SOUTH AFRICAN ODYSSEY: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BERTHA GOUDVIS / Edited by Marcia Leveson / Picador Africa
(originally published the Words,etc literary journal 2011/12)
The life of Bertha Goudvis and, indeed, her writings, were a sort of strange cultivar of old-world charm and wit in the same vein as Dorothy Parker, Zelig-like interactions with historical figures and events, all wrapped up in a page-turning Indiana Jones-style adventure.
As a multi-talented woman before her time, Goudvis’ observations through her journalism, short stories and theatrical writing offered a vibrant take on the chronology of a period of history, the late 19th and early 20th century South Africa, that has never been fully explored beyond the usual political history books, with particular insight into the lives of both ordinary and well known citizens from within South African society of the day.
Leveson’s meticulously researched compilation of Goudvis’ life and writing is glowing tribute to her importance in South African literature, along with not only fellow women writers such as Olive Schreiner, but also with more lauded capturers of Africana like Herman Charles Bosman.
Born Bertha Cinamon, in England in 1876, this prodigious talent found herself in the new world of Southern Africa, as her father, an ill-fated inventor, explored his opportunities among the gold rush towns of the Northern Transvaal, particularly Barberton. Here, the young Bertha discovered and documented the lives and peculiarities of ordinary townsfolk, which were both humourous and poignant.
Being both a Jew and foreigner, living amongst the hardened Afrikaner working class and acclimatised English middle class, Bertha was able to distance herself in her observations of their daily lives, yet at the same time, accurately portray their psychologies and stories honestly and affectionately. Bertha’s first published journalism was for the London Daily Graphic at aged 19, covering the Matabele Rebellion during her family’s stay in Bulawayo.
At 21, Bertha married Lucas Goudvis, and lived in Rhodesia, where, as a journalist, came into contact with well-known political and influential figures of the day, such as Cecil John Rhodes. The couple also spent their early years managing a hotel in Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, where she met, and wrote about, exiled South African President Paul Kruger.
Bertha settled in Vryheid, Natal, becoming a fulltime writer for The Natal Mercury. She later worked for the Johannesburg Star newspaper and developed her fiction writing, most notably her novel Little Eden, and an acclaimed collection of short stories based on her experiences growing up in small town Southern Africa. Bertha also wrote several dramatic plays. Her work as a columnist enabled her to meet and write about political luminaries of the Post-Boer War period, generals like Herzog and Louis Botha, as well as Jan Smuts, whose South African Party ignited her own political awareness, causing her to partake in this progressive (for the day) party’s enfranchisement policies for non-white citizens and women.
Bertha’s writing is generously filled with scenery details and minutia of the period and place, rendered with eloquent language and imaginative prose, that makes for an entertaining read on its own. Add to this the overall intrigue of the socio-political changes happening around the people and events across the new frontier of Southern Africa, Bertha Goudvis could be pleasantly mistaken for being a proponent of proto-New Journalism, before the concept was even created.
The book is a riveting collection for history buffs and readers looking for greater insight into what South African society and culture were like during the turn of the last century, through the eyes of a feminist before her time, but more importantly, an, until now, undiscovered literary great.