Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. April 2005

4.7. Die Frau als Ort der Kulturbegegnung / The Woman as the Place of Cultural Encounter
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Kathleen Thorpe (Johannesburg)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

"A Very Bitter Love-Making". Women as Points of Cross-cultural Encounter in William Plomer’ s Turbott Wolfe

Stephen Naudé (Johannesburg)


Turbott Wolfe, William Plomer’s 1926 debut novel, is often taught as a set work in English literature courses in South African universities and is almost standardly lauded as a benchmark text, both stylistically and thematically ahead of its time. Its vision of a future non-racial(1) world, though presented with ideological ambivalence, is extraordinary for a book written in and about racially segregated 1920s South Africa.(2) Upon its initial publication, the vast majority of its white South African readers were outraged by its bitingly satirical representation of colonial South Africa, its sympathetic portrayal of black characters, and its exploration of the then great taboo of interracial sex.(3) At the same time, the novel was praised by eminent intellectuals in England and South Africa, notably Laurens van der Post, and Roy Campbell who vigorously defended Turbott Wolfe against its detractors(4) - which is all the more remarkable considering Plomer started writing his debut novel at the age of nineteen and completed it two years later.

Nonetheless, Turbott Wolfe is currently relatively unknown outside academic circles - even within South Africa. To a large extent, what Stephen Gray said in 1979, when the novel was about to be re-published for the first time in several years, still holds: "the considerable reputation Turbott Wolfe has on paper does not coincide very exactly with the reputation it has in fact" (Gray 1979, p192).(5)Turbott Wolfe’s very interesting treatment of the difficulties of attempts at meaningful cross-racial encounter in a society fraught with volatile race-consciousness is, however, certainly worth another look. This paper focuses on how the novel locates two such attempts in the figures of two women, Nhliziyombi and Mabel van der Horst. In particular, I shall attempt to argue that their positions, not only as black and white persons, but specifically as women, can be read as respectively precluding and enabling successful cross-racial or cross-cultural encounters.

Turbott Wolfe’s title character is a young white man from England who, having fallen ill shortly after finishing school, is sent by his family, following questionable medical advice, to the fictional Southern African district of Lembuland (loosely based on Zululand in South Africa(6) ). With the help of a black servant, Caleb Msomi, he sets up a trading station on the frontier between Ovuzane, a so-called native reserve(7), and the local white colonial community (a frontier that, in a rigidly segregated society, is of course more than simply geographical). Turbott Wolfe quickly becomes aware of the colour-consciousness and racism of the white community, but consciously refuses to adopt its attitudes, thereby virtually immediately making himself unpopular among its more extreme racist members - in particular, and epitomised by, two physically repulsive white farmers called Flesher and Bloodfield.

Turbott(8) seems to express this conscious rebellion against what he perceives as the sensibility of white colonial Lembuland most powerfully through two courses of action. The first is his voluntary association with black and white people who more or less share his opposition to colonial racism, which soon leads to his involvement in founding the non-racial political organisation" Young Africa "(9) - together with the young missionary Rupert Friston, Mabel van der Horst and the cousins Caleb and Zachary Msomi. In a reversal of colonialist ideology, Young Africa seeks to turn "miscegenation" (the then popular racist term for interracial sex) into a positive term, by condoning and encouraging sexual relationships between black and white. In its first published newspaper article, Young Africa insists that "miscegenation ... is inevitable, right and proper [and will lay the] foundations for the future Coloured World" (p70).(10)

The possibility of a "Coloured World", peopled by individuals who are neither black nor white, of course threatens any ideology based on racist assumptions. As the category of race dissolves, the classification of whites as superior breaks down - hence the late nineteenth to early twentieth century taboo on miscegenation, which went hand in hand with the fear of the dilution of racial purity. As Sander Gilman puts it, "Miscegenation was a fear ... not merely of interracial sex but of its results, the decline of the population" (Gilman 1985, p237).(11)

However, Young Africa soon crumbles, and Turbott returns to England, disillusioned and dying from an unspecified " fever that he had caught in Africa" (p9), where he tells his tale to a second narrator who, barring a few descriptive pauses, repeats Turbott’s words verbatim (much like the framing narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Plomer is known to have read before writing Turbott Wolfe). This second narrator is explicitly identified as Plomer himself (p33).

In what seems (at first) like blatant defiance of the taboo of miscegenation, the second course of action through which Turbott expresses his political stance is what he describes as his having fallen in love with one of his black female customers, Nhliziyombi. It might seem unfair to call this a course of action in the same sense in which Turbott’s involvement in founding Young Africa can be called a deliberate course of action. Falling in love is arguably not deliberate, and, in this case, involves very little action - in every sense of the word. Still, there is a sense in which Turbott seems to consider his sexual attraction to a black woman an expression of his opposition to colonial racism. It is first mentioned within nine sentences, and chronologically within a week, of Turbott’s shaking hands with a black man, Caleb Msomi’s cousin Zachary, which he sees as" an external sign of the difference between my point of view and that of people like Flesher and Bloodfield" (p29).

Yet he never pursues a relationship with Nhliziyombi. His professed attraction never progresses beyond a distanced and tortured admiration. Clearly, Nhliziyombi is probably best described not as a meeting point of the black and white Lembuland communities, but rather as a distinct locus of failed cross-racial encounter. The title of this paper is taken from Turbott’s account of his attraction to Nhliziyombi:

I do not even know that it developed enough to be called an affair: let me rather call it the position I found myself in with regard to this girl. ...

I was set back by the necessity for showing not the least bit intimate interest. ...

