Pure duty – An irony of history

Jan Smuts in September 1919 was returning for the first time to the area he had raided eighteen years before when fighting for the Boer republic. He wrote to Issie, his wife, telling her that ‘Now I go there to ask them to let the republic go. That is the irony of history, apparently contradictory; and yet both are in the way of pure duty. But people do not easily understand such choices.’

How do leaders of all kinds convince their followers that circumstances and situations have changed, requiring a different approach? Unfortunately, Smuts doesn’t give any suggestions and judging by the fact that he lost the election in 1924, he wasn’t very successful in his attempts. 

I can’t help but recollect when thinking about human behaviour and change that Marthe Kiley-Worthington believes it takes two generations of elephants for them to overcome the effects of a traumatic experience. Is it the same for humans? Or are we more selective in our forgetting? How is it that many of the youth in South Africa today have little or no recollection of the struggles their parents went through in the ending of Apartheid? As far back as 2003 when teaching A level students in the UK about the Cold War etc, none of my students from Eastern Europe had any idea of life before 1991 – did their parents purposefully not share what they had been through?

This contrasts with friends across the globe who have come through the tail end of civil upheavals – comparing notes is fascinating and insightful. Yet our reactions and responses can be quite different to those of our parents’ generation. Some have struggled to make the transition to a more free and equal society while others have embraced the new world, with all variations in between. And yet, despite all this wealth of experience and first hand knowledge, we don’t always see (or want to see) the warning signs of society and countries getting themselves into similar twists… this strange amalgamation of past, present and future seem to play a part in how we respond to being warned of changed and changing circumstances. 

Bringing about lasting change is a slow process which many experts have written about. Yet, it still seems that a catalyst is needed to jolt us (some at any rate) to action. I wonder how elephants work through the process of overcoming the trauma their ancestors experienced?

Mrs Smuts opens windows

It’s generally Jan Smuts who is regarded as a farmer and botanist outside of his political and military reputation. However, working through There was a Man: the life and times of Sir Alfred Theiler by T Gutsche (1976), it was reinforced just how much Mrs Smuts did behind the scenes. In similar fashion to the women further north (Karen Blixen et al) when the menfolk went off to war, it was the women who stayed to look after the farm and keep it operational.

But Issie Smuts was more than just a farmer’s wife. In addition to her studies when she and Jan met, she ensured she stayed up to date with scientific farming methods being aware of what Alfred Theiler and others at Onderstepoort (veterinary laboratories) were doing. When Alfred made a donation of his herbarium on the occasion of his being awarded the first ever Scott Memorial Medal for Science, it was Issie who thanked him and drew attention to all he had accomplished during his 25 years in South Africa and especially during the 1914-1918 war years to assist South Africa’s farmers in combatting animal diseases despite the challenges put in place by the war. (His son, Max Theiler was to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1951 for his development of a vaccine to combat Yellow Fever. Max had served as a ‘veterinary dresser’ in the East Africa campaign from 1917-1918).

While Issie was not a practising botanist, she was recognised for her knowledge of plantlife, there were various other women who were professional botanists or mycologists at the time. These included:

Ethel Doige – she was the first woman in South Africa to obtain a doctorate in any subject and was awarded the Scott Memorial Medal in 1920
Louisa Bolus – curator of the Cape Town Herbarium from 1903
Mary Thompson – married IB Pole Evans in 1922 and moved to Irene to be near Issie and Jan. She then published under her married name.
While various others seemed to contribute to the study of fungi.

It appears that although the first two Scott Memorial Medals were awarded to men (Alfred Theiler and Illtyd Buller Pole Evans), they had no issue employing or working with women, Ethel Doige being the third recipient of said medal.

Although not a botanist, the name of Dr Jane Ruthven popped up in connection with giving evidence to the 1918 commission which sought to discover how the South African government had not contained the Spanish flu, thereby allowing 150,000 deaths (excluding figures from Transkei)

A book for Ouma Smuts

HJ Wolstenholme, Smuts’ Cambridge friend, wrote to him in April 1906 including a book he thought Mrs Smuts might enjoy – the Life of Mrs Lynn Linton. Unfortunately he didn’t say who the author was but he indicated he’d bought the book as a ‘cheap remainder’ it having been published a few years before.

My curiosity was piqued. Who was Mrs Linton that Wolstenholme was recommending Ouma read? Thanks to the digitisation of old books, below are some relevant links.

Mrs Lynn Linton: her life, letters and opinions by George Somes Layard (1901)
Chapter 5 in Literary Celebrities of the English Lake District by Frederick Sessions
My Literary Life by Elizabeth Lynn Linton

For a brief overview, read on:

Elizabeth Lynn Linton was born in 1822 and died in 1898. She was born and buried at Crosthwaithe, Keswick, the daughter of a vicar. She was one of 12 children, their mother having died when Elizbeth was five months old. Her oldest sibling, a brother, was 16 when she was born.

At the age of 23 she went to London where she joined the Morning Chronicle becoming the first woman employed by a newspaper to draw a salary. After two years she visited Italy and then lived in Paris working for another newspaper. She was known to Charles Dickens who introduced her to other literary figures of the day. She sold Gad’s Hill in Kent [now a museum] to Dickens, a place he had loved since childhood.

She married in 1858, the artist WJ Linton. He already had 6 children. They split soon after, she finding country life tedious and WJ not enjoying city life. He moved to the USA and she remained in London.

In 1873 she anonymously published the True History of Joshua Davidson, Communist. She claimed she was the closest friend Davidison had and felt the record needed to be put straight.

In 1898 at the age of 76, nearly blind, she died. During her life she wrote about 40 novels, and a range of articles including “Are good women characterless” and “Wild women: as politicians” (titles which caught my eye).

On religion, she wrote: “We are all, all, all His children, and He does not speak to us apart, but to us all in our own language, equally according to our age – that is our knowledge and civilization. To Him I live, and in Him I believe, but all the rest is dark” (Sessions, p55)

On feminism: “At all events, the phase of women’s rights has to be worked through to its ultimate. If found impracticable, delusive, subversive, in the working, it will have to be put down again. It is all a question of power, both in the getting and in the using.” (Ourselves in Sessions, p56)

And of her books, Frederick Sessions notes that the ‘topsy turveyest book that ever was written is Mrs Linton’s Christopher Kirkland (book) which her biographer takes as autobiographical although she swopped the genders of her characters.

There is clearly much more to this woman than meets the eye and one day I might have time to revisit her in more detail. But what is intriguing is that Wolstenholme believes that Issy Smuts will enjoy the book. There are some clear overlaps but also differences. Ouma was intelligent and educated at university which is where she met Smuts, Elizabeth had little formal education but was clearly an intelligent woman. Both ignored the fads of the day and both knew their mind. They were also supported by the men in their lives (Issie by Smuts and Elizabeth by her father and colleagues).

And her apparent anti-feminst stance makes me think of the other female author with a southern African connection: Doris Lessing. All three powerful individuals who in their own way have influenced the world we know today.