Header overlay
John Conyngham on Pauline Smith, The Beadle

A Rare Veld-flower

Share this

If a case could be made that writers look like their work, then Pauline Smith would be a good example. In her girlhood and youth there was about her a refinement of feature that recalls, at a stretch, the young Audrey Hepburn. And as anyone familiar with her writing will attest, there is about Smith’s subject-matter and her use of language the hallmark of a particularly refined sensibility. Add to this the longing for a lost landscape and a much-loved father with whom she first encountered it, and one has a rich humus in which fiction can germinate. But because the terrain with which she worked was dry and dusty, and because of her innate reticence and fragility, the stories that grew from her imagination were not luxuriant and convoluted but as delicate and precise as the most accomplished needlework.

Smith’s landscape is the Little Karoo, an area of the Cape Province adjoining the town of Oudtshoorn and immediately south of the Swartberg range. Like the harsher Great Karoo to its north, the Little Karoo is characterized by small, flat-topped hills and sparse, semi-desert vegetation, but unlike its larger neighbour, which has been used imaginatively by a number of writers, in the topography of South African literature in English it is effectively Smith’s preserve.

Her characters are Afrikaners, white Africans of Dutch and French-Huguenot descent, whom she first met as a girl when she accompanied her doctor father by horse and cart on his house-calls to isolated farms. Poor, often illiterate, with a deep love of the soil, and with a steadfast faith in the prophetic truth of the Bible, the men and women in Smith’s work are made to transcend the constraints of their circumscribed lives and to assume roles of universal significance.

I first made my acquaintance with The Beadle (1926), Smith’s only novel, in 1981 when for a few months I was a stand-in English teacher at Maritzburg College, Alan Paton’s old school in Pietermaritzburg. I had just completed my two years of national service in the South African Army, and in the world of Victorian red-brick and jacarandas and boaters in which I unexpectedly found myself I was barely a half-step ahead of my charges.

The three works that I was required to teach were Smith’s The Beadle, James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Needless to say, none of the books was devoured by the sons of Pietermaritzbur

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

If a case could be made that writers look like their work, then Pauline Smith would be a good example. In her girlhood and youth there was about her a refinement of feature that recalls, at a stretch, the young Audrey Hepburn. And as anyone familiar with her writing will attest, there is about Smith’s subject-matter and her use of language the hallmark of a particularly refined sensibility. Add to this the longing for a lost landscape and a much-loved father with whom she first encountered it, and one has a rich humus in which fiction can germinate. But because the terrain with which she worked was dry and dusty, and because of her innate reticence and fragility, the stories that grew from her imagination were not luxuriant and convoluted but as delicate and precise as the most accomplished needlework.

Smith’s landscape is the Little Karoo, an area of the Cape Province adjoining the town of Oudtshoorn and immediately south of the Swartberg range. Like the harsher Great Karoo to its north, the Little Karoo is characterized by small, flat-topped hills and sparse, semi-desert vegetation, but unlike its larger neighbour, which has been used imaginatively by a number of writers, in the topography of South African literature in English it is effectively Smith’s preserve. Her characters are Afrikaners, white Africans of Dutch and French-Huguenot descent, whom she first met as a girl when she accompanied her doctor father by horse and cart on his house-calls to isolated farms. Poor, often illiterate, with a deep love of the soil, and with a steadfast faith in the prophetic truth of the Bible, the men and women in Smith’s work are made to transcend the constraints of their circumscribed lives and to assume roles of universal significance. I first made my acquaintance with The Beadle (1926), Smith’s only novel, in 1981 when for a few months I was a stand-in English teacher at Maritzburg College, Alan Paton’s old school in Pietermaritzburg. I had just completed my two years of national service in the South African Army, and in the world of Victorian red-brick and jacarandas and boaters in which I unexpectedly found myself I was barely a half-step ahead of my charges. The three works that I was required to teach were Smith’s The Beadle, James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout and George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Needless to say, none of the books was devoured by the sons of Pietermaritzburg civil servants and Ixopo dairy farmers, for whom the tribal rumbustiousness of rugby held far greater attraction than the more private pleasures of literature. But as I ineptly led them through the texts so I detected in some instances a gradual thaw in their resistance. While to them Eliot remained irredeemably alien and leaden, Marshall’s account of two young white Australians, lost in the Outback, being rescued by an Aboriginal boy struck chords of a colonial kind. But as we progressed through The Beadle, it became clear that even the prop forwards seemed slowly to be succumbing to the spell of the lyrical story of Andrina, an orphaned girl of great innocence, being prepared for her Sacrament – or, as the boys would have understood it, Confirmation. That Andrina is young and beautiful must have helped. That her deceased mother too had been beautiful and had had a child out of wedlock must, in their adolescent world, have helped too. And the simple Afrikaners in the Aangenaam Valley, including the enigmatic Aalst Vlokman, whose role as a minor church official gives the novel its name, would have seemed authentic enough, even if the midlands of Natal with its predominant ethnic mix of indigenous Zulus and English and Asian settlers is largely without explicit examples of their kind. And of the old Jewish woman who owned the store in the valley they had echoes in several Jewish families who traded in Pietermaritzburg. But it was as Henry Nind, the charming young Englishman who comes to convalesce in the valley and who steals Andrina’s heart, that the philistines in the desks in front of me must secretly have imagined themselves. What helps underpin The Beadle is the wistful reverence with which Smith, having years earlier relocated to Britain, describes the landscape and the people of the Little Karoo. In this respect it is a fictional precursor of Out of Africa, for, like Smith, Karen Blixen in distant Denmark was wringing from her memories a lost and much-loved African world in which her most memorable years had been spent. But as so often happens with artists for whom the creative process is an agony, Smith was racked with doubt about the merit of her work, and it was in this regard that Arnold Bennett played such a pivotal, nurturing role. Convinced of her singularity, he buttressed and urged her through her uncertainties, and he must take some credit for the three slim works that constitute her canon: Platkop’s Children and The Little Karoo, two collections of stories, and The Beadle. Not long before her death in January 1959, twenty-five South African writers – among them Nadine Gordimer, Guy Butler, Dan Jacobson, Alan Paton, Uys Krige, William Plomer and Laurens van der Post – signed for Smith an illuminated scroll. Written by Plomer, it read:

We South African writers in English and Afrikaans have felt moved to join our names together in offering you a tribute of our admiration. We wish to assure you of the respect and affection in which your name and work are held by us and by other South African readers. We feel that by the delicacy, tenderness and precision with which you have written of South African ways of life you have transcended the barriers of race and language and have made essential humanity real.

When the tribute was delivered to her by Plomer and fellow South African poet Roy Macnab, Smith was living with her widowed sister in Broadstone, Dorset. She was poor and ill, and her physical and mental powers were failing, but both men noted how moved she was by the affirmation of her life’s work. And the visit reminded Plomer, as he wrote later, ‘that the flowering of her talent had been brief and beautiful, like that of some rare veld-flower’.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 30 © John Conyngham 2011


About the contributor

John Conyngham had written three novels by the time he was appointed editor of a daily newspaper in 1994. Nearly sixteen years later he has stepped down from his post and hopes to rekindle his relationship with literature.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.