A very bitter love-making. I longed to swim in a smooth haven, and to drown the dangers of desire in the delights of content. ... I supposed myself to be in a very similar position to a monk in love with a nun. (pp32 - 33)

A question I hope to provide an interesting answer to in this paper, is why Turbott feels that his "position ... with regard to" Nhliziyombi must necessarily remain "a very bitter love-making".

One perhaps immediately obvious approach in trying to explain Turbott’s reluctance to pursue a heterosexual relationship with a black woman, would be to read it in terms of Plomer’s homosexuality.(12) Among other things, Turbott’s vagueness in explaining his inability to act on his feelings toward Nhliziyombi (see below), and the many similarities between Turbott and Plomer,(13) suggest a reading of the novel that, in a paper concerned with the politics of sex and sexuality, cannot be ignored or even simply mentioned in a footnote. Yet while the young William Plomer’s struggle to come to terms with his own sexuality may have informed his writing, and while Turbott Wolfe may even, on one level, be about this struggle, on a more immediate level the novel deals with heterosexual cross-racial love or sexual attraction. Although I by no means wish to discount a reading of the novel (or more specifically of the Nhliziyombi affair) in terms of homosexuality(14), this is not the route I shall take in this paper. As I hope to demonstrate below, Turbott Wolfe deals with the politics - and aesthetics(15) - of heterosexual cross-racial sex and attraction in ways that merit further investigation.

While Turbott is never entirely clear on why he cannot risk becoming involved with Nhliziyombi, he does suggest that a relationship with her would result in psychological fragmentation. Since his attraction to Nhliziyombi threatens his sense of self, his solipsistic "love-making" is marked by constant internal conflict:

What I knew fundamentally was that if I abandoned my determination I should lose my own opinion of myself. ... You can imagine, anybody can imagine, the tortures a man suffers when he is in love against his conscience. ... I was in love with Nhliziyombi not only against my conscience, but against my reason, against my intellect; against my plans; against myself. ... I saw that I should be sacrificing myown opinion of myself (p33).

The above declaration is immediately followed by a disclaimer:

I suppose you should think I mean that I was white and the girl was black. My good William Plomer, pray accept my assurance that that had nothing whatever to do with it (p33).

It might, however, be hard to see why one should accept Turbott Wolfe’s assurance that the combination of race difference and sexual desire had nothing to do with the threat to his sense of self, when the rest of his narrative seems to suggest otherwise.

Despite his professed opposition to colonial racism, a casual racist condescension repeatedly crops up in Turbott’s description of his black acquaintances and friends.(16) He seems unable entirely to free himself of the attitudes and prejudices still deeply entrenched in early twentieth century European thought and - as illustrated, for instance, in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India - often exacerbated by the liminal colonial space. In a partly prophetic moment early in Forster’s novel, an Indian character, Hamidullah, says of the English in India,

they have no chance here [in India] ... They come out [of England] intending to be gentlemen, and are told it will not do. Look at Lesley, look at Blakiston, now it is your red-nosed boy, and Fielding will go next. ...

... They all become exactly the same ... I give any Englishman two years, be he Turton or Burton. It is only the difference of a letter (A Passage to India, p34).(17)

In fact, the most poignently tragic aspect of Turbott Wolfe is arguably the relatively enlightened Turbott’s succumbing, like Forster’s colonials, to the prevailing racism of colonial Lembuland (at least to an extent).(18) While at first enthusiatic, albeit perhaps cautiously, about Young Africa, he soon starts distancing himself from its ideals, until he has, by the end of the novel, dismissed the organisation as a "monstrous farce" (p109) - a process to all appearances occasioned by his becoming aware of the practical implications of Young Africa’s pro-miscegenation stance. At the organisation’s second meeting, he is horrified to discover that Mabel van der Horst (a white woman) is sexually attracted to Zachary Msomi (a black man):

I did not seem to be so much seized with a mental realisation of a plain fact as with a cold physical terror. I was internally sick, as at a catastrophe. It was clear that Mabel van der Horst was attracted, how slightly it was hard to measure, towards Zachary Msomi. It was one thing to talk glibly about miscegenation, to fool about with an idea, and another to find oneself face to face with the actual happening: it was the difference between a box of matches and a house on fire (p69).

It could easily be argued that Turbott’s complete about-face, and his refusal to court Nhliziyombi, are both due yo his having unwittingly (and perhaps unavoidably) internalised(19) the early twentieth century European taboo on miscegenation. He remarks that while the bitterness of his love-making was not a "question of pigment (I was in love, remember)", there nonetheless "appeared to be a great forbidding law, like all great forbidding laws, subcutaneous" (pp33 - 34). This remark might be interpreted as evidence of Turbott’s subscribing to the social Darwinist idea that subcutaneous fluids - in particular blood - are more significant determinants of race than skin colour (see, however, my discussion of this below).

He initially finds it exciting and liberating cerebrally to rebel against this "great forbidding law"; "to fool about with an idea". Thus he helps to form a pro-miscegenation political organisation, and thus he declares himself attracted to a black woman. However, when confonted with the prospect of converting theory into practice, the cost of rebellion becomes too high. While he is able to condone cross-racial sex in theory, actually engaging in it, or witnessing it and taking himself to have partly enabled it, would destabilise a sense of self which (although he might not consciously have realised or wanted to admit to it) includes an aversion to miscegenation.(20) It is perhaps this "own opinion of [him]self" that would be lost or sacrificed through sex with Nhliziyombi, and is threatened by Mabel and Zachary’s relationship - which may explain why he backs out, distancing himself from Young Africa, and avoiding a dangerously intimate relationship with Nhliziyombi.

