BOOK CLUB: Emily Hobhouse

Professor Bill Nasson reviews two fine books on the Boer War campaigner Emily Hobhouse, The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War by Robert Eales, and Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor by Elsabé Brits.

In the early 1970s, the South African Navy acquired a new French submarine which it surprisingly named the SAS Emily Hobhouse. Then, with the coming of a New South Africa in 1994, it was plus la change for the bonsai fleet of Simon’s Town. Liberated from the mud of its symbolic European imperial past, the poor old Emily Hobhouse was renamed to see out the rest of its life as the SAS umKhonto, the Zulu word for assegaai or spear. That was also a little odd. After all, whatever his regal place in national history, it has never been that of Shaka of the Sea.

Emily Hobhouse’s position in South African political history is based largely on the honour and affection with which she has come to be regarded by this country’s Afrikaner people. Equally, the standing of umKhonto weSizwe or MK is based on the rosy view of its admirers of the heroic place which mainland guerrilla fighters occupied in the armoury of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle. While their symbolic association with the navy was bemusingly inappropriate in both instances, you might think no great surprise there, given South Africa’s champion political habit of getting such things wrong.

Trust one lot of its nationalist rulers to brand a warship after an English humanitarian liberal proto-feminist and pacifist. And for their post-apartheid successors to ditch the name of a female human rights campaigner in favour of something more martial-sounding – the thudding boots of goose-stepping irregular warriors. Thinking of the political anointing of Emily Hobhouse and of her subsequent political scuttling brings to mind the unforgettable words of the poet and satirist, Roy Campbell, who in 1928 declared, despairingly, ‘South Africa, renowned far and wide, for politics, and little else beside’. Were she to have lived on miraculously, one cannot but wonder what the remarkable Miss Hobhouse would have made of twentieth-century South Africa in its successive post-1910, post-1948, and post-1994 guises?

Although Emily Hobhouse tried to reform hard-drinking miners in the American west in the 1890s, and journeyed to Germany and Belgium on a peace mission in the thick of the First World War in June 1916, it was in South Africa that she made her name through her exposure of the horrendous conditions in the civilian concentration camps established by the British in their imperial war of 1899-1902 against the defiant republican Boers. It was this unpatriotic trouble-making that landed her in hot water, prompting Joseph Chamberlain, Britain’s Colonial Secretary, to regard her as a wholesale threat to the British Empire, and enraging the British Army’s commander-in-chief in South Africa, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener. A famously confirmed bachelor, he rounded on Hobhouse repeatedly, ordering the deportation from South Africa of ‘that bloody woman’.

Concerned with bringing the courageous and tragic story of Emily Hobhouse back to shimmering life, these two attractive, well-written, and deeply sympathetic books illuminate her turbulent wartime years in South Africa, the country that, as Robert Eales puts it poignantly, ‘would never leave her’. Portraying Hobhouse the radical humanitarian as a blend of Joan of Arc and Florence Nightingale, The Compassionate Englishwoman and Emily Hobhouse are complementary as well as slightly contrasting biographies, as Elsabe Brits also tells the neglected story of her anti-war activities during 1914-18, a stand for which she was damned as treasonous by some British parliamentarians. Hers is the more expansive and rounded of these new volumes.

Robert Eales, a retired South African businessman living in Australia – and, in that sense, a classic ‘gentleman scholar’ – has written a moving account of an indefatigable figure who found herself on the wrong side of history, criss-crossing a war-torn country to investigate, to expose, and to try to alleviate the Boer concentration camp crisis. The author provides a scholarly, well-paced portrait of his heroine, who seethes and spits under the oppressive shadow of her country’s men of war, bearing witness unflinchingly as Britain’s reluctant conscience. His book abounds in its meticulous recording of episodes and thumb-nail sketches of a mixed gallery of characters, including not merely the usual suspects (Milner, Kruger, Roberts, Kitchener), but also Arthur Conan Doyle and Joshua Rowntree.

In telling a soaring story of pioneering feminism, obstinacy, and fearlessness, The Compassionate Englishwoman can also be a little frustrating at times as Dr. Eales is inclined to mull over what cannot actually be known. Thus, on the issue of Hobhouse’s overlooking of conditions in British concentration camps for black refugees, we are told that while we can ‘only speculate’, it may well have ‘troubled her’ on the grounds of what she perhaps ‘suspected’. Ever woken up at night wondering what class of ship cabin Hobhouse used in her travels between Britain and South Africa? No, me neither, but the author tells us anyway – a first-class berth which may possibly not have been her preferred choice.

Translated with flair from Afrikaans by Linde Dietrich, Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor, by the scholarly journalist, Elsabe Brits, is a thickly-researched life story which seeks to weave together this ‘bloody’ woman’s public persona and her – often heartbreaking – personal life. While there is no shortage of sentimentality and a recounting of moral episodes in black-and white values, Emily Hobhouse reproduces much which is captivating, including rare sketches of its subject, photographs of her jewellery and clothing, and her affectionate water-colour paintings of ravaged farmhouses.

