Deservedly Forgotten? Sarah Gertrude Millin

By Sarah Duff

Deservedly Forgotten? Sarah Gertrude Millin Sarah Duff Does the name Sarah Gertrude Millin ring any bells? It might if you spend a lot of time in the fiction section of a good university library, or if you’re a dedicated browser of second hand bookshops. Otherwise, I wouldn’t blame you for not recognising her. That said, she was a prolific and popular author who produced a series of commercially successful novels about mid-twentieth-century South Africa. In 1952 Wits University awarded her with an honorary doctorate, explaining that she

‘has become par excellence the interpreter of South Africa to the English-speaking world…Mrs Millin ranks…as incontestably the most prominent South African writer of our generation.’

By her death in 1968, Millin had published two biographies, two autobiographies, a collection of essays, a six-volume war diary, three non-fiction books on South Africa, and around thirty novels, once of which, God’s Stepchildren (1924) was hailed as a modern masterpiece by reviewers in the Times Literary Supplement and the Spectator. She contributed to publications like the Rand Daily Mail, was an intimate of Jan Smuts and JH Hofmeyr, and corresponded with Katherine Mansfield, HG Wells, Rebecca West, and John Galsworthy. She was the founder of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) South Africa.

So why is she almost entirely forgotten now? From the 1960s onwards, feminist scholars began a process of literary ‘recovery’. They searched for and championed female authors whose work had long – and undeservedly – been forgotten by a male-dominated academe. A similar process took place in South Africa, but Millin was never part of it. A quick overview of her writing career suggests why: God’s Stepchildren is a fascinating and occasionally brilliant novel, but it’s shot through with a deeply racist concern about the ‘pollution’ caused by miscegenation (or sexual relationships between people of different racial or ethnic identities). Her racism reached its heights in her final book, The Wizard Bird (1962), which asserts that torture, rape, and child sacrifice are normal aspects of traditional African life.

Cover of The Wizard Bird

Has she been deservedly forgotten, then? Some academics – including JM Coetzee – argue that any understanding of twentieth-century South African literature would be incomplete without her. I agree with them, particularly because Millin’s views on race before 1945 weren’t particularly unusual for the period, although this changed during the 1950s and 1960s as she became increasingly racist.

Also, Millin lived a fantastically interesting life: like Helen Suzman, she was the daughter of Lithuanian Jewish parents who fled to South Africa to escape the anti-Jewish pogroms at the end of the nineteenth century. She was born in Lithuania in 1888, and despite her memory of her parents’ persecution on the grounds of their Jewishness, she developed a vehement racism. She believed that her disgust and fear of African and coloured people stemmed from an encounter with an African intruder in her bedroom in Kimberley when she was in her late teens – an event which also contributed to her chronic insomnia. In a strange twist of fate, this burglar was later hanged for the murder of an elderly man in Cape Town, and was the first corpse to be dissected by the medical school at the University of Cape Town – an operation performed partly by Millin’s medical student brother, Abe.

Millin’s two autobiographies – The Night is Long (1941) and The Measure of My Days (1955) – provide a surprisingly candid description of her troubled relationship with her parents, who sent her away to school in Kimberley when she was six years old, her failing eyesight, insomnia, and restlessness. She trained as a music teacher after finishing school – a bad choice given her dislike of teaching and lack of musical ability – and turned to writing as a last resort. Her marriage to a successful lawyer gave her the stability and financial security she craved, and she flourished as a writer.

Millin is, I think, worth studying and writing about. But I’d be happy for her to remain the preserve of academics: her novels have dated and her views on race, class, and gender are so out of date as to be actively off-putting. She’s a useful example of how – laudable – efforts to reclaim and recover ‘lost’ woman writers can backfire. Occasionally, writers are deservedly forgotten.

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13 thoughts on “Deservedly Forgotten? Sarah Gertrude Millin

  1. Interesting commentary. I had never heard of her, but then I did not grow up here in SA. I think that such writers should not be wiped off the map as it is good to read peoples points of view from way back. You cannot sweep those times under the carpet and like the times, the writings should be looked at in the light of beliefs at the time. History is populated with things we would consider wrong now, but that does not mean they never happened and it is well to know about such things.

  2. I also do not think such writing should be deleted. Even though it is offensive and racist it contributes to our collective memory and history. Her writing reflects how some people of her time thought. We need that

  3. Thanks for reading – and also for your comments. I don’t suggest that she be ‘deleted’ (and how would you go about ‘deleting’ someone?), but, rather, that there’s no need to promote her writing or make her books more widely available than they already are. My point is that feminist scholars tend to look for ‘forgotten’ female writers – writers who’ve undeservedly been marginalised on the grounds of their gender – and then publicise their writing. Millin, I think, isn’t really deserving of such a revival.

    This is why I think that she’ll only ever be of marginal interest. As I mentioned in the post, her significance lies in her position in the development of South African letters and as an exemplar of a particular set of ideas around race. This is no call to ‘forget’ her.

