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.
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.