If this were the only or overriding reason why Turbott shies away from acting on his desire for Nhliziyombi, Plomer’s ostensibly anti-colonial novel finds itself in very questionable company. It is not unusual for the white male explorer-heroes of colonial literature to admit to their being sexually attracted to the female inhabitants of the explored (and ultimately conquered) territory - yet without fail the plot prevents the physical culmination of said attraction; frequently through the convenient death of the black woman. Thus, as in Turbott Wolfe, the idea of cross-racial sex is toyed with, but the actual threat of miscegenation is neutralised. As Marianna Torgovnick puts it, in colonial writing, "flirtations with miscegenation are allowed, but miscegenation ... must never occur" (Torgovnick 1990, p53).

Quintessential examples of colonial texts that flirt with miscegenation are H. Rider Haggard’s extremely popular and influential adventure romances King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887). In both these novels, a member of the small group of white English males has a brief affair with an African woman, who dies in service of her lordly English partner before the affair starts involving potentially procreative sex.(21) Far from anomolous within colonial discourse, these cross-racial affairs actually exemplify the approach of these texts and their protagonists towards Africa, towards women, and towards the by and large male enterprise of colonialism.

Haggard’s novels, infamous now as much for their misogyny as for their racism, are written against the background of Victorian social Darwinism, which (somewhat ironically, in an era named for a powerful woman) placed white, European, heterosexual middleclass men at the apex of evolutionary development. A symbiotic relationship existed between this worldview on the one hand, and contemporary power relations on the other. The conquest of African peoples in the colonies and the domestic oppression of women in Europe were justified through appeal to a view the particulars of which were at the same time shaped by that which required justification. In particular, the subjection of women went hand in hand with the stigmatisation of female libido. Female virginity and chastity were revered, while for a woman to enjoy sex, or to have more than one sexual partner, was a sign of savagery. Accordingly, the combination of the categories ‘woman’ and ‘black’, occupying the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder, was characterised as pathologically libidinous.(22) Yet, as such, the idea of the highly sexed black woman - "the prototype of the Victorian invention of primitive atavism" (McClintock 1995, p41) - was something this ideology’s prime evolutionary specimens found simultaneously repulsive and deeply fascinating.(23)

Haggard’s massive popularity among his contemporaries is arguably tied to his representation of Africa as a similarly alluring, yet dangerous place. Peopled by nubile women like Foulata and Ustane, Haggard’s Africa is what Anne McClintock calls "a porno-tropics for the European imagination" (McClintock 1995, p22): a space of licenced transgression, which permits and invites indulgence in unspoken desires, including the desire for the presumed unbridled sexuality of African women.(24) This toying with taboos is arguably allowed because Africa is both geographically and, as a space where English mores are irrelevant, symbolically remote from England - and, importantly, because adventures and cross-racial flirtations in the porno-tropics are by their very nature temporary. As a matter of course, the heroes eventually return to England, "uncumbered" by black mistresses.(25) Thus subject to clear spatio-temporal constraints, the cross-racial flings of colonial fiction do not challenge, but instead merely reconfirm, the Victorian stereotype of the titilatingly lascivious, inferior black female.

It would be surprising and dissapointing if Turbott Wolfe were to perpetuate this type of exploitative relationship with Africa and African women, not only because of the novel’s general critical slant, but also because Turbott Wolfe demonstrates an accute awareness and is exceptionally critical of its Haggardian heritage. As Michelle Adler points out, Plomer’s novel can be read as a parody of the colonial adventure romance. Turbott’s temporary sojourn in Africa parallels the adventures of earlier colonial heroes, but whereas those heroes return to England literally enriched, gloating and bragging about their exploits to other "big and little boys",(26) Turbott’s experiences in Lembuland leave him disillusioned and broken. He narrates his tale while dying in a room covered in floral wallpaper "so tawdry as to be grotesque" (p9); a mockery of the kitsch primitivist setting of the African adventure romance.(27)

Turbott Wolfe’s critical awareness extends, though, to the uneasy combination in the male colonial imagination of a desire for black women and a simultaneous obsession with maintaining the purity of the white race. As discussed above, earlier colonial fiction smoothed over this ideological inconsistency bypreventing the sexual culminations of instances of cross-racial attraction, thereby effectively denying the problematic reality of interracial sexual relationships.(28) Turbott Wolfe, however, does not deny the reality of interracial sex, and in fact holds the hypocrisy and contradictions(29) of colonial racism up to painful scrutiny: many of the white male residents of Lembuland, including outspoken racists, are noted to keep black mistresses or sleep with their black servants.

This puts a rather different spin on Turbott’s professed fear of "losing [his] own opinion of [him]self". His hesitance to give in to his desire for Nhliziyombi can be read as part of his (initial) determination to define himself in opposition to colonial racism as personified, with all its inherent contradictions, by the likes of Flesher and Bloodfield - which would explain why he

had been very much afraid of incurring any emotion so violent and unforeseen as that which seized me the very moment I caught sight of Nhliziyombi. From the time that I first went to Ovuzane I had been at pains to control any amorous feelings toward the natives, because I was afraid, unlike most of my white neighbours: even the immaculate Bloodfield had a black mistress and coloured children; and Mrs Bloodfield knew (p31).

