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  • Writer's pictureJade Munslow Ong

Two Articles by Andrew van der Vlies

Project Co-Investigator, Professor Andrew van der Vlies, has recently published two articles related to the South African Modernism 1880-2020 project. Links and abstracts below:

In May 1917, two South African feminist friends and critics of empire then in London sent a telegram to Field Marshal Jan Smuts, the Union of South Africa’s Defence Minister and delegate to the Imperial War Cabinet, in response to his early proposal for a Commonwealth of Nations. It read simply: “Your speech was fine”. Whether intended sincerely (as in “very fine”) or as faint praise (“fine as far as it goes, but”) is not known, but the ambiguity is fitting for an association and description with such contested associations – and one that, by some accounts, originated in the colonies (from an idea proposed by Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and South Africa’s then-Prime Minister J. B. M. Hertzog). It is fitting, too, that one of the cable’s authors was Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), leading novelist of the “New Woman”, advocate of sex equality, and clear-sighted critic of empire’s presumptions, rapacious designs, and gendered and ethnic biases, as well as of the race politics taking shape in South Africa at the start of the twentieth century. Even as we read Schreiner’s work today with an eye to its own prejudices and contradictions, this essay contends that it is worth considering the value of the proleptic critique it embodies for an understanding of the ongoing limitations — but also use-value — of the term “Commonwealth”, as well as of any term that might replace it. The outlines of Schreiner’s critique suggest that the term might yet encode a counter-ideal that points to an ongoing latent potential for the common to be reactivated as promise of a more equal and just division of empire’s spoils.

This essay examines two South African responses to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925): Fiona Melrose’s  Johannesburg (2017), and Karel  Schoeman’s Die noorderlig (published in Afrikaans in 1975). Melrose’s novel  patterns  character and plot directly on Woolf’s with allusions to her biography  and to other reworkings of the text. Schoeman’s  performs a less obvious  homage to Mrs Dalloway in its exploration of the tensions between politics  and poetics and  formal engagement with the demands of experimentation  and realism. The essay assesses these different modes of  response, points  to Woolf’s influence beyond the anglophone literary world, and positions Schoeman’s work (in  particular) as deserving greater attention from those  speaking –and writing about–English (and its inheritances) in  South Africa.

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