The Anglo-Boer War broke out on 11 October 1899. Two and three-quarter years later, at a conservative estimate, 22,000 Britons, 25,000 Boers and at least 12,000 Africans were dead: Anglo-Boer relations would not recover for a century. The centenary, one gathers, has been celebrated in the new South Africa with a certain diffidence. What could Nelson Mandela or his successor really contribute to the occasion? The English South Africans had been triumphant for a time, and had the wit to extend the hand of friendship to their enemies in the Union of 1910. The Boers took revenge in 1948 and we all know the unhappy story since then. Both sides are now bypassed for ever.
One of the legacies of this emotionally charged colonial war, which has only recently slipped beyond living memory, was the phenomenon of the ‘Boer War novel’. Scores and scores of them were produced in the 1900s, all now forgotten; a very few have merit and a clever South African publisher would have taken the anniversary as an excuse to reprint them. Instead, Giles Foden and Ann Harries have produced new examples of the genre.
In his first novel, The Last King of Scotland, Foden brilliantly re-created the Uganda of General Amin, portrayed with increasing horror through the eyes of a naive young Scottish doctor. He evidently remembers Uganda very well (as I can vouch, having lived there a little earlier) and, in his second novel, it is obvious that he also knows Natal. Ladysmith tells of the 118-day siege of the British garrison town, the ‘Aldershot of South Africa’, in the hills of Northern Natal. Trapped in the town were 13,500 soldiers, 5500 white civilians and 2500 Africans and Indians, not to mention 12,500 livestock. The eventual relief of Ladysmith by General Sir Redvers Buller was for the British public one of the great dramas of the war. Foden claims that his narrative is based in part on the letters of his trooper great-grandfather.
Among his characters are a number of historical figures. The dispassionate observers of the siege are three London foreign correspondents: Nevinson of the Daily Chronicle, Steevens of the Daily Mail and MacDonald of the Argus (Steevens, the most gifted, would die in Ladysmith); all of them published books which Foden has used as source material. Steevens seems to have been a classic Guardian type: ‘Milner, Rhodes, even Chamberlain is culpable to some degree. They are all after the gold and diamond fields really, and to my mind that makes the whole thing stink.’ Nevinson, too, had the right stuff: he ‘thought about the black families he had seen on the way up here, as the rumour of war swept the country. Thought, too, about the Dutch women and children being rounded up and brought in by British soldiers from farms close to Ladysmith.’ There is also ‘the Biographer’, who is recording the war on a prototype cine-camera: although he remains anonymous, he must be W.K.-L. Dickson, the pioneering filmmaker – Foden’s failure to name him may have something to do with the fact that he has an intimately described homosexual relationship with a soldier.
To these men, and a subsidiary cast that includes ‘real’ people like General Sir George White, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, General Buller and Milner, Foden adds the figure of Leo Kiernan, who owns and runs Ladysmith’s hotel. A former Republican Brotherhood activist on the run from Ireland, he is embittered after the killing of his wife by English soldiers, and acts as the Boers’ spy in the town, reporting to the ‘Irish Brigade’ in the Boer Army which was led by John MacBride (the husband of Maud Gonne; I assume Kiernan is the novelist’s creation). Kiernan has two feisty daughters, Bella and Jane, who supply the romantic subplots very efficiently. Bella will ingeniously escape the siege with her Portuguese hairdresser by observation balloon. The Biographer’s trooper boyfriend will have his head shot off, and his brother, also a trooper, will finish up with Jane Kiernan.
All of this is done with great confidence and panache. Foden’s Natal is precisely described, though less intensely observed than the Uganda of his previous book: I still don’t understand the geography of the siege. But the detail is vividly conveyed: the random slaughter from the bombardment of the Boer ‘Long Tom’ shells; the appalling (and historically unrecorded) plight of the local Africans; the slow starvation – the reliance on ‘Chevril’, for instance, a version of Bovril made from horses; the anguish of the decent Afrikaner doctor whose wife is trapped inside the town and who saves the life of an African; the retreat to a honeycomb of caves above the river.
The foreign correspondents are conscious of the anachronistic nature of a siege. ‘Medieval?’ the sick Steevens asks.
It’s more ancient than that. Sieges are out of date. In the days of Troy to be besieged was the natural lot of man: to give ten years at a stretch to it, why, it was all in a life’s work: then there was nothing else to do ... But to the man of 1899, with five editions of the evening paper every day, a siege is a thousandfold hardship.