Ms Brits is also informative on the more private thoughts, feelings, and dilemmas of this highly-strung and mostly solitary figure, drawing on a rich patchwork of evidence to show that beneath the crust of her immersion ‘in the great issues of the time’, there lurked ‘a vulnerable Emily who yearned to be loved’. This author grasps, as do all good biographers, that snatches of commonplace detail and gentle insight can attract the reader far more than grand theories about constructing life history narratives.

Some readers may be less attracted by the peculiar volume layout and page design which the publisher has hit on for some unfathomable reason – to appeal to adults stuck in early adolescence, perhaps? Emily Hobhouse is a sprawling book, with something of the frantic feel of a school-level ‘show and tell’ compendium. Much of its fascinating and highly informative material is conveyed through boxes, inserts, snippets and high-lighted quotations, jostling amongst squares, circles and triangles coloured green, red, orange, and purple. In some places, the placing of grainy grey images or faded archival text against a dark background hue seems to require a magnifying glass or a flashlight – or even both. In this respect, the gaunt, bony, Victorian story of Emily Hobhouse has not been well-served by its Marvel Comics presentation. Still, who knows, if you like this sort of flash look in books, then this is the sort of look that you will like. But in any event, be sure not to be put off by it, for you would be missing a unique feminine – and feminist – story of resilient idealism and tough realism.

Both of these fine books have a slightly strained tendency to depict Emily Hobhouse as a historical figure ahead of her time, or distinctively modern in her passionate identity as a pacifist, feminist, and campaigner against oppression and injustice. Quite rightly, Emily Hobhouse depicts this with considerable verve and confidence, providing readers with an engrossing picture of a great transformational woman, tilting at the towering windmills of masculinity to the very end of her life. Elsabe Brits is particularly good on the exceptional talents, moral sensibilities and compassionate motivations of this daughter of a Cornish Anglican vicar, arguing for an appreciation of Hobhouse’s significance beyond that of her duties in 1901 for the Women and Children Distress Fund in bringing the scandal of the camps to the attention of the British public.

Highly literary, Emily Hobhouse certainly had a universal air about her, preoccupied as she was with the big ideas of humanity – the meaning of justice, the value of life, the universality of women’s rights, the common right to freedom, the ethical basis of civilisation, and so on. As a liberal humanist, she had a wide reach and her measure of what was right or wrong was largely universal – as Hobhouse asserted to the post-1902 Afrikaners with characteristic bluntness, ‘should not the justice and liberties you love so well, extend to all’ .

At the same time, due account still needs to be taken of the fact that Hobhouse was also a public woman of her historical time. Her strident advocacy of women’s rights and of equal citizenship for men and women reflected her support of the female suffrage movement in Edwardian Britain. Her starchy battles for temperance were rooted in the puritanical middle-class moralising of the Victorian age. Arguably most importantly, when it came to British imperialism, Hobhouse was always more a critic of empire than an anti-imperialist. Inescapably, a patrician woman of empire, despite her fervent sympathy with the suffering of the Boer people, she never disowned the empire that had caused it. For Hobhouse, Britain’s failure in the 1899-1902 war was that of having fallen short of its lofty ideals of civilisation, justice and humanity.

Indeed, her famous 1913 speech to an Afrikaner audience at the unveiling of the commemorative Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein was studded with references to the British and their high imperial mission, for all that it had gone astray in its recent shameful handling of affairs in South Africa. In her otherwise admirably acute and sensitive chapter on these proceedings, Elsabe Brits rather glosses over this theme in favour of underlining again Hobhouse’s cry of recognition of what Boer women had endured, as ‘they gave themselves, not borne on by the excitement and joy of active battle, as men do; but passively, with open eyes, in the long-drawn agony of painful months and days…the brave South African women… affirmed for all times and for all peoples the power of Woman to sacrifice life and more than life for the common weal’.

Nonetheless, Emily Hobhouse never loses sight of its subject’s radical liberalism, reminding us of her dawning disillusion with the nature of the Afrikaner political recovery which followed military defeat in 1902, and of her conclusion shortly before her death in 1926 that South Africa’s segregation was “the wrong policy and one which can only lead to discontent and ultimate disaster”. In Bloemfontein 13 years earlier, her speech had warned that rapacious capitalism and national pride was all too often accompanied by a deterioration of national character. How more prophetic could Emily Hobhouse possibly have been? The history of that French submarine is surely some proof. Winston Churchill once described South Africa as a land of lies. It is also, truly, a land of ironies. Remembering her in the name of a town in the Eastern Free State is one thing. Naming a Daphne class submarine after an unshakeable pacifist is quite another.

The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War is published by UCT Press. Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor is published by Tafelberg. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, published in 2016 by Penguin.

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