John Conyngham on Pauline Smith, The Beadle

A Rare Veld-flower

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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

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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.

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