And all the time Buller’s relief column moves ever so slowly towards the town: the General’s reputation would never recover, though some acknowledged that he was forced to travel through desperately difficult terrain, facing an enemy whose guerrilla skills became a model for later insurgencies.
Foden does not conceal his debt to Thomas Pakenham’s classic history, The Boer War (1979). A less skilful novelist might have been tempted to exaggerate the plight of Ladysmith, but Foden does not pretend that the town was ever at its last gasp, and agrees that it could have been held for another month or so. In the end, the Boers slipped away one night in February 1900.
Ann Harries’s first novel is set in Cape Town in 1899, immediately before the outbreak of war. Cecil Rhodes, knowing that he is critically ill, sends for an ornithologist from Oxford to bring out hundreds of British songbirds who are to colonise the slopes of Table Mountain and revive the dying man. The professor, Francis Wills, who has an uncanny gift for imitating the song of these birds – and happens to be another gay photographer – is, I assume, fictional, but he is joined at Groote Schuur by Dr Jameson, Alfred Milner, the Kiplings, Frank Harris, Olive Schreiner, the hunter-explorer Selous, the ‘Russian Princess’ who famously tried to ensnare Rhodes, all of them ‘real’, like the friends he has left in England (Dodgson, Ruskin, Wilde etc).
Of course, the birds will not sing because it is winter when they arrive in the Southern Hemisphere. The innocent professor is caught up in a plot by Olive Schreiner to extract from Rhodes’s safe the telegrams which will prove that Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, had been involved in the Jameson Raid of 1895, which in effect led to the war. The newly brave professor says to Jameson:
In my breast pocket I have the eight missing telegrams which were not produced at the Inquiry. They indisputably prove Joseph Chamberlain’s support and encouragement of your incursion. If they are published now the Colonial Secretary will be reviled as a blatant liar and your name will be for ever cleared. More than that, if Britain’s guilty secrets are bared to the public, an Anglo-Boer war will become an impossibility.
Both of these books raise questions about the use of ‘real’ characters in fiction. A couple of years ago I played a similar game, with a novel which ‘featured’ Milner, Chamberlain, Buchan, Kruger etc, but I was writing a pastiche and felt free to use caricature without apology and without hope of profundity. Foden and Harries boldly push past this and, for entirely serious ends, seek to make real ‘characters’ of many of these same people. But is it possible, in a novel, to inject convincing life into historically defined figures?
How can we pretend that we know what was in Buller’s mind? Are we to believe that Rhodes thought that the songbirds might save him, and, if so, is it not equally possible that Schreiner tried to rob his safe? Was Frank Harris in Cape Town in 1899? Did Churchill really arrange for the Biographer to be promoted to the captain’s table? Did the ‘real’ Biographer seduce a Trooper Barnes? Did Bella – or someone like Bella – exist? And Torres, her Portuguese lover? Was there really a siege of a place called Ladysmith? Was there indeed a war between Boer and Brit?
When a famous name is brought into a novel we cannot fully believe in that character because we are constrained by our existing knowledge, and so, curiously enough, we end up without any proper characterisation at all. Far better to keep the ‘names’ in the background, while allowing the author’s own creatures to take centre stage. You can only incorporate Rhodes and Milner (or Napoleon or Claudius) into fiction as caricature: if you want to know about Rhodes (or Napoleon) read a biography.
Consider a couple of examples from these two excellent novels: ‘What is your name, by the way?’ the Biographer asks of a stretcher-bearer in Ladysmith.
The Indian had taken off his glasses and was cleaning the lenses with a cotton handkerchief.
‘Gandhi,’ he said. ‘Mohandas K. Gandhi.’
Or take Jameson in Manly Pursuits, venturing a glimpse of the future: ‘If what you say is true, we might as well prepare ourselves for a kaffir to run this country, live in this house, sit at this table, drink out of this remarkable flask.’ Would Jameson really have been likely to say that, or is the author making a pretty laboured point? I prefer the romantic anguish of the fictional Bella, the pathetic timidity of the whistling professor. Indeed, I believe in Foden’s Bella and in Harries’s invented professor more than I do in Gandhi the brave ambulanceman and the scheming Dr Jameson. That must say something about the power of fiction.