Turbott is clearly aware of how black women, largely deprived of social and financial power, are degraded by coerced or forced sexual relationships with men who consider them inherently inferior (Bloodfield’s estimation of black people is made very clear on p18, by his very first words to Turbott:" Surely you don ’ t have these blooming niggers in here?" ). Furthermore, he seems aware of the fact that, as a white colonial male, he might not entirely be able to reject the prejudices of his time. Courting Nhliziyombi consequently carries with it the risk of subjecting her to the same kind of one-sided, exploitative relationship women like Bloodfield’s mistress have to endure. Departing significantly from the arrogance of his literary predecessors who, like Allan Quatermain, are concerned only with the inconvenience of lasting cross-racial attachments for white men(30), Turbott Wolfe is at least partly concerned about the threat he might pose to Nhliziyombi:

She is curiously innocent, I thought, frank, delicate. Is it truly because I am afraid of myself that I am afraid of loving her? Is it not perhaps that I am afraid of her? How could I touch, perhaps to injure, that frail divine humanity, or human divinity? ... No, I said to myself, I dare not touch her (p35).

The language used to describe Nhliziyombi ("innocent"; "frail divine humanity") is, however, the language of a familiar patronising representation of Africa as innocent pastoral antithesis to an advanced and corrupt Europe, which in fact predates the Victorian image of Africa as violent and degenerate.(31) It may seem, then, as if, in reacting against colonial ideology, Plomer has simply fallen back on an earlier discourse. I believe, though, that what happens in TurbottWolfe is far more interesting. The characterisation of Nhliziyombi forms part, I would like to argue, of a reversal of colonial doctrine regarding Africa.

In White Writing, J.M. Coetzee discusses the centrality of the theme of blood to early twentieth-century racist discourse. Coetzee focuses on the novels of Sarah Gertrude Millin, prominent South African novelist of the 1920s, in which children and later descendants of mixed parentage are portrayed as irreversibly tainted, carrying "the flaw of black blood" (Coetzee 1988, p139):

In Millin’s poetics of blood, taint, flaw and degeneration there are two kinds of blood, black blood and white blood. ... Deeper than guilt, ... black blood is a form of defilement, a "stain", ... "evil, sickness, dirt" ..., bearing an instinctive sexual shame with it, a formless horror evading description, creeping over the boundaries of all names. The only way in which the polluted community can return to purity is by expelling the defiler (Coetzee 1988, pp150 - 151).

In Turbott Wolfe, this paranoid obsession with maintaining the purity of the white race is turned on its head. It is the ‘white’ blood of a racist like Flesher that "must have been in a rotten state, for his face and hands were covered with scorbutic sores". The very idea of people like Flesher, Bloodfield and Turbott’s nearest white neighbour, Schwerdt, is "unclean" (p20; p44) - which suggests, perhaps, that their blood could ‘defile’ the blood of the Lembus, rather than vice versa.

Similarly, while undeniably drawing heavily on Romantic descriptions of noble savages, Turbott’s characterisation of the "curiously innocent" Nhliziyombi overturns the Victorian stereotype of the wildly libidinous black woman who, like Foulata or Ustane, is always ready and willing to throw herself at some self-satisfied European demigod. Not only does Turbott "Chastity" Wolfe (as he is nicknamed by the Lembus) believe that Nhliziyombi "was as chaste as I was reputed to be" (p33), but it is also soon revealed that, irrespective of Turbott’s tortured musings, there was actually little or no chance of a love affair, since Nhliziyombi" had actually been engaged to a man she loved during the whole time that I had been interested in her" (p40).

In other words, it is not just Turbott’s own political conscience, but also that of the novel itself, which forbids his having a cross-racial affair. As a literary figure circumscribed by the agenda of the critical and self-conscious late-colonial text bearing his name, Turbott Wolfe is "constrained to play a part - / An actor, only free to act" (p121).

Yet Turbott’s kneejerk disavowal of Young Africa’s ideals and his increasingly frequent lapses into crude racism still need to be accounted for, and may seem severely to compromise the text’s critical response to its colonial literary heritage. One would be hard-pressed to find a noble explanation for Turbott’s opposition to Mabel and Zachary’s engagement, especially when voiced as "Do you honestly mean to tell me that it’s your intention to marry a black man - that nigger?" (p98).

I would like to argue, though, that Turbott Wolfe does not "enjoy [Plomer’s] complete confidence", as Chinua Achebe famously argued is the case with Heart of Darkness’s narrator Marlowe and Joseph Conrad; an argument more recently supported by Marianna Torgovnick. Conrad seems to guard against being identified with the narrator in Heart of Darkness, by casting him as a separate character, Marlowe, within a framing narrative. Thus Conrad apparently seeks morally to absolve himself of the racism - and, adds Torgovnick, sexism - of Marlowe’s narrative. However, the text provides no "alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of [its] characters" (Achebe 1978, p7); "Marlowe’s statements are not adequately challenged within the text; indications of irony or distance are lacking" (Torgovnick, p274, footnote 26). In other words, the author’s technical disassociation from Marlowe is outweighed by textual evidence equating the two.

Regardless of whether this is in fact a valid criticism of Heart of Darkness, it makes an important point relevant to Turbott Wolfe (which has often been likened to, and was clearly influenced by, Heart of Darkness), namely that the mere use of a framing narrator is not sufficient evidence of critical distance between author and primary narrator - in this case, between Plomer and Turbott Wolfe. But Plomer takes Conrad’s multiple narrator device to a level of playful textual self-awareness that (in contrast with Conrad’s modernist novel) could possibly be called postmodern, or at the very least anti-realist and "otherwise" (Gray 1979, p197). Plomer inserts himself into the text, in a role analogous to that of Conrad’s unidentified framing narrator. He is the person sitting at Turbott’s deathbed, listening to his tale.(32) He also crops up in the book’s second appendix, which contains three poems by Rupert Friston.

