BOOK CLUB: History Matters

A richly varied and highly entertaining new collection of pieces by Bill Nasson showcases the breadth, consistency and versatility of one of our leading historians, writes ALEXANDER MATTHEWS.

History Matters

I must confess to approaching this review with more than a little trepidation. It’s not just that (for reasons that should soon become apparent) I think Bill Nasson is one of finest historians working in South Africa today. It’s also because writing about his writing is rather close to home. Literally. Nasson lives a few blocks away from my parents; in my teenage years I’d often see him pass by on his bike or walking his dogs.

More recently, he’s become a dear friend – and, ever since its founding, one of AERODROME’s staunchest supporters. Over the past four years it’s been a great pleasure to publish on this site a number of book reviews he’s written – several of which appear in History Matters, a wondrous compilation of his writings stretching back to 1970. In this tasty smorgasbord, we see the depth, length and breadth of his writing – and both his versatility and consistency. The book is helpfully grouped into different sections such as book reviews, social histories, and the world wars, which means you can snack on whatever takes your fancy, in whichever order you choose.

Nasson’s love of writing, of ideas, of stories shine through all of these pieces. In A Historical Education, the book’s first section, we get a sense of how this love might have been conceived – or at the very least nurtured. Here we encounter the “highly cultured” teachers of Livingstone High in Cape Town’s southern suburbs – most notably, the “super-legendary” deputy principal R.O. Dudley (to whom the book is dedicated). Dudley was an avowed and widely respected opponent of apartheid who was also “wholly contemptuous of any idea of ethnic identity and who never tired of being mockingly disdainful of political populism”. In his 2010 obit after the great man’s passing, Nasson recalls how his “pupils were taught to think critically and widely, and not to see learning as a matter of absorbing this or that school subject”. Dudley went way beyond his remit as a chemistry teacher. He would host secular assemblies as alternative to the school’s scripture-based ones – where students “could gather for Bertrand Russell rather St Paul”. And, in the classroom, Nasson writes that, “what he provided was a historical education that was at the same time an inculcation of political thinking” – always able “to ease the misery of being unable to fathom the periodic table of elements” by offering titbits of metaphysical English poetry or disquisitions on “the deformities of Stalinist Russia”.

At a time when the vital contributions of many non-ANC activists are being airbrushed out of history by the ruling party’s aggressive mythologising, these pages offer a trenchant reminder of the richly diverse and sometimes fiercely intellectual strains that formed part of the struggle against apartheid. The recollections also go a long way in describing the hothouse in which Nasson’s independent, critical thinking and wide-ranging curiosity began to blossom.

The golden thread weaving together all of History Matters’ pieces are Nasson’s beautiful writing, his eye for detail and for the absurd, and a wry, incisive humour – which is directed at himself as often as it is towards others. He shows a deep respect for his readers and for the subjects he tackles; he is witty without being blasé or flippant, critical without being needlessly cruel.

Whether discussing a Ford factory town deep in the jungle, or a history of mail or maps, his book reviews always manage to make the topics in question entertaining. Whether or not you ever end up reading the books he reviews, his pieces about them are still very much worth your time because of their flair, humour and deft engagement with the text he’s reviewing.

Nasson is no reductionist; he knows there are many shades between the starkness of black and white. He is capable of showing contempt for the “detestable” imperialist Rudyard Kipling – while being an Anglophile who grew up on English comics and studied at the universities of Hull, York and Cambridge. Time and time again you see his appreciation for nuance, complexity and paradox – a sensibility that in the age of “no-platforming” seems very much in short supply.

One such paradox we encounter is how an imperial Britain, which had yoked vast swathes of the world under the Union Jack, was, in the opening phase of the Second World War, almost singlehandedly fighting fascism and Nazism – and thereby alone in defending ideas such as equality before the law, parliamentary democracy and free speech. Even more of a paradox, perhaps, was the idea that an Afrikaans man – with the infamous surname of Malan no less – might be one of that country’s saviours. In Nasson’s utterly engrossing history of A.G. ‘Sailor’ Malan, we witness his dizzying trajectory as an accomplished fighter ace, one of ‘the few’ that fought in the skies over England in 1940. We see how this Afrikaner, upon return to South Africa after the war, would take up the fight for non-racialism in South Africa – a battle in which he was much less successful.

