'The South African Bloomsberries' on BBC Radio 3
On Monday 3rd April I presented 'The South African Bloomsberries' for BBC Radio 3's 'The Essay'. It was my first time recording in a BBC studio, but rather handily, BBC Dock House is next to the University of Salford building in MediaCityUK, so I only had a short distance to walk!
You can listen to the episode here.
The text from my episode of 'The Essay' is copied below, with a bibliography of sources. My grateful thanks go to producer Ruth Thomson, as well as Robyn Read and Sanja Nivesjö for their help and advice on drafts.
The South African Bloomsberries
It is Spring 1920, and a writer sits at his desk at number 43 Tavistock Square, Bloomsbury, in central London. The writer is completing the manuscript of a novel - a novel engaged with many of the most pressing issues of the modern world: war, empire, feminism, new technologies and transport.
So far, there’s nothing too surprising about the things I’ve said. 1920s Bloomsbury is closely associated with modernism, a pioneering artistic and philosophical movement characterised by its original thinking and forms of representation, its rejection of tradition, and by its new global awareness and interest.
What is surprising, however, is that the writer I’ve described was not part of the Bloomsbury Group - also known as the ‘Bloomsberries’ - a circle of intellectuals, writers and artists who led the development of modernism in England. Two key figures in the Bloomsbury group, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, did live in Tavistock Square, but they were at number 52, and even then, only moved there in 1924.
So who was the mysterious Bloomsbury writer of 43 Tavistock Square, scribbling away at his desk in 1920?
Let me introduce Solomon T. Plaatje - a founder and first Secretary General of the South African Native National Congress (later the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s party). Plaatje was also a journalist, linguist and translator proficient in at least seven languages. He had arrived in England in 1919 as the leader of a Congress deputation protesting the Native Land Act of 1913. Under this Act, black South Africans that made up around 80% of the population were restricted to owning only 7% of the land. They were dispossessed and forcibly relocated to poor homelands and townships.
Plaatje had other objectives during his trip to England too. He needed to raise funds for his newspaper and other campaigns, as well as complete work on his first novel – the novel that he finished at 43 Tavistock Square, and which would be the first novel written in English by a black South African.
Though it was written in English, it also integrated forms, traditions and ideas from the Tswana, the ethnic group from Southern Africa to which Plaatje belonged.
The book is a story of love and war.
It is a historical novel set in the 1830s, and tells of the rise and fall of the real Matabele king, Mzilikazi, and his destruction of the Barolong, a nation of people that lived in what is now Botswana and South Africa.
It is also a romance, epic, adventure and satire.
The novel is named after the main female character, Mhudi. She meets the Barolong hero, Ra-Thaga, in the wilderness after both have escaped Mzilikazi’s massacres. They fall in love; thwart new enemies the Korana; do battle with lions; and finally encounter the first ‘Voortrekkers’ – the Boers who were migrating inland from the coast to colonise new areas of South Africa. The Voortrekkers are described in the novel as ‘a race of proverbial Bible readers, who profess Christianity to the point of bigotry’.
Importantly too, the book reflects on issues Plaatje faced in the twentieth century. The black Africans in the novel are displaced and dispossessed, just as they are a century later, in Plaatje's own time, as a result of the Native Land Act.
What is so interesting about Plaatje’s novel is that it not only mounts challenges to racial segregation, colonialism and sexism, it also suggests a way forward.
Plaatje does this is by depicting an inter-racial friendship between the black Barolong character, Ra-Thaga, and DeVilliers, a white Boer. Plaatjie writes of DeVilliers that he ‘grievously offended his people’s susceptibilities by openly fraternizing with a Black couple’. Their friendship provides a targeted vision of what South Africa could be if colonial and racist hierarchies were dismantled.
Mhudi, meanwhile, is a pioneering female protagonist. She’s a lion-slayer, visionary and leader. Such is her formidable intellect and strength that the final lines of the book appear as a promise made by Ra-Thaga to Mhudi that: ‘From henceforth, I shall have no ears for the call of war or the chase; my ears shall be open to one call only – the call of your voice.’
When Plaatje completed Mhudi he was in dire financial straits, and in his own words ‘nearly died of hunger’ before being rescued by friends. He couldn’t find a publisher for the novel - they all wanted him to contribute to the costs of publication, which he wasn’t able to do. In the end it would take another ten years and a return journey home before the South African Lovedale Press agreed to publish the book.
So, despite completing a distinctly modern novel in that most privileged heartland of modernism - Bloomsbury – Plaatje’s fiction was not (as far as we know) read by members of the Bloomsbury Group.
There were, however, three South African writers who were associated with the Bloomsbury Group: William Plomer, Laurens van der Post and Roy Campbell.