Rupert Friston is a young, idealistic missionary and principal founder of Young Africa. He is in love with Mabel van der Horst, whose relationship with Zachary Msomi consequently apparently drives him to a drug binge and increasing mental instability. Shortly after conducting Mabel and Zachary’s marriage ceremony, he leaves the Hlanzeni mission in Lembuland and ventures into "Swedish East Africa", where he is mysteriously killed for "political or religious reasons" (p108). One of his poems appendiced to the novel, though, is a poem by Plomer, which was previously published in the Zulu language newspaper Ilanga lase Natal. While both Turbott’s role as narrator and similarities between him and Plomer suggest that he is the author’s fictional counterpart, the inclusion of one of William Plomer’s poems "[a]mong Friston’s papers" (p120) indicates that Friston is in fact Plomer’s Doppelgänger. At the same time, Rupert Friston, whom Peter Wilhelm calls "Wolfe one-step-advanced" (Wilhelm 1978, p183), in many respects mirrors Turbott Wolfe. When they first meet, Turbott remarks that "[i]n his attitude to life I saw (I was pleased to see) a reflection of myself" (p54).

There is, then, no single clear spokesperson for the author in Turbott Wolfe. The text contains at least three versions of Plomer. Apart from the obvious irony of the author’s identifying himself rather explicitly with a dead character (and somewhat less explicitly with one on his deathbed) I believe that these signs of a double or triple doubling may be read as hints that Plomer has yet another voice within the novel - the voice of Mabel van der Horst.

Unlike Turbott and Friston, Mabel is not plagued by ideological ambivalence. An aggressively strong-willed woman with little regard for stifling social conventions, she is the only white member of Young Africa who earnestly and consistently subscribes to its ideals, and has no qualms about marrying a black man. In forging a meaningful cross-racial relationship, she succeeds where Turbott fails.

And importantly, Mabel is portrayed as immanently likeable. Turbott respects and admires her, even when he does not share her views -

She had given me from the first to believe that she was a woman of character: it was a belief upon which subsequently I never had reason to go back (p65)

- in fact, he often clearly attaches more weight to Mabel’s opinions than to his own. She provides the "alternative frame of reference" allegedly missing from Heart of Darkness, against which Turbott’s moments of coarse racism and reaction to her and Zachary Msomi’s mutual attraction are "[held] up to irony and criticism" (Achebe 1978, p7) . Turbott’s blunt "Do you honestly mean to tell me that it’s your intention to marry a black man - that nigger?", quoted above (preceded by the equally offensive "I am going to take the liberty of asking what you’re playing at with that nigger?") forms part of a confrontation with Mabel from which Turbott reports that

I went away feeling that I had behaved weakly, and that Mabel knew what she was talking about (p98).

Turbott Wolfe’s dilemma with respect to Nhliziyombi specifically and cross-racial sex in general, which, as I argued above, is largely a function of his being a white English colonial male in a novel written against a long history of exploitation of Africa and Africans by people fitting his description, is resolved in the figure of Mabel van der Horst. As a Dutch woman, Mabel is able to do what Turbott and Friston, as English men, cannot - namely pursue a cross-racial relationship without risk of perpetuating a history of inequality. Unlike Turbott, Mabel is, to borrow a phrase from Nadine Gordimer, able to meet black South Africans on a "plane of normality ... as fellow humans",(33) neither simply looking down upon them, nor somewhat condescendingly turning them into noble savages (as Turbott does most prominently with Nhliziyombi, and also, for instance, with Zachary Msomi on p51).

As a housekeeper, however, Mabel is also not a member of Lembuland’s social upper class. She belongs, in some respects, to the same social class as many of the Lembus - and this, it might be argued, mitigates the boldness of the portrayal of her marriage to Zachary. Anne McClintock discusses how the categories of race and class merged in the placement of working-class women within Victorian social hierarchy. White working- class women were ascribed the physical characteristics of blacks, which sanctioned assigning them the ideological status of members not only of a separate class, but, in fact, of a separate race (see McClintock 1995, pp104 - 116). Mabel is sometimes described in the terms Turbott otherwise reserves for Lembus like Nhliziyombi and Zachary; she moves, for instance, "with the intimate grace of an animal" (p67). It could, then, perhaps be argued that Mabel is herself turned into a noble savage, effectively 'Africanised ’, which lessens the impact of her and Zachary’s mixed marriage. Turbott Wolfe would have been a truly daring text, it may be argued, if Mabel were an upper-class white lady. While this may be true, I would like to argue that it is necessary - given Turbott Wolfe’s awareness of its colonial literary heritage - that Mabel differ from Turbott and Friston not only with respect to gender and nationality, but also class, in order to be (as I argue) the unrestrained spokesperson for Turbott/Friston/Plomer.

In colonial writing, from travelogues to adventure romances, racial superiority and inferiority tend, as Patrick Brantlinger observes, to translate to class status. Africans are seen as an inferior race and accordingly form a working class against which the self-presentation of the white male explorer-hero could be formed. So explorers from wealthy, upper-class backgrounds like Burton and Baker could, in Africa, live out" a nostalgia for lost authority and for a pliable, completely subordinate proletariat ", while working-class explorers like Livingstone and Stanley could transcend their English class status (Brantlinger 1985, p181).

Mabel is, however, not simply a working-class woman. Rather, she is someone who rejects and, in a sense, stands altogether outside the social class system; someone who "[thanks] God on ... bended knees that [she is] not a lady" (p65). It is her position outside all three categories that constrain Turbott and Friston both as people and as literary figures, which enables her to voice and enact the novel’s most progressive sentiments, and present a radical alternative to earlier colonial writing.