Although he’s spent his entire career in academia, Nasson is that rare thing: an academic who looks beyond theories to appreciate the humanity, the emotional and social core of history. His writing crackles with intelligence but never descends into the dry, jargon-laded prose so often associated with his peers – he’s never highfalutin, never speaking over his audience; he’s conversational, eloquently weaving anecdote and argument into a rich tapestry. With clarity and crispness both hallmarks of his own writing, it’s no wonder that he includes among his favourite quotes at the end of the book, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “What can be said at all, can be said clearly”. His lampooning of the epidemic of academic jargon in a satirical column, in the now-defunct Southern African Review of Books, is particularly delicious – and as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1993. “Leading cultural spokespersons,” he wrote, “are to be applauded for keeping minds alive and fixed on ‘interstices’,‘textualities’, ‘signifiers’ and ‘mediations’ during a period when so many institutions are burdened by the practical challenges of development and change on the African continent.”

Nasson recognises that history is not merely about great men — the generals, the kings, the prime ministers — but about the ordinary folk enduring extraordinary times. As he takes us from District Six to the battlefields of the Boer War, it’s clear that he sees it his duty as an historian to shine a light on some of these. Among the most fascinating is his account of Abraham Esau – a Calvinia-based blacksmith. Like many other coloureds in the area, Esau was an English-speaking Anglican with “a passionate attachment to the lukewarm liberalism of the Cape Colony’s 1853 non-racial franchise”. During the Anglo Boer War at the turn of the Twentieth Century, he assembled “a motley band” to challenge incursions by Boer forces in Namaqualand, though his pleas to the local magistrate for arms was rejected (due to the belief that giving “guns to coloured civilians would lead to ‘mischief’”). After the Boers took control of the area, Esau was brutally interrogated and shot, becoming “a martyr of Cape liberal political culture” that would be remembered as a hero through the stories and folklore of local coloured communities for decades to come.

My absolute favourite piece is Nasson’s minutely and hilariously observed account of being a historical consultant for a movie, The Deal – when Hollywood came to “Cape Town, its beloved cheaper version of California, where the extras are not led astray by pesky unions or minimum wage rules”. It is these poor extras who get as much (in fact, probably more) page time as the movie’s stars, William H. Macy and Meg Ryan. Hired to appear in a Victorian-era House of Commons scene, “these shuffling MPs were shepherded about in bullying fashion by a young, abrasive crew member dubbed ‘Sony’ who took relish in informing anyone within earshot, ‘Fuck man, I’m so sweet’.”  In addition to being tasked with writing the script of this particular scene, Nasson is also roped in to star as a speaker of the house. Before the cameras start rolling, he advises on the removal of historically inaccurate items from the makeshift set, including ball point pens, digital watches and too-modern spectacles – so that “extras faced a fuzzy House of Commons”.

Given how difficult I find the craft of writing, I’ve always rather envied Nasson’s seemingly effortless style – he makes putting words on a page seem so easy and assured. But even he is, at times, at a loss for words. The book’s most poignant piece, After the book-burning, begins with a few paragraphs describing a call in December 2010 from his department head who told him that the history building at Stellenbosch University (where Nasson is a distinguished professor) was on fire.

These paragraphs form an essay Nasson has never completed. As much as he has wanted “to express the meaning of loss”, he has never been able to. If only it were possible to get sentences to run as freely as fire does,” he reflects in the explanatory text below. The blaze consumed 3000 of his books (including a Shelley biography he received in 1969 as an English school prize), films, journals, papers, research material and more – all which “remains unforgettable as much as irreplaceable”. On the facing page are two images showing “what happens to paper (and much else besides) when the temperature reaches Fahrenheit 451”. He leaves it at that, inviting us to draw our own, devastating conclusions.

In one piece, Nasson worries that “the country’s professional history writers have largely withdrawn from any common conversation with an everyday audience. In an exchange of numbingly dry products or fields, historians write for each other, no longer trading a literary craft or good writing.” For history books to regain relevance and readership amongst ordinary people, he argues that “historical scholarship needs to dip into the ancestral richness of literary narrative so that it, too, cultivates the classic idioms of human experience like irony, malice and calamity. South Africa’s divided past surely has more than its fair share of those. And, in illuminating its complexities, the power of history can challenge the more unreasoning forces which stalk the posturing present”.

