which can comprehend the karoo and its history. He defies most specifically the European version of God: that imperial dream which would work through control of the spirit. So he becomes anti-mission and anti-slave, working and reworking his German Lutheran heritage in the crucible of the stony, blue and red high desert lands of the African karoo, also allowing it at poignant moments to confront and crumble before the enduring elegy of dispossession and genocide in the extinct Bushmen's rock paintings.

Lyndall's feminism is strong, bitter, and unforgettable. Her experience of the farm is of walls, gates, locked doors, lies and denial of education, so she looks defiantly and heroically to a future she is not to see. So focussed is her story on self-creation for a future that it can be seen, like the fable written into Waldo's carving, as an abstract allegory of individualist aspiration. But written later in terms of a liberated female sexuality and childbirth, it insists on a meaning specifically for women, on a (utopian, given her context) society of women-with-men, precisely what Lyndall's lover and his patriarchy could not understand. Written finally, however, in the despairing terms of death (or a conventionally Victorian descent into invalidism and death), it restates the power of a regressive society caught in the vast scheme of imperial capitalistic exploitation and control. Lyndall's life is normally transgressive, but her personal destiny is a carbon copy extract from imperial Victorian fiction: invalidism, loss of infant, sentimental, transcendent "death." Thus Victorianism wins literally over Lyndall's brave anti colonial statement. As Napoleon annexed territories and lives, so Tant' Sannie, Bonaparte Blenkins and a colonial version of British Victorian values annex the lives of the children of the farm and come close to destroying what they dream, make and think. Blenkins is a mini-Napoleon and classic imperialist: persecutor of children and coward with adults, active adventurer and opportunist abroad, obsequious squatter on the land of others, annexer of rights and the law, bringer of religion and forced mis-education, creator of prisons, solitary confinement and torture. Most tellingly in this book of many stories, book burner.

Shula Marks' edition of letters titled Not Either an Experimental Doll is "fictional" only in the minor detail of its use of pseudonyms to protect the identities of a particular South African family. The text is historically documentary, also scholarly and editorial. But it has a tragic heroine, Lily Moya, the fifteen year old Xhosa schoolgirl in search of a school in the late forties South Africa of the inception of apartheid (under Dr Malan in 1948). It is in early 1949 that Lily writes her first letter to Dr Mabel Palmer of Natal University.

Like Olive Schreiner long before her, Lily was brought up on a colonial outpost mission, the black child of parents falling upon the bad times of the thirties white landgrab, which pushed blacks into 8% of the country, forced black labour into the rapidly industrializing cities and induced the impoverishment of the rural Transkei. Lily mislays her struggling mother, but knowing much, if not enough of her blackness and ambition, and nothing of apartheid, aspires to the academic education that an earlier time gave her parents and grandparents power and status in their rural community.

Shula Marks presents Lily's story through the three way correspondence of Lily and her two mentors, Dr Mabel Palmer, the English Fabian feminist and director of the Non-European section of the University of Natal, to whom Lily resourcefully appeals for help, and Sibusisiwe Makhanya, the powerful, independent Zulu activist and educationist. To Makhanya, Mabel in her turn appeals, wanting extra help with "the intrepid little thing" from "a woman of her own race," (as Mabel writes erroneously in 1950). The bright writing style of Lily's letters - full of vivacious phrasing and appealing grammatical errors - attracts Palmer, who struggles for several years (early 1949 - mid 51) to place Lily in a good academic school (for blacks of course), a school where Lily will be happy and which will suit her ambitions; ironically, the books she needs for matriculation and fails to query are King Lear, Jane Eyre and Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria (1921). All of this, given the determined, imaginative, and rather stroppy Lily, was no easy task, especially for a British woman with no brief to help schoolchildren and poor knowledge despite her job of even her tertiary black constituency.

Mabel, old, frail and poor, is persistent and generous in her sponsorship of and carefully stern friendship with Lily, who eventually has some time at Adams College. Adams - for blacks, so racist in inception and philosophy - was well-regarded but suffering from, amongst other inevitable ills, an apparently endemic practice of sexual harassment (and that is probably an understatement) of the small minority of girls by both male students and staff. After a few troubled but veiled letters, Lily absconds to the home of an aunt in Sophiatown (Capetown), confessing in her letters to both women to being "very ill." The older women, now exhausted by the demanding Lily, console themselves and one another, feeling with some justice that they have done all they could and hardly convinced by her unlikely claims to illness. Mabel Palmer, despite her position at Natal, is unfortunately unaware of the tangle of cultural intolerances and difficulties to which Lily has necessarily fallen prey. Neither Mabel (who, despite her job at Natal, is seemingly unable to tell the difference between Zulu and Xhosa peoples) nor the powerful, intelligent Zulu woman, Subisisiwe ("the outstanding Zulu woman of her generation"), have much idea at all of the values or fears of a deeply alienated rural Xhosa girl brought up in the Christian faith and intent on a traditional British education. Even though in her own expressive English, Lily has spelt them out.

