Tuesday, 20 August 2019

No.88 - "Wild Deer": The nature of neglect

Ethelreda Lewis ....

– huh? Ethel who? Exactly.

Ethelreda Lewis, née Howe, born in England in 1875, married and settled in South Africa in 1902. She got deeply embroiled in trade union politics, and produced several books, short stories, poems, and essays on the psychology of race. She published her South African-set novel Wild Deer in 1933. It was not a financial success. By the time the publisher David Philip re-issued it in the Africa South series in 1984, it had fallen into almost total neglect. That neglect has remained: Lewis does not appear at all in the regular literary histories by Michael Chapman, Malvern van Wyk Smith, and Stephen Gray. Wild Deer is overshadowed on the one hand by Lewis’s own three-volume Trader Horn (1927), a best-seller; and, on the other, novels of the same period such as Douglas Blackburn’s Leaven, William Plomer’s Turbot Wolfe, and Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi. I have found no critical treatment devoted to the novel apart from historian Tim Couzens’ excellent introduction to the 1984 edition.

Yet as a novel it is not half bad. In my view, Lewis’s insight, political complexity and stylistic flair are as good as those of her much more famous near-contemporary, Olive Schreiner, if not better. Like Schreiner, the outsider Lewis saw all too clearly the abuses colonialism and capital were inflicting on black people; like Schreiner, she detested Cecil John Rhodes and his money-grubbing, territory-grabbing ilk. Lewis got more directly involved in politics, repeatedly over-stepping the Colour Bar, and had a serious influence on the nascent trade union movement. She made particular friends with Clement Kadalie, an avowed communist and also an outsider (from Nyasaland). Her liberal, anti-establishment views found their way into several of Wild Deer’s characters, who range from communist activists to missionaries to an idealistic nature-lover. To Lewis’s credit, she does not come down simplistically on any one character’s side, not even that of her protagonist, a visiting African-American (in the parlance of the day, Negro), globally-successful singer named de la Harpe. (He is probably partly based on Paul Robeson, lines from whose song “Waterboy” form the epigraph to Part One.)

In his introduction, Tim Couzens (who later picked up Lewis’s subject of the semi-mythical traveller Trader Horn to write his own book, Tramp Royal) devotes most space to the complexities of the trade union movement and the obsessive racial dynamic. He makes only passing reference to literary quality and to the dimension that most interests me: the pervasive presence of the natural and animal world – starting with the title. But I don’t think one can make full sense of Lewis’s treatment of racial politics without incorporating animality and Nature (she always uses the capital N). In short, I’ll sketch the beginnings of an ecocritical reading of the novel.
Cartoon of Lewis cradling 'Trader Horn'. aka Aloysius Smith.
(courtesy Africana Museum, via Amazwi Museum of 
Literature [NELM]. Thanks especially to Marike Beyers.)

The title page carries an epigraph from her favourite poet, William Blake: The wild deer, wandering here and there, Keeps the human heart from care. Thus Lewis introduces a Romantic theme – the seeking of escape from industrialised civilisation into the sweet bosom of Nature – and it is maintained through to the end, though constantly modified, even contradicted, by reality. From the first page, de la Harpe, still on the boat headed for Cape Town, is becoming aware that his dream of reconnecting with some authentically “savage” African heritage, some pure precursor to his own slave history, is doomed. Just a week’s contact with English and Dutch South Africans had “wilted” a sentimental belief that he might encounter men “still free to wander up the centuries from savagery in Nature’s way, not the white man’s way” (16). In his journal he scribbles: “Oh God, have we lost our human joy in the solidity of rocks, the life in trees, in the rivers, in the seas...?” Too long enslaved, black people find their scope for discovery pre-empted, usurped: “Never shall a negro stand at his ship’s rail, discoverer of new lands on this earth ... The waterways are crowded. Savage man, the jungle beasts, look up and see the airplane staring into the inmost shrines of Nature ...” (14).

These early comments introduce at least two dominant ideas which might be regarded as deeply problematic nowadays, even offensive. One is an equation the characters (and/or the author) often make between pre-colonial people and wild animals.  The American de la Harpe feels Africans are “brothers [who] are in the hands of spoilers as a wild deer struggles in the mysterious muscular contractions of the python” (103). Though the Reef’s mines are no worse than Europe’s, the mode of oppression is unique, as if “bright zebras, great horizons reflected in their wild eyes, should suddenly be set to do the work of blind pit-ponies ... the innocence of Nature about to be outraged” (109). This naivety about the innocence of an Arcadian and animalistic “kraal” life cannot survive, however: de la Harpe wants his ideal Africans to “wander free as elephants”, but realises they would also fight one another, albeit never on the scale of Europe’s Great War of 1914 (165), as well as predatory aspects of nature. Lewis does appear to interrogate her own idealism.

The animal-savage equation is thus not as simplistic as it might seem. Unlike later derogatory usages, in Lewis’s formula it is always positive. She applies animal metaphors to almost all her characters, black and white; there are dozens throughout the novel. Her narrative technique is also slippery, often ventriloquistic, the point-of-view shifting between interiorities in a manner more Modernist than anything Schreiner ever attempted, so that one can’t always be sure what is a character’s ideas, and what the author’s, and what might shortly be undermined or contradicted.

