An extract from the book by Elsabé Brits.
Towards the end of 1909 Emily saw a doctor in London after she had been forced to cancel several “suffrage” appointments for speeches under the banner of the PSF. The doctor’s diagnosis was that her heart did not function properly, and that she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis (which she knew already). Moreover, she felt “horribly fat and bloated”, while she had never been overweight in her life.
Alice Greene, an old friend from South Africa, visited her in London and was shocked to see how weak Emily was. “She is just very ill and very lonely and no wonder. She has broken down her health for the sake of others and I doubt whether there is one person both able and willing to help …”
Regarding her “poor heart”, Emily remarked to Smuts: “I think South Africa would be found stamped on it for South Africa wore it out. Nevertheless one often loves the very thing that kills.”
Emily returned to Italy with great reluctance, as she yearned to participate in the British women’s fight for political rights. A year later, in November 1910, Emily was also absent when the prime minister, Herbert Asquith, received a delegation from the PSF. It was a decisive event; shortly afterwards, Asquith announced that the franchise would be extended to all men while it was also being contemplated for women, as proposed in the Conciliation Bill of 1910.
Earlier that same year, on 31 May, South Africa had officially become a Union, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. Louis Botha became the Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture; Jacobus Sauer of Uitkijk the Minister of Railways and Harbours; Jan Smuts the Minister of Interior Affairs, Mines and Industry, and Defence, and JBM Hertzog the Minister of Justice – all people whom Emily knew. Jaap de Villiers was appointed Judge President of the Transvaal division of the Supreme Court. As a result of the death of King Edward VII on 6 May, however, festivities had been muted.
From her sofa, Emily wrote to Smuts in pencil to congratulate him on the fact that the “first act of your Union Cabinet was one of justice towards Dinizulu”. Dinuzulu, a son of King Cetshwayo, had been captured by the English in 1890 and exiled to the island of St Helena for seven years on account of an armed rebellion against the British annexation of a part of Zululand. Nearly a decade later, Dinuzulu was charged with fomenting the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906. He was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. After Botha became prime minister of the Union, he ordered that Dinuzulu be released and allowed to live on his farm Uitkyk in the Transvaal.
Emily also seized the opportunity to convey a pacifist message to the new Minister of Defence. “Well, dear Oom Jannie, mark my words – you will defend your country best by not defending it.” She warned him against having a standing defence force, as it was an evil.
Always attuned to health and a frugal lifestyle, and old-fashioned in some respects, she urged Smuts not to use his new official motor car but to rather stick to his horse. Horse riding kept a man healthy. He should get the children ponies to ride on. In crowded Europe, motors had become “a pest of noise, dirt, danger and smell”.
He should also listen to Parliament, which was the voice of the people through its representatives, and guard against becoming an autocrat or “a Czar”. She reminded him that “we, the people, we democrats, want to have a say in matters concerning ourselves …”
She was beginning to wish, she wrote, that not merely kings but also ministers could be done away with, as it seemed to her that cabinets were “hotbeds of mischief manured by ambition”. She held cabinets responsible for “endless evil and little good, and I believe the secrecy appertaining to their counsels is the root of the evil”.
A letter from Smuts in which he had referred to politics as “worldly” and a “sorry business” upset her so much that Emily reprimanded him angrily. Politics was in such a sorry state “because you men let it be and because you won’t or don’t lift it out of the rut”.
“That has been from the beginning of history the fault with men’s management of politics and public affairs – and I look above all to the entrance of women into politics to purify them and lift them to a higher level. Secrecy is one of the first things to get rid of …
“Oh! It makes me mad to think what great issues lie in the hands of a few stupid and obstinate men!”
She expressed the hope to Smuts that they in South Africa “will be wise and firm and keep yourselves to yourselves and not have any standing army or any battleships – for these things are the beginning of all Evil”.
“The next thing is you want an opportunity to use them …”
In the autumn of 1911 Emily was in Florence, Italy, where she hoped to find a cure for her health condition. But, as one could expect from an art lover, she first visited the museums, including the Palazzo Piti where, ironically, she was overwhelmed by Sandro Botticelli’s painting of Minerva – the goddess of wisdom, but who was usually depicted holding the weapons of war with which she had come into life.
In Botticelli’s painting the barefooted Minerva stands one step higher than the centaur next to her, whose long hair she has in a firm grip. He looks sad and submissive. A wreath of entwined olive branches on her head resembles a halo, while a mesh of olive shoots encircles parts of her upper body and her partially revealed breasts; in her other hand she holds a halberd, her ginger-brown hair falling in loose waves over her shoulders.
“I think it the most beautiful female figure in the world,” an enraptured Emily wrote to her nephew Oliver, now a student at Oxford. In Florence, Emily went to see a Doctor Carloni who had apparently developed a special treatment for people with heart disease; she had heard it had been wonderfully successful in some cases.After the first examination he found that she had overexerted herself mentally and physically, and that her heart was enlarged (which she knew already). She had to learn to sit still “and possess my soul in patience”.
Carloni made use of electric pumps, breathing apparatus, diets and other methods to treat his patients. Among others, they had to breathe in iodine through a device he had built.
Emily also had to lie in a bath of carbolic acid, which worked “wonders” for her.
Within two months she felt like a new person; her cheeks were “as rosy as a Dutch doll’s”, and she had regained her slim figure. She was especially pleased about this, as she set great store by her appearance.
After five months in Florence she decided to return to Rome. She had been in the Valley of the Shadow of Death but life had suddenly broken through again within her, she wrote to Tibbie Steyn. For the rest of her life she would keep to the advice she had been given in Florence by the Italian doctor – small portions of food, a diet of eggs, cheese, lots of vegetables and fruit, as well as bread and other starchy food. She almost never ate meat or fish again, except for occasional pieces of biltong from South Africa.
But the doctor had to be paid, and Emily was struggling to make ends meet; she lived mainly on the proceeds from her small investment and the rental of her house in Bellevue. The only person she felt she knew well enough to approach in this regard was Smuts. It could not have been easy for the proud Emily, but nonetheless she requested a loan of £50, which she would repay at six per cent interest.
Smuts sent her £100 – along with the remark that he considered Carloni a quack.
“Dear, dear Oom Jannie, What am I to say? What am I to do? Your generosity is so overwhelming …”
But she stood by her doctor, saying she had personally seen him cure asthma sufferers “like magic”.
In November 1912 Emily was back in Rome, where she saw Tibbie and her husband ex-President MT Steyn from time to time. Six years earlier Steyn had already conceived the idea of erecting a memorial of some kind for the women and children who had died in the Anglo-Boer War. A monument committee was established and various cultural organisations, churches and political parties were mobilised to raise funds and create enthusiasm for the cause. Hundreds of collection lists were distributed throughout South Africa for this purpose. Emily sent the small amount Tibbie had donated to her for her medical costs to the committee that raised funds for the envisaged monument.
Emily Hobhouse: Beloved Traitor is published by Tafelberg. Read the review here.