It took Shula Marks (the third heroine of this book) to rediscover the lost Lily in the eighties - one rather striking outcome of the recent wave of feminist scholarship. After discovering the letters at Natal long after Mabel's and Subisisiwe's deaths, she searched for five years hoping to gain Lily's permission to publish a fascinating correspondence. The discovery was far from happy, since the young girl (ill, exactly as she wrote) had since spent twenty five years in homes for the black mentally ill (one of them Sterkfontein). One of the rediscovered Lily's few comments in interview in the eighties held all the punch of her schoolgirl letters, with an added bitterness, which nonetheless affirmed her still vivid remembrance of her young ambitions: "Mrs Palmer" she said, "gave me a scholarship to Sterkfontein." Thirty years before, her last letter to Mabel explaining her flight from Adams, read in part:

For congenial reasons I had to leave Adams, due to the fact that I was never meant to be a stone but a human being with feelings, not either an experimental doll (26/7/51).3

Lily, for all her determination and initiative, was an innocent abroad facing both gender and racial difficulties within a vicious, violent system which actively maintained ignorance across ethnic lines. It is this which produces the many instances of sad cultural impasse throughout the letters, and finally overthrows the feminist goodwill of the older women. The bright independent Lily, her mind progressively destroyed by drugs, lands hardly noticed on the scrap heap of her society, her story one of the many thousands of black apartheid tales being written and waiting to be written.

Doris Lessing's admirable first novel, a murder mystery analysis of rural apartheid, The Grass is Singing,4 appeared when Lily was at Adams College in 1950. Its heroine, Mary Turner (who certainly "turns"), moves to personal and synchronous "national" political meaning in isolation and silence and accepts her own murder (it is close to suicide) as its logical outcome. But Mary is not quite a sacrificial lamb, though she offers no protest before her murder at the hands of her black domestic servant, Moses - executioner as well as prophetic lawgiver. Rather, she goes to her slaughter as if to make a statement of commitment to Moses, who undergoes daily violence and humiliation on the farm, this man who cannot be her lover. Mary's silent action, complicit with Moses' mixed motive of revenge and sexual frustration, forms a complex indictment of the white system she has long accepted. She at last sees that the system of white supremacy has claimed her as much as Moses, has denied her freedom as it has denied his. Mary dies then, to identify herself with the "other," and in implicit feminist protest against her own racist tradition.

Nadine Gordimer in the eighties at last gives us some positive outcomes for female heroines (mostly but not always white). The revolutionary subjects of her recent fiction and the eventual revolutionary commitment of her heroines - I'm thinking of Maureen in July's People,5 Aila in the latest novel, My Son's Story,6 and Rosa of the earlier Burgher's Daughter,7 - give a thoroughly "postcolonial" accent to these novels of late apartheid. But the mood of these novels, of July's People for instance, whose politics of possibility are worked out in a primitive, decaying African village hopelessly (though for Maureen, educatively) cut off from the revolutionary action of distant urban centres, is scrupulously colonial. As its frontispiece epigraph from Gramsci makes clear, this is about a world struggling to be born which cannot be born: about what Gramsci calls the "morbid symptoms" (instead of a clean birth) of such a phase in history. When Maureen runs toward the mysterious "chopping" helicopter in the last pages of July's People, she acts out symbolically what was implicit but fictionally and historically frustrated in the earlier novels of this paper. She runs, it is clear, toward a future of historically and politically engaged action. She runs, it is equally clear, from a stagnant feudal backwater and from conventional wifehood, motherhood and family. Cogent feminist and political engagement thus meet here at last and prove the same.8

There is a marvellous moment in July's People where, after fifteen years of the cultural impasse of truncated dialogue in "servant English," July speaks passionately of himself and his culture in his own tongue to an amazed but newly comprehending Maureen. Though he speaks a language Maureen has never heard before, more is "communicated" here than in the fifteen years of their oxymoronic "shared white liberal" apartheid. Moments of such "kitchen" apartheid also thread together the extraordinary web of English language that makes up Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm.