As I hope to have shown in this paper, Turbott Wolfe displays a critical awareness of the discrepancy in male colonial thought between, on the one hand, a desire for the stereotype of the savagely libidinous black woman, and on the other, a perception of cross-racial sex as a threat to the category upon which its notions of inherent superiority and inferiority are built - which results in the characteristic treatment in colonial texts of black women as objects of simultaneous desire and disgust. Fictional relationships in such texts between white male protagonists and black women accordingly tend to re-affirm black women’s inferior status within colonial ideology. As the narrative of an Englishman in colonial South Africa, Turbott Wolfe is itself positioned within this tradition of white male writing. Reluctance to perpetuate the literary exploitation of black women seems to limit the ways in which the novel can move beyond a racist conception of heterosexual cross-racial sex. This, I argued, is why the figure of a black woman within this disillusioned, late colonial/anti-colonial text necessarily becomes the locus of failed cross-racial or cross-cultural encounter; a dilemma which, I attempted to show, is resolved through the introduction into the text of a figure who can be read as a female substitute for the male protagonist, who does not share his literary-historical baggage - and can therefore, as a woman, become a point of successful cross-cultural encounter.

© Stephen Naudé (Johannesburg)


(1) Given the large number of times I cannot avoid using the terms " race and " racial " in this paper, I shall drop the quotation marks for the sake of readability. This should not be mistaken for implicit racism. The same applies to the term " miscegenation " .

(2) Although the National Party instituted its infamous policy of apartheid only in 1948, South Africa was already legally racially segregated since 1910. The segregation laws that were passed between 1910 and 1948 in many respects laid the foundations for the subsequent system of apartheid. See Thompson 1995, pp154 - 186.

(3) See Herbert 1976, p170 and Van der Post 1965, p134: "I myself have never forgotten the uproar which greeted the appearance of [Turbott Wolfe] in South Africa and particularly in Natal where I was working. Apart from ... three exceptions, all the English and Afrikaans newspapers and critics condemned the book in leading articles and bitter reviews. Supporting the angry editorials, the correspondence columns of the daily papers carried letters from 'Mothers of Five', 'Pro Bono Publicos' and so on and 'Bookworm' moaned that Turbott Wolfe was 'not cricket'. I remember the excitement and impassioned argument provoked at various times by Lady Chatterley' s Lover , The Well of Loneliness, the publication in France of Claudel's correspondence with Gide over Gide's homosexuality; later, over the American nymphet Lolita, and recently over Fanny Hill. But none equalled the pitch and hysteria of this African occasion."

(4) See Campbell 1926 and Van der Post 1965. See also Adler 1988, pp208 - 209.

(5) This paper was presented at the INST conference 'The Unifying Aspects of Cultures' in Vienna in November 2003. Shortly afterwards, in December 2003, Turbott Wolfe was re-published once again. It remains to be seen whether the publication of this latest edition will put an end to the novel's persistent relative obscurity.

(6) See Adler 1988, p21 and p50, and Wilhelm 1978, p181.

(7) Native reserves were the only areas in South Africa where blacks were allowed to own land according to the Natives Land Act, which was passed in 1913 and only repealed in 1990. The reserves comprised initially roughly seven percent, and later just under twelve percent, of the total area of South Africa. Not surprisingly, this land alone - which formed a small percentage of the land occupied by black farmers prior to white conquest - could not adequately support the vast black South African population (see Thompson 1995, pp163 - 164). Limiting black landownership to native reserves consequently played a pivotal role in creating widespread black poverty, which was later maintained during apartheid, and persists to an alarming degree in South Africa today.

(8) Academic convention probably dictates that Turbott Wolfe should be referred to by his last rather than by his first name. I do not feel comfortable doing this in a paper where Nhliziyombi (who is never given a surname) and Mabel van der Horst will be referred to by their first names. As an aside, this incongruity - perpetuated in much current writing - seems to be played with briefly on p104 of Turbott Wolfe. This might be an issue to be taken up in a different paper.

(9) Young Africa in many ways parallels a real organisation founded in the early 1900s. The South African Native National Council, which later became the African National Congress (ANC), was founded in 1912. The ANC played a pivotal role in the struggle against apartheid and is currently by far the strongest political party in South Africa. Plomer knew John Dube, the first president of the South African Native National Council. See Brown 1979, p187, Herbert 1976, p169 and Thompson 1995, p156.

(10) Unless otherwise specified, all page references are to the 1993 Ad. Donker paperback edition of Turbott Wolfe.

(11) Compare Torgovnick 1990, p147: "Miscegenation challenges a boundary highly charged in the West, the boundary of race." See also Coetzee 1988, pp136 - 162, and Adler 1988, p236, quoting Maurice Evans's Black and White in South East Africa: A Study In Sociology (1911): "the admixture in blood of the races is the worst thing that can happen, at least for the white race, and perhaps for both."

(12) See, for instance, Wilhelm 1978, particularly p182: " The natural outcome of love is to make love. For Turbott [whom certain Lembus nickname 'Chastity' ] ... his name, no less, forbids it. ... No man' s name forbids him from making love: unless his name is 'Chastity' and that word is a mask for impotence or, if the loved one is female, homosexuality. "

(13) See Adler 1988, pp80 - 176.

(14) Homosexuality of course in a sense parallels miscegenation. At the time and in the society from within which Turbott Wolfe was written, both occurred, but neither were openly spoken or written about (compare Brantlinger 1985, p189); hence Marianna Torgovnick uses the phrase commonly denoting homosexuality in Victorian England - the "love which dare not speak its name" - to refer to miscegenation in Western literature of the early 1900s (s ee Torgovnick 1990, p147).