A second governing idea draws a stark dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’. De la Harpe brings with him an illusory image of Africa as a palm-fringed bucolic Eden, “primitive” and “savage” but naturally liberated, which is starkly opposed to a white-imported “civilisation” which is predatory, racist, and riddled with its own problems. Thus he is disappointed by Cape Town, a “low-built nondescript town sending its feelers between fir-clad mountain slopes. He had not wanted to see firs in Africa” (36). Deep into the novel, despite a series of troubling and hurtful incidents of both white racism and black suspicion – his colour does not automatically act as a bridge to an African identity – he clings to the illusion, if only in a moment of transcendent singing in which

he plunged deeply into the mood of the homeless patriot, articulate and seeking. ... It was the mood in which he had come to Africa, sought out this town, these cold enemy eyes. It was the mood in which he would presently flee this town, these troll-like eyes, to the secret wild places where black men still dwelt in happy oblivion on the breast of Africa... (195-6)

If we regard de la Harpe as a vehicle for Lewis’s own views, we might suspect her of the most gauche and romanticised version of ‘primitivism’. She is canny enough, though, to make her hero both different from herself, and often palpably deluded. Nevertheless, the novel is acidic in its criticism of industrial modernity. Its physical pollutions are symptomatic of a whole mentality that is mechanised, pessimistic, cynical. Interestingly, Lewis expresses this in terms of water-control:
Ethelreda Lewis
(courtesy Africana Museum, via Amazwi Museum of
Literature [NELM].)

System ... As if good-will could grow out of system. It is true that a river grows strong because it has cut itself a channel, but surely the channel must be cut wildly, impetuously – here a deep pool, here a violent, curve, here a headlong plunge over a precipice. The stagnant canals of Holland have no force; the water, the spirit, decays, it is divorced from Nature.(18)

This ‘natural anarchism’ will still appeal to those who feel trapped in modern over-regulated crowding and to advocates of ‘re-wilding’ as a counter to enviro-spiritual damage. At other points, Lewis bemoans the pollution generated by the mining around ‘Goldburg’, her name for Johannesburg.  Another idiosyncratically well-meaning character, Father Macmichael, tells de la Harpe that in his view “it would be nearer to the way and the will of Christ to keep Africa immaculately heathen rather than spread Christianity that comes tainted from the mines” (114). Together they gaze over “the repellent substance of a slimes-dam” where the natives, wrenched into the wretched near-slavery of the migrant labour system, “become part of the residue, the unusable waste of humanity” (115).  Father Macmichael fulminates:

In the compounds the sin against the Holy Ghost, against the innermost shrine of Nature, sweeps like a germ-laden breath from the deep sewers of civilisation ... Not a savage boar, not a venomous snake, not a cannibal spider, not a carrion vulture, not a lascivious baboon but is cleaner than primitive man forced by his chains to defile the laws of Nature. There is only one creature lower, and he is the white man who, in pursuit of gold, will thrust a young savage into the atmosphere of perversion ... (111)

Just the other day I was watching a documentary about Johannesburg communities of today suffering health issues from those very same mine-dumps. Little has changed in ninety years – or, to put it another way, Lewis was nothing if not environmentally prescient.

So, late in the story, de la Harpe does escape the city, largely through the efforts of a character named Brand Colenbrander. Colenbrander espouses a philosophy perhaps closest to Lewis’s own, a philosophy gleaned in part, probably, from James Stevenson-Hamilton, first warden of Kruger National Park whom Lewis had met, and in part from the natural mysticism of Jan Christian Smuts. Colenbrander summarises:

De la Harpe, the dominant race in Africa must be black. Not to-day. Not to-morrow. Ultimately. The white man must let Nature have her way – let her keep her black children where he found them. There’d be more harmony in the world if that were so. ... You know what old Thoreau said: ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world’. By God, he was a prophet. It’s time we remembered the Thoreaus and the Blakes before it’s too late... (272)

A century later, that last message is arguably more relevant and urgent than ever.

Like Lewis herself, Colenbrander swims against the tide of white supremacist racism, using his wealth to buy up land to preserve one last haven for both wildlife and a more or less still independent and pristine tribe, the “Macas”. (Lewis probably bases them on the actual people of Tshikedi of Bechuanaland, whose proud independence she admired.) He knows that this haven is doomed, that white capitalist ‘progress’ will overwhelm his vision of any separate evolutionary development towards an authentically black Africa.

Yet the novel itself, with its tenuously positive if Quixotic ending, suggests that the dream is worth preserving, even if only symbolically. Perhaps not coincidentally, Colenbrander’s natural haven seems set somewhere around the North Coast, not far from where Laurens van der Post would portray a similar remoteness in his novel Flamingo Feather. Van der Post would go on to promote an analogous set of views, critiquing modernity through valorising indigenous peoples’ closeness to Nature and its slower, more subtle and sustainable rhythms. For all her political rebelliousness, some of her views were widely shared. Ethelreda Lewis was a woman of her time, drawing on terminologies that now might seem to us dangerously quaint; in Paul Rich’s view, she “represented the last phases of the old post-war urban settlement liberalism rather than anything substantially new.”  But in her conjunction of ecological concerns and race dynamics, she seems to me strikingly in touch with identity politics which have acquired renewed currency today.



  1. Thank you for this. Ever since I discovered the Trader Horn books and especially since reading Tim Couzens' Tramp Royal I have felt Ethelreda Lewis got a raw deal. Any recognition of her insight and her courage I feel is deserved. I'm pleased to see you rate her writing skills too. - - bewilderbeast.org

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