The Romance of Africa: Gender, Adventure and Imperialism in the Novels of Winifred Holtby.

Dr Lisa Regan

Liverpool John Moores University

‘Is this an adventure or not, oh rare adventurer?’ Winifred Holtby wrote to her friend Jean McWilliam in 1925, exuberant at the prospect of travel to South Africa (Holtby and McWilliam, 323). Inspired by McWilliam’s emigration there in 1920, Holtby decided to finally visit the country that had fascinated her since her Yorkshire childhood (Shaw, 168). She set sail for the Union of South Africa in January 1926 to conduct a lecture tour for the League of Nations: an adventure that was to have a lasting imaginative and political impact on her thought and fiction. 

Even before her African adventure, Holtby was attentive to the fraught dynamics of international politics, her perspective shaped not only by the First World War, during which she served as a member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France, but also by the Irish Civil War and her work for the League of Nations. ‘The day of imperialism has passed’, she wrote in 1922, ‘I heard its curfew sound when the guns startled the pigeons in Huchenneville orchard on Armistice day. Imperialism is really nothing more than dynamic and aggressive nationality’ (Holtby and McWilliam, 87). This ebullient hope faded, however, after her experiences in South Africa, where it became apparent to Holtby that imperialist attitudes persisted through racial divisions. This insight informs all her fiction after 1926, but particularly her novels set in and around Africa: The Land of Green Ginger (1927) and Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933). Both reveal how imperialism, understood according to Edward Said’s definition as ‘the practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan centre ruling a distant territory’ (8) could be manifestly problematised within the ‘middlebrow’ novel.

Said’s (88, 227) contrapuntal readings of the nineteenth-century English novel unmask it as constituted by and productive of imperialist ideology, subsequently self-consciously and ironically explored in the works of Conrad, Forster and T.E. Lawrence with the move towards a modernist aesthetic. Whilst Said unveils the imperialist assumptions of high literature, Billie Melman (97-102, 137-8) alternatively highlights the attitudes of racial distinction and Western superiority shaping the imaginative terrain of lowbrow fiction such as the ‘desert romance’ and ‘Empire romance’. This paper will explore how Holtby’s fiction positions the interwar ‘middlebrow’ novel in critical dialogue with high and lowbrow representations of Africa as an exotic, distinct and inferior ‘other’. Instead of accentuating racial hierarchies and divisions between Africa and Britain, Holtby’s ‘middlebrow’ novels foreground economic and cultural exchange, emphasising international connections and interdependency. This is achieved through the semantic play on romance in relation to gender, adventure and imperialism, whereby the masculine imperial romance, descended from chivalric romance and the cultural desire for adventure into the exotic and unknown, is intersected by the marriage plot (Brantlinger, 227-253; McClure, 9). Derided as ‘betwixt and between’ by Woolf (114), the ‘middlebrow’ novel’s hybridity can therefore be read both aesthetically and culturally as unfolding an alternative romance of Africa which challenges high and lowbrow assumptions about imperial and gender identity.

Holtby’s South African Adventure
Holtby’s desire for travel was not unique among women of her generation. Following her nineteenth-century predecessors, the interwar female traveller epitomised modern, independent femininity, exercising a widening sphere of intellectual and political influence not only at home but also abroad within the Empire (Melman, 94-95; Grewal, 79-83). Holtby’s lecture tour took her to the major South African cities, including Cape Town, Johannesburg and also Pretoria, where Jean McWilliam lived and worked as a schoolteacher (Brittain, 198-233). Expecting only to learn about Anglo-Boer relations in a country still coming to terms with its recent emergence as a Dominion since 1910, her adventure opened her eyes to the more urgent question of racial divisions and escalating racial violence. In a letter to Brittain, dated 15th March 1926, Holtby speculated ‘South Africa probably is on the eve of a big crisis - . .  . a colour crisis’, adding that ‘[t]he next twenty years must see some big changes here. The stupidity and selfishness of the average South African in the face of the colour danger is amazing – and the danger only arises because of that selfish stupidity’ (Brittain and Handley-Taylor, 104-105). She identified four social and economic strata in South Africa: the first being the artistic elite amongst whom Holtby was mingling and meeting intellectuals such as Ethelreda Lewis, Oliver Schreiner (the nephew of Olive Schreiner), and the novelist Sarah Gertrude Millin. The second was the world of the leisured lady, happily absorbed in country clubs and teashops, whilst the third was the world of the businessmen. The fourth was the world of the blacks:

There are common lodging-houses of indescribable corruption, where men die of phthisis amid the drunken brawling of their fellow-lodgers. Black prostitutes spread syphilis from small evil hovels in the backyards of those elegant houses where engineers’ wives play bridge. Fastidious Johannesburg will not tolerate the contamination of black girls and men sleeping in white houses, so it shuts them off into squalid yards. (qtd. in Brittain, 215)

Holtby’s description uncovers the economic, social and sexual degradation of the black Africans compared to the white elite, emphasising the intersections of race, class and gender through the stark contrast between the ‘[b]lack prostitutes’ and ‘wives play[ing] bridge’. Indeed these revelations of racial inequality continued to shape her feminism and socialism, and motivated what was to become her life-long political support for black trade unionism (Shaw, 175; Bush, "Britain's Conscience on Africa" 200-223).

On her return to Britain, Holtby began canvassing the Independent Labour Party (ILP) to provide administrative and financial support for Clements Kadalie’s Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU), founded in 1919 to represent and mobilise black workers in South Africa. Much like Ethelreda Lewis’ liberal intellectual clique in South Africa, however, the ILP feared the communist tendencies within the ICU and was reluctant to ever commit to anything other than an advisory role. Not to be defeated, Holtby helped to establish an ‘African Group’ in 1927, which came to be known as the ‘Friends of Africa’ by 1934, and had associations with the ILP, as well as the Socialist League. Money was raised through this political group to fund an administrator, William Ballinger, to work with the ICU in South Africa, with the aim of guiding black trade unionists away from violent communism and facilitating social and economic improvement for black workers. Although Ballinger was initially welcomed by the ICU, its leaders later became hostile and its sponsors disillusioned. After ten years, Ballinger’s work in South Africa achieved little advancement for black working and living conditions, during which time it often fell to Holtby to personally fund his salary in the absence of other funds (Shaw, 177-187; Bush, "Britain's Conscience" 207-211; Bush, Imperialism 198-218).

Despite the difficulties and frustrations of her ‘Africa work’, Holtby remained committed to fighting racial discrimination not only in South Africa but also at home in Britain, where there was an increasing number of black residents in the interwar period. Holtby was a member of the Joint Council to Promote Understanding Between White and Coloured People in Great Britain, of the Council for Promoting Equality of Civil Rights Between White and Coloured Peoples and of the League of Coloured People. She also offered financial support to African and Caribbean students in Britain, as well as hosting and attending interracial salons (Shaw, 188-189; Bush, "Britain's Conscience" 208-209; Bush, Imperialism 82). After one such salon, Holtby wrote enthusiastically to Vera Brittain of having ‘[d]iscussed the colour question, miscegenation, birth control and race prejudice inside out’ (Brittain, 380). One of the attendees was the Jamaican poet, playwright and journalist, Una Marson, whom Holtby befriended. Marson had been keen to meet Holtby after learning of her work in South Africa and reading Mandoa, Mandoa! (Jarrett-Macauley, 76). The conversation between these two like-minded literary women was a source of inspiration to both: Marson, encouraged by Holtby’s understanding of race relations, decided to dedicate her autobiography to Holtby, who in turn learnt of Marson’s first-hand experiences as a black woman in Jamaica and Britain (Jarrett-Macauley, 82-83).   

Holtby’s sphere of influence and connections in matters of race relations rested on her status as a renowned political journalist. On her return to Britain in 1926, Holtby was made a director of the feminist journal, Time and Tide, founded in 1920 by Lady Margaret Rhondda. By contributing articles to this journal, in addition to socialist newspapers such as the Nation and Athenaeum and New Leader, she sought to bring the racial inequalities of Afrikaner nationalism to the attention of the British public. She exposed General Herzog’s four Native Bills as merely pretending to institute political and economic parity between Blacks and Whites when in reality they legitimated racial segregation to secure white privileges. Not only did the bills disenfranchise black Africans, they also exacerbated the grossly unequal distribution of land, whilst land enclosures and evictions drove black families into unemployment and urban overcrowding (Holtby “Better and Brighter Natives”, 183).  The economic injustices of the South African labour market, legislated by the 1926 Colour Bar Act which had motivated Holtby’s support of black trade unionism, were also laid bare for the British public. Ensuring the economic subordination of black workers, the act was described by Holtby as being ‘designed to keep natives out of skilled industrial employment’ (“Better and Brighter Natives”, 183) and maintain their wages at one-sixth of the standard white European wage (Holtby “Progress or Slavery”, 187). This act, Holtby made clear, was reinforced by the Masters and Servants Acts and Labour Regulation Acts, making it a penal offence for black workers to breach a contract (“Progress or Slavery”, 188). Urging her readers to recognise the inequalities suffered by black Africans, Holtby stressed ‘[w]e must act for we dare not face the consequences of an Africa enslaved’ (“Progress or Slavery”, 189). 