(15) Turbott' s continual ideological ambivalence (shared to a large extent by Rupert Friston) - manifested in his reservations about and eventual disillusionment with Young Africa, and his reluctance to pursue Nhliziyombi - is in a sense summarised in " some notes for a diagram " said to have been found " [a]mong Friston's papers " , which forms the first of two appendices to Turbott Wolfe, entitled " The Politico-Aesthete " : " The Politico Aesthete [is] a man [who] staggers ... under the weight of the past; and ... struggles ... under the load of the future. ... He is divided by a thin red line drawn down the middle. On the right he is politico, on the left aesthete " (p118).

(16) On p36 he describes Caleb Msomi as " [wanting] little watching " , and on p46 he " [reflects] on the extraordinary behaviour of [one of his black servants '] brother Frans, so inconsistent with native character " (emphasis added).

(17) Of course, the quoted passage continues "And I give any Englishwoman six months." A Passage to India has been criticised for being implicitly (or perhaps at times rather explicitly) misogynistic. I shall not attempt to address that issue in this paper.

(18) A similar observation is made by Michael Herbert, who argues that whereas Plomer's indictment of colonial racism is perhaps somewhat hampered by his use of unsubtle caricatures like Flesher, Bloodfield and Soper, a more nuanced and " agonising " portrayal of racism is found in Turbott himself: " As for nuances, one of the most subtle - and agonising - instances is the occasion when the colour values of Bloodfield’s sister-in-law rub off so shockingly on Wolfe ( 'of all people' is the implication) and he spurns his other, black model as if she were an animal " (Herbert 1976, p172).

(19) Whether this happened in Lembuland or even before he was sent to Lembuland - in other words, whether the colonial space just awakened Turbott’s latent racism or actually turned him into a racist - is a separate question, which I shall not attempt to address here.

(20) In other words, somewhat paradoxically, Turbott Wolfe cannot help identifying with that which he wants to oppose. Compare Adler 1988, pp196 - 197: "[I]f Turbott Wolfe is at one level a critique and repudiation of the colonial ethos, it is also a novel about colonial trepidation and uncertainty, as exemplified by Plomer’s protagonist Wolfe ... Wolfe’s trepidation, ambiguity and disillusionment shows the extent to which he is himself trapped in the colonial ethos, with its racist overtones."

(21) In King Solomon’s Mines , the white treasure-seekers Allan Quatermain, Sir Henry Curtis and John Good save "the girl Foulata" , a member of the black Kukuana tribe, from the vicious Kukuana leaders. Foulata thereafter " constituted herself [their] handmaiden, and especially Good’s" , causing the narrator, Quatermain, some discomfort: " I did not like Miss Foulata’s soft glances, for I knew the fatal amorous propensities of sailors in general, and of Good in particular. " In what Quatermain later describes as a " fortunate occurrence " , Foulata is killed in an effort to prevent her " lord " Good and his white two companions ’ being trapped in Solomon’s treasure cave. See King Solomon’s Mines , pp165 - 162; p222; p230; pp259 - 261; p279.In She, Leo Vincey, the blonde, curly-haired Apollan beauty, is wed (according to Amahaggar custom, to which Victorian readers would have attached little weight) to a young black female admirer, Ustane. In defending her love for Leo, Ustane is killed by the jealous dictator over the Amahaggar, Ayesha, a.k.a. " She-who-must-be-obeyed " (who, though not black, is nonetheless not only oriental, but also strong-willed, politically powerful and, like Ustane, sexually assertive - and is, not surprisingly, killed by her own hubris near the end of the novel). See She, pp80 - 81; pp226 - 227; pp292 - 294.This is not peculiar to Haggard: as Patrick Brantlinger points out, the black heroine in Joseph Thomson’s Ulu: An African Romance similarly " conveniently sacrifices herself " so that her white fiancée can marry a white woman. See Brantlinger 1985, p189.

(22) Not only did this mean that African women were presumed to be highly sexed creatures, but also that European women with multiple sexual partners, particularly prostitutes, were presented in scientific journals and books as genetic throwbacks, physically similar to black women (see Gilman 1985, pp224 - 229). Interestingly, prostitutes were also portrayed as mannish and unfeminine, yet even though men were seen as more highly evolved than women, their perceived masculinity was taken as further evidence of prostitutes’ degeneracy. The same was true of working class women (see McClintock 1995, pp100 - 101). Though seemingly self-contradictory, condemning masculine physical features in women as signs of savagery does make sense within a sexist ideology which reserves things like sexual pleasure, physical strength (as evinced by working class women) and independence strictly for males. Female usurpation upon male domain is dealt with by automatically pushing usurpers even further down the evolutionary ladder.

(23) As Gilman points out, an ambiguous fascination with black women is revealed by the abundance of discussions and detailed illustrations in nineteenth-century European medical journals of black female genitalia, highlighting features such as hypertrophic labia or overdeveloped clitores - read both as signs of excessive sexual indulgence, and as evidence of a biological distinction between higher and lower races. Discussion and representation of black male genitals are conspicuously absent from these journals. See Gilman 1985, specifically pp213 - 219.