The three were friends, and in 1925 collaborated on a short-lived satirical literary magazine called Voorslag (in English, Whiplash). Their articles excoriated racist colonial culture, and, following fiery disagreements with the magazine’s conservative proprietors, they abandoned the project after only three issues.
A year prior, and at the age of only 21, William Plomer had sent his first novel, Turbott Wolfe, to Leonard and Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, based in Tavistock Square. Plomer described the book as written ‘with a hard pencil on thin paper’ and remarks that the Woolfs ‘must have had a strong curiosity to read it at all’. They did. And were so impressed, that they published the book in 1926.
Turbott Wolfe is a masterpiece of South African modernism. Plomer said himself that '[t]o speak of it as a novel is perhaps a misnomer: it was a violent ejaculation, a protest, a nightmare, a phantasmagoria.’ The book is all these things and more – ground-breaking not only in terms of its lyrical, satirical and episodic form, but also for its sharp critique of white colonial culture and audacious representation of inter-racial love.
Like the pioneering Plaatje before him, Plomer challenges the colour bar and proposes inter-racial relationships as a solution to South Africa’s problems.
This is well demonstrated by the character, Mabel van der Horst, who exclaims:
‘What the hell is the native question? You take away the black man’s country, and shirking the consequences of your action, you blindly affix a label to what you know the black man is thinking of you. Native question indeed! […] It isn’t a question. It’s an answer.’
Rather unsurprisingly, Plomer’s book was met with violent reaction by white colonial society in South Africa. Reviewers denounced it as having ‘perverse stimuli’, and described it as ‘a nasty book on a nasty subject’.
Plomer’s friend, Roy Campbell, was delighted by the storm. In a congratulatory letter Campbell wrote: ‘I bet there was never such an orgasm before experienced by the elegant and accomplished Hogarth Press’.
Leonard and Virginia Woolf certainly seemed pleased with Turbott Wolfe. They would go on to publish another four of Plomer’s books, as well as In A Province, a novel written by Plomer’s friend, Laurens van der Post, in 1934.
The most dramatic, and arguably most dynamic and fruitful, of the South African-Bloomsbury connections however, revolves around the firebrand poet, Roy Campbell.
In May 1924, he published a long poem entitled The Flaming Terrapin. It was positively reviewed in Britain and America, and was read and admired by members of the Bloomsbury Group, including Vita Sackville-West.
Three years later, Campbell and his English wife, Mary, moved to Sevenoaks Weald in Kent, and a chance encounter with Sackville-West in the village post office led to an invitation to dinner. The Campbells then became regular visitors to the homes of Sackville-West and husband, Harold Nicolson, where they also met others in the Bloomsbury Set, such as Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Clive Bell and Desmond McCarthy.
As time went on however, Roy Campbell felt increasingly uncomfortable amongst this group, embarrassed by their generosity and his dependency on their contacts for work. He would often leave Sevenoaks to spend time in London getting drunk with other friends. Mary, meanwhile, made the most of his regular absences to embark on a passionate love affair with Vita.
Their romance inspired Sackville-West’s 1929 poetry collection King’s Daughter, which included the lines:
Goosey, goosey gander
Will you be my spy?
Let into your lady’s room
No-one dare to pry.
In September 1927, Campbell gladly accepted Sackville-West’s not-entirely-altruistic offer to let his family stay in a cottage on the grounds of her ancestral home, Knole.
Their domestic comfort was short-lived. In November 1927, Mary confessed to the affair with Vita. Roy was furious. He immediately stormed off to London, where he got drunk with CS Lewis, then returned, raged, trashed their cottage, and threatened Mary with a knife. Mary refused to end the affair.
Another of Sackville-West’s lovers also found out about the affair in the Autumn of 1927.
On the 9th of October, the spurned lover, none other than Virginia Woolf, wrote to Sackville-West to say: 'Here occurs a terrific gulf. Millions of things I want to say can’t be said. You know why. You know for what a price – walking the lanes with Campbell, you sold my love letters'.
Spurred by jealousy, Woolf goes on:
Yesterday morning I was in despair […] I couldn’t screw a word from me; and at last dropped my head in my hands: dipped my pen in the ink, and wrote these words, as if automatically, on a clean sheet: Orlando: A Biography.
Woolf’s novelistic tour de force, Orlando, was published in 1928, and playfully casts Sackville-West as a sixteenth-century male nobleman who lives for over 300 years, changing sex along the way. The book was later described by Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’.
It certainly did the trick. Sackville-West tired of Mary Campbell, and renewed her closeness with Woolf.
The Campbells, meanwhile, were left in turmoil. When Laurens van der Post came to visit in February 1928, Roy Campbell was ill and home alone, and according to van der Post, appeared as a ‘thin, shivering hulk of a human being in torn and tattered clothes’.