And so, history, he compellingly argues, should be something that enthrals and entertains as much as it should inform.  Collectively these writings show why history really does matter and why it matters that it is written well. They remind us that there are many histories; not a single narrative – as Chimamanda Adichie has warned us in another context, we should be deeply distrustful of the single story. History Matters shows us that often the footnotes are just as fascinating and important as the biggest stories and characters of the age. It reminds us that the better we know our history, the better we know ourselves – and that a thorough understanding of our past gives us a solid foundation on which to build our future.

It’s no exaggeration to think of Nasson as a something of a George Orwell for our time and place: clear-sighted, iconoclastic (and occasionally caustic), not easily seduced by dogma; and both a lover and purveyor of good, clear and important writing that stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page. I’m not saying I’m not biased – but if you read History Matters I’m confident you’ll agree.

History Matters is published by Penguin.

EXTRACT: Emily Hobhouse – Beloved Traitor

An extract from the book by Elsabé Brits.
Elsabe 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”.Emily Hobhouse

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.

EXTRACT: The Compassionate Englishwoman

An excerpt from the book by Robert Eales.
Robert Eales

The camp was about three kilometres from Bloemfontein town on the slope of a bare hill. When Emily arrived, it contained about 2,000 residents of whom about 900 were children. She does not offer a concise description of the camp. Instead she told Lady Hobhouse about her first visit in a letter dated 26 January 1901:

It was about four o’clock of a scorching afternoon when I set
foot in the camp and I can’t tell you what I felt like so I won’t
try.

I began by finding a woman whose sister I had met in
Cape Town. … Imagine the heat inside the tents and the
suffocation! We sat on their khaki blankets rolled up inside
Mrs Botha’s tent and the sun blazed through the single canvas
and the flies lay thick and black on everything – no chair, no
table, nor any room for such, only a deal box standing on its
end served as a wee pantry. In this tent lived Mrs Botha, five
children (three quite grown up) and a little Kaffir servant girl.
Many tents have more occupants.

Mrs Pienaar came in and Mrs Raal, Mrs Roux and others
and they told me their stories and we cried together and even
laughed together and chatted bad Dutch and bad English all
the afternoon. Wet nights, the water streams down through
the canvas and comes flowing in (as it knows how to in this
country) under the flap of the tent and wets their blankets as
they lie on the ground.

The women are wonderful: they cry very little and never
complain. The very magnitude of their sufferings, indignities,
loss and anxiety seems to lift them beyond tears, and these
people who have had comfortable, even luxurious homes, just
set themselves to quiet endurance and to make the best of their
bare and terrible lot. Only when it cuts fresh at them through
their children do their feelings flash out. Mrs Meintjes, for
instance, she has six children in camp all ill. Two in the
hospital with typhoid and four sick in the tent. She … expects
her confinement soon. Her husband is in Ceylon [captured
Boers were sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Ceylon, India,
St Helena Island, Bermuda and elsewhere]. She has means
and would gladly provide for herself either in town or in the
Colony where she has relatives or by going back to her farm. It
was not burnt, only the furniture was destroyed. Yet there she
has to stay, watching her children droop and sicken. For their
sakes she did plead with tears that she might go and fend for
herself.

One of the women she had met that first afternoon, Mrs Pienaar, was in an advanced state of pregnancy and after hearing how difficult she found it to sleep on the hard ground, Emily bought a mattress for her the next day.Compassionate Englishwoman

However, Emily decided not to rush into the distribution of the goods she had brought until she understood the circumstances better. She had made a crucial, instinctive decision: she wanted to see the situation through the eyes and experiences of the inmates. They were her concern. The official view, the opinions of the administrators, could wait. She visited the camp repeatedly and did meet with members of the camp administration. General Pretyman gave her a permanent pass and introduced her to Captain Nelson who had been in charge of the camp until shortly before her arrival. She met several times with Major Cray, the man responsible for the management of all the camps in the Orange River Colony and who, at the same time, was also the superintendent of the Bloemfontein camp. Gradually her understanding of the situation deepened.

One of the central issues was food. The women in the camp did not complain. ‘We know it is wartime and we cannot expect much’ was their attitude. As a result, Emily did not at first realise how meagre and monotonous the rations were.

Excerpted from The Compassionate Englishwoman: Emily Hobhouse in the Boer War, published by UCT Press. Read the review here.

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.