(24) Venturing into a sometimes rather overtly feminised Africa is, of course, itself an exploitative (covertly) sexual act. The language of colonial exploration - the ‘penetration’ and ‘conquering’ of ‘virgin territory’ - is the language of what was for a very long time the dominant heterosexual European male view of sex, as an act of male mastery in which women are reduced to the facilitators of men’s pleasure. As David Bunn and Anne McClintock argue, it is no coincidence that the map of Kukuanaland in King Solomon’s Mines resembles a woman in the missionary position (s ee Bunn 1988, especially pp10 - 12, and McClintock 1995, pp1 - 4). Haggard ’ s feminising explored territory follows, as McClintock notes, an established tradition reaching back at least to Christopher Columbus (see McClintock 1995, p22. See also Winwood Reade ’ s description of Africa in Bunn 1988, p12, and John Barrow ’ s implicit feminisation of the African landscape in Pratt 1985, p124).

(25) Foulata in King Solomon ’ s Mines is " glad to die because I know that [John Good] cannot cumber his life with such as I am " (King Solomon ’ s Mines , p260). It may be objected that an obvious exception to colonial heroes ’ returning to England after their African adventures is the sequel to King Solomon ’ s Mines , Allan Quatermain (published in the same year as She), in which the party of English adventurers venture once more into Africa; only this time electing not to return to England, but instead to stay with the Zu-Vendi tribe, whose queen Curtis marries in accordance with both Zu-Vendi and Christian custom. It should be noted, though, that the Zu-Vendi, who are significantly geographically cut off from and above the rest of Africa, living as they do on an inaccessible plateau, are not black: " The best bred people in [Zu-Vendis] are ... pure whites with a somewhat southern cast of countenance; but the common herd are much darker, though they do not show any negro or other African characteristics " . Specifically, the queen Nyleptha whom Curtis marries (the fairer of two sisters who initially rule the land, whose dark-haired, olive-skinned twin turns against her only to be defeated, not surprisingly, with the aid of the English heroes) is " a woman of dazzling fairness " with " snow " -like skin, whose ringlets of golden hair half hide her " ivory brow " . Evidently, there is no threat of miscegenation here. See Allan Quatermain, pp158 - 159; p169; pp250 - 251.

(26) King Solomon ’ s Mines is famously (or infamously) dedicated " to all the big and little boys who read it " .

(27) Adler traces Turbott Wolfe’s literary background not only to Haggard, but also to Tramper’s The Travels of Sylvester Tramper (1813), Thomas Forester’s Everard Tunstall: A Tale of the Kaffir Wars (1851), Harriet Ward’s Jasper Lyle: A Tale of Kaffirland (1852) and John Buchan’s Prester John (1910): "By the time Plomer wrote Turbott Wolfe, the fictional figure of the "trader adventurer" was more than a century old and had emerged as an idealised British superhero in the romance novels of writers like Haggard and Buchan. Against this background Wolfe stands out as a figure of "calculated parody". ... It is Wolfe’s ultimate disillusionment and defeat that is the key difference between him and the heroes of "trader adventurer" fiction; and that reveals him as a figure of parody. ... [Wolfe’s] bizarre deathbed setting portrays Wolfe in a satirical light and emphasises his failure as a "trader adventurer" in Africa" (Adler 1988, pp49 - 56). Compare also Gray 1979, p196.

(28) Compare Brantlinger 1985, p189: "White/black unions were not uncommon in reality: the history of the Griqua people and other racially mixed people in South Africa testifies to the contrary. But intermarriage was unheard of in fiction."

(29) On p73, for instance, the white farmer Soper (who boasts that he once castrated a black wagon-driver for having a relationship with a white governess) condemns the trader Alfredson for not being purely white, while in the same breath admitting to lusting after Alfredson ’ s daughter.

(30) "I am bound to say, looking at the thing from the point of view of an oldish man of the world, that I consider her removal was a fortunate occurrence, since, otherwise, complications would have been sure to ensue. The poor creature was no ordinary native girl, but a person of great, I had almost said stately beauty, and of considerable refinement of mind. But no amount of beauty or refinement could have made an entanglement between [John] Good and herself a desirable occurrence; for, as she herself put it, "Can the sun mate with the darkness, or the white with the black?"" - Allan Quatermain’s reflection on Foulata’s death in King Solomon’s Mines, p279.

(31) See Brantlinger 1985, pp168 - 173 and Adler 1988, pp25 - 29.Other descriptions of Nhliziyombi even more obviously present her as a Rousseauan 'noble savage': " She was an ambassadress of all that beauty (it might be called holiness), that intensity of the old wonderful unknown African primitive life - outside history, outside time, outside science. She was a living image of what had been killed by people like Flesher, by our obscene civilisation that conquers everything " (p31).

(32) This introduction of the author into a clearly fictional text might partly be a spoof on earlier colonial texts’ claims to factual accuracy and authenticity, but also has an additional function, on which I elaborate in the main text.

(33) " [I]f Nhliziyombi belongs to the romantic order of noble savage rather than ordinary woman, this is part of the predicament. Unable to see the Africans as ridiculous and ugly, animal-like, as the other whites do, Turbott Wolfe has no choice but to see them as noble and beautiful, god-like. There is no plane of normality on which he can meet them simply as fellow-humans " (Gordimer 1965, p167). I do not agree that the two points of view are as diametrically opposed as Gordimer suggests here. Both parties in fact see the Lembus as animal-like, the main difference being that for Turbott " in that is their chief charm" (p30).


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4.7. Die Frau als Ort der Kulturbegegnung / The Woman as the Place of Cultural Encounter

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Stephen Naudé (Johannesburg): Stephen Naudé (Johannesburg): "A Very Bitter Love-Making". Women as Points of Cross-cultural Encounter in William Plomer’ s Turbott Wolfe. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 21.4.2005     INST