In her attempt to live intellectually and sexually in the twentieth century, the first of my heroines, Lyndall, dies I suggest, from Victorian imperialism itself. Death, like the deaths of many of the first wave feminist heroines (Edna Pontier, Maggie Tulliver), seems the logical consequence of her endeavours to live honestly and demandingly. Her author, quoting from Robert Browning, writes at the beginning of her treatise, Woman and Labour (1911): " What I aspired to be, and was not, comforts me." Thinking of Lyndall (and Schreiner), I suppose we are comforted neither by her life nor death but by her brilliant clarity of usable aspiration.

Cultural impasses similar to those I've sketched map the fictional life of Mary Turner in The Grass is Singing, eventally transforming her silence of passivity to a silence of contemptuous understanding of the racism which, through the white marriage system, has controlled her existence. Mary is mute and murdered, but her last dramatic act of complicity across the colour bar, like the actions of Gordimer's heroines after her, strikingly rejects white marital ideology as wholly instrumental in the larger racist system. So that here, as in Gordimer's novels again, a rhetoric of feminism and a rhetoric of general politics meet powerfully and prove the same.

Lily Moya, the real African child of our century, is understoood by the well-meaning people she has the singular initiative to approach as merely pettily transgressive (usually as a wayward, ungrateful girl) but in her desperation, she becomes trangressive in a major way (and in that country of refined human classification, is reclassified "schizophrenic"). As terribly befits the ensuing history of her country, Lily's tragedy illustrates one of a million "narratives" for the inception and course of apartheid. I have used Shula Marks' title - Lily's passionate words in her last letter to Mabel Palmer - as my own title here because both Lily's letters and her life really happened. South African fictions seem, with a perhaps exceptional intimacy, to be written out of their historical moment, out of moments and histories like Lily's. To suggest that this is so, I have aligned Lily's documentary narrative with those of these novels, in much the same way as I suggest the autobiographical element in The Story of An African Farm. The issue here is complex and is not, of course, a matter of autobiography or of realism in any simple sense, but rather of language and literary convention, themselves caught within the processes of history, producing history as they speak it. Or, as Gordimer put it in relation to public speaking: "Nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction."9 It is not a matter of the relatedness and unrelatedness of language and experience, but of the production of language and culture from the flow of their mutual interchange.

Lily's "real life" schoolgirl assertiveness, transmuted now in the intriguing genre of edited letters, forbad her from being an "experimental doll" for the boys and men at Adams, for her baffled mentors, for the system. Later, schooling and letters closed, there is no doubt that her country cruelly made her one. Historically, the South African heroine has been remarkable for her insistence on the identity of her place in feminism with her place in political history, so that, as a fictional construct of her historical moment, she speaks firmly outward to her ensuing moment, becoming in succeeding representations what Schreiner's Lyndall "aspired to be and was not." It is as if the pressures of the modern history of southern Africa produced there a clearer sense that there can be no general freedom, no democracy, which maintains the bondage of women, black, "coloured," Indian, white. This was exactly the perception of Mary Turner in Lessing's early fable The Grass is Singing. In Gordimer's characters, Burgher's daughter, Maureen and Aila, this trope reaches a new stage of articulation as the experimental doll, leaving her husband and family, leaps toward the helicopter which is revolutionary but no longer exclusively "masculine." All these fictions, Lily's letters, my words also, mediate and produce this "truth" of the anguished, racist but also revolutionary and feminist postcolonial world of women in South Africa.

It will be interesting to watch this heroine, black and white, as the apartheid experiment collapses.

Australian Defence Force Academy, ACT


1 Letter of a Xhosa schoolgirl, pseudonym Lily Moya, in Shula Marks, ed., Not Either An Experimental Doll (London: Women's Press) 1987.

2 With an introduction by Dan Jacobson, Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1986 (1971). First published, 1883.

3 Letter from Sophiatown, 26/7/51, Not Either an Experimental Doll, 185-6.

4 Doris Lessing, The Grass is Singing (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1961). First published by Michael Joseph, 1950.

5 Nadine Gordimer, July's People (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1981).

6 Gordimer, My Son's Story (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1990).

7 Gordimer, Bergher's Daughter (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1979).

8 It is interesting that a similar pattern of combined active feminist and revolutionary action is worked out through the black heroine of black writer, Laurette Ngcobo, And They Didn't Die (Virago, 1990) a novel concerned, however, with the earlier fifties period. Here Jizelle, a persecuted Mother Courage-type heroine, finally murders her daughter's rapist in belated outrage against her own earlier rape by a white man. This novel, concerned with roughly the same period as Lessing's, inverts Mary Turner's action but retains its symbolic force. It is difficult to know if Ngcobo's rather breathless narrative draws strong feminist action from her knowledge of black lives in the fifties or from a 1990s feminist ideology.

9 Gordimer, "Living in the Interregnum," in The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, ed. and introduced by Stephen Clingman (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988) 2.

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