  4. I came across Millin, purely by chance, while reading a book review on the Los Angeles Times. I had never heard of her before, and was quite surprised that an “acclaimed” South African writer was so easily forgotten. I have not read her works, but I do understand that they are racist and offensive. However, I think that her writing probably reflects the ideas of the time, and sadly, are probably still reflective of the ideas of people living in South Africa today. Race and racism are always going to be emotive issues, and unless we collectively address and deal with the issue, we are not going to move forward. Part of that is an acknowledgement of the past, and one way to do that is not to sweep things under the carpet. It is a painful, but necessary process to confront the past. Books by authors such as these are important, not so much for the message that they carry, but for what they symbolise. In the same way the writings of Hitler are an important part of understanding that tragic period of history; authors such as Millin contribute to our understanding of ourselves, our past and our future and should not be ignored.

  5. I agree with the previous writer. I have just finished reading “The Burning Man” a fictionalised account of Johannes van der Kemp, controversial missionary to the Khoi people of the Eastern Cape in the early 1800s. Millin’s research is excellent – I checked details with Noel Mostert’s brilliant ‘Frontiers’ – and she writes compellingly. I conclude that she has a great deal to teach South Africans about our complex and troubled history. Reading history as a narrative can help us to contextualise the past.

  6. I am Sarah Gertrude Millin’s grand niece. I have read most of her books.
    I agree that they are now dated and so they should be!
    Aunty Sarah had a photographic memory ,incredably sharp wit and mind right up to her death. She had a very strong sense of right and wrong ( black and white) at the same time if an idea was factually presented she was always eager to examine its merits. She certainly did not have a closed mind and loved an intellectual challenge. I always felt that she was a woman before her time and how she would have loved the explosion of information that we now have ie the internet. Her views now appear polarizing . At least she had the ability to memorialize them, and here we are in cyber-land discussing them. . I know that she would have a chuckle knowing that her writings are still causing some consternation. She loved South Africa and its fate as she said in one of her books , “would be left up to destiny!”

    • Hi Allison,
      Did you go to Germiston Girls’ High School? 1962 matriculant? we are looking for you to attend a 50th reunion at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Sunday 2 December 2012. At least 24 of your old school mates will be there…if you are the correct Allison Louis this might be exciting news. Maybe you are a brother’s daughter?The Alison I am looking for would be about 66 years old right now. I do not know her married surname. If she is family, please tell her to contact Merri Dallas (Bayne):
      I will have to read your aunty’s book!

      merribayne@telkomsa.net

      • Hi Merri,

        I am sorry but I am not related to any other Allison Louis.I lived in JBG and now I am in the States.
        Good luck with your search.
        Allison

  7. Hi Allison, and thanks so much for reading! How exciting to have you here too.

    I agree, SGM was, in many ways, ahead of her time, but, particularly as regards her views on race, she was typical of it too. In fact, towards the end of her career, her racism was considered to be extreme. She was pretty polarising then too.

    She must have been an amazing aunt.

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  9. Just picked up on this conversation now. I think that Sarah Gertrude Millin deserves a reappraisal not specifically as a novelist but because she was a woman of her times and also a woman ahead of her time. it’s her non fiction work that should be reassessed… The biographies and the war diaries. After all she wrote a 2volume work on Smuts so one theme would be a comparative overview of the Works of the Smuts biographers. I remember attending a lecture she delivered in the Dot Suskind auditorium when I was an undergraduate student at Wits in the 1960s… She was a woman of strong opinions, a certain quirkiness, very proud, very articulate. she made a contribution to SA of her time in her writing.

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  11. Christof

    Hi I am one of the people who browse through secondhand bookshops. I have read King of the bastards, The burning man and Three men died. Her work is so informative and thought provoking as one would get. Every person that read one of her works will be affected by it.

    It is like discovering a diamond in your backyard. I have a collection of her work that I treasure and will read when I have time. I haven’t read the later works as yet but her works are so historically correct that it is difficult to believe that it is fiction.

    I will make a point to read the books you have a problem with, and even If I differ whith her oppinion. I would still not write her off. I might disagree if she portray a false image but why delete her work?

    For interesting sake: Three men died is the story of Daisy de Melker. She sat though all the court proceedings and the book is used by the press as a reference document. Her works on Cecil John Rhodes and Genrl Smuts is Internationally respected works.

    Sarah Millin was an honest person that studied her subject to a degree very few authors do before the put pen to paper. Sarah was brave enough to put the truth and reality out there for the reader to make up his own mind himself.

    I really feel sorry for a person who cannot grasp the work of a gifted person. Very interesting that a organisation that try to broaden peoples cramped minds actively try burry the work of somebody as brave as Sarah Millin.

    And I cannot believe people who have the nerve to judge a book on somebody else s view. read the thing for yourself before you judge maybe you can add some value with your opinion. You loose out on South African treasure.

    You are cutting your nose to spite your face by trying to bury the works of an exceptional person.

    Read the books!

    regards

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