By April 1928, Roy had given up hope of recovering Mary’s love and departed England for France. But one month later, Mary arrived with their daughters to try to salvage their marriage. Though Mary was still desperately in love with Sackville-West, the Campbells did manage to recover enough for Roy to dedicate his 1930 poetry collection, Adamastor, to his wife, with the words:
When my spent heart had drummed its own retreat,
You rallied the red squadron of my dreams,
Turning the crimson rout of their defeat
Into a white assault of seraphim
Invincibly arrayed with flashing beams
Against a night of spectres foul and grim.
Though renewed and refreshed in his love for his wife, Campbell felt less forgiving towards Sackville-West and the other members of the Bloomsbury Group. In early 1929 he began plotting his revenge in the form of a long satirical poem, The Georgiad, which he published in 1931.
Here again Sackville-West appears as inspiration for a leading figure in a work of modernist literature, though this time decidedly not as the object of the author’s affections. Her character, Georgiana, is described as follows:
Each titled bawd, born under Venus’ ban,
Too gaunt and bony to attract a man
But proud in love to scavenge what she can,
Among her peers will set some cult in fashion
Where pedantry can masquerade as passion.
Campbell’s sexist and bitter rage is clearly evident in what he himself describes as ‘1200 lines of coarse, swinging doggerel’.
From the heat and ashes of Mary Campbell’s affair with Vita Sackville-West then, was born a number of iconic works of literature.
Sackville-West’s King’s Daughter, Roy Campbell’s Adamastor and The Georgiad, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, together with Laurens van der Post’s In a Province and William Plomer’s Turbott Wolfe provide evidence of the importance of South African-English connections to the development of literary modernism in Bloomsbury and beyond.
The only book missing from these entwined stories of South Africa and Bloomsbury is Solomon Plaatje’s Mhudi. Barred by racial, economic and geographical difference and distance, Plaatje and his novel remain excluded from accounts of modernist history.
But what if we put his book back into this story?
Because it seems to me that without the South African Bloomsberries, we might never have had Virginia Woolf’s Orlando; and, without Bloomsbury, we might never have had the first novel written by a black South African: Solomon Plaatje’s Mhudi.
Alexander, Peter. Roy Campbell: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982)
---. ‘Roy Campbell, William Plomer and the Bloomsbury Group’, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 18.1 (1983), 120-7
Boehmer, Elleke. Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial 1890-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)
Campbell, Roy. Adamastor (London: Faber & Faber, 1930)
---. ‘The Georgiad’, in The Collected Poems of Roy Campbell (London: Bodley Head, 1949), pp. 201–42
---. Light on a Dark Horse: An Autobiography (London: Penguin, 1971)
Couzens, Tim and Stephen Gray. 'Printers' and Other Devils: The Texts of Sol T. Plaatje's Mhudi', Research in African Literatures 9.2 (Autumn 1978), 198-215.
Munslow Ong, Jade. Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: Allegory, Empire and Postcolonial Writing (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018)
Peterson, Bhekizizwe. 'Modernist at Large: The Aesthetics of Native Life in South Africa', in Sol Plaatje's Native Life in South Africa Past and Present, edited by Janet Remmington, Brian Willan and Bhekizizwe Peterson (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2016), 18-36.
Plaatje, Sol T. Mhudi, edited by Tim Couzens (Oxford: Heinemann, 1978)
Plomer, William. Double Lives: An Autobiography (Edinburgh: Jonathan Cape, 1950)
---. Turbott Wolfe (London: Ad Donker, 1980)
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)
Sackville-West, Vita. King's Daughter (London: Hogarth Press, 1929)
Snaith, Anna. 'The Hogarth Press and Networks of Anti-Colonialism', in Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the Hogarth Press, and Networks of Modernism, edited by Helen Southworth (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 103-127.
van der Post, Laurens. In A Province (London: Hogarth Press, 1934)
Willan, Brian. Sol Plaatje: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje 1876-1932 (Cape Town: Jacana Media, 2018)
Woolf, Virginia. A Change of Perspective: Collected Letters III, 1923-28 (London: Hogarth Press, 1977)
---. Orlando (London: Penguin, 2000)
Young, John K. 'William Plomer, Transnational Modernism and the Hogarth Press', in Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the Hogarth Press, and Networks of Modernism, edited by Helen Southworth (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 128-149.
---. The Georgiad: a satirical fantasy [poem]. Roy Campbell Collection ACC 1983. 24. 24 Room B11, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature
Extract from letter from Roy Campbell to William Plomer, received about 10 April 1926, at Entumeni. Roy Campbell Collection ACC 1998. 30. 4. 29 Room B11, Amazwi South African Museum of Literature