Holtby had returned from her South African adventure a dedicated political activist, committed to overcoming racial discrimination and inequality, passionate about rectifying the injustices borne of what she understood as ‘failures of the imagination’ to conceive of black Africans as part of common humanity (Holtby “Jan Christiaan Smuts”, 198). Through both her journalism and fiction, Holtby endeavoured to correct ‘these abrupt failures of the imagination’ in her readership by exposing the cultural, economic and political interconnections between Britain and Africa.

‘Betwixt and Between’: Hybridity and Interdependence
In a 1935 article for the Left Review entitled, ‘What We Read And Why We Read It’, Holtby (112) identified ‘a large and ever increasing body of competent fiction’ read by the ‘great intermediate class of novel reading public’, thereby identifying what can be termed the ‘middlebrow’ (112). Yet although she located her own work within this stratum of the literary market, she never used the term ‘middlebrow’ herself. She nevertheless distinguished this class of fiction from the avant-garde and ‘the wish-fulfilment of cheap fiction’ such as romances, Wild West, foreign legion and gangster fiction (112). Where the lowbrow popular fiction ‘constitute[d] a form of emotional indulgence’ (113) for Holtby, the difficulty and obscurity of avant-garde writers such as Woolf meant that they were ‘unlikely ever to command the allegiance of a wide contemporary public’ (Holtby, Virginia Woolf 201-202). By contrast, she recognised that her own class of ‘middlebrow’ novels commanded a wide readership and that ‘[o]n their social and ethical values [were] constructed the social and ethical values of the middle-class’ (Holtby, “What We Read” 112). This attention to the act of reading and its relationship to class identity and political consciousness points to a materialist conception of culture which underlines the author’s potential and responsibility to shape and reform readers’ attitudes. ‘What we read is closely associated with what we are and how we live’, Holtby ("What We Read", 114) argues, and ‘the springs of taste are social and economic as well as cultural and individual’. Exploiting this potential in ‘middlebrow’ fiction, Holtby can be seen to instruct and correct the ‘failures of the imagination’ in a large middle-class, British public oblivious to the reality of poverty and racial division in South Africa (“Jan Christaan Smuts”, 198).  

Nicola Humble has further defined Holtby’s fiction and her readership as belonging to the ‘feminine middlebrow’: a ‘cultural construct’ including novels, authors and their reading community identified by shared class traits, questions of taste and a continuity with nineteenth-century realism mixed in with class humour and a focus on gender and domesticity (28). Self-conscious references to reading in Holtby’s novels, particularly South Riding (393), imply that she was well aware of the nature of her ‘feminine middlebrow’ readership and the influence such reading had on middle-class feminine subjectivity (Shaw, 255-56). Written in an era when British women had not only gained the vote but also enjoyed increased social, educational and economic emancipation, Holtby’s novels reflect these advancements for women and evidence her feminist commitment to educating female readers on how to make use of these new freedoms for personal as well as wider political progress. This includes fostering recognition of the home, as nation and domestic space, in relation to its economic and cultural connections with the Empire. Alison Light has identified within the woman’s ‘middlebrow’ novel ‘an idea of an imperial subjectivity, fraught and divided within itself’ (211). Certainly we see this developed in Holtby’s The Land of Green Ginger and Mandoa, Mandoa! where the newly enfranchised female reader is encouraged to look out beyond the home to the Empire and contemplate her direct yet ambivalent political participation in an imperial culture responsible for subjugating both women and colonised races.  

Imperial subjectivity manifests itself in Holtby’s novels through the very hybridity of the ‘middlebrow’, not merely in terms of its allusions and debts to highbrow modernism and lowbrow romance, but also by foregrounding the interdependence between home and empire. Holtby’s African adventure enabled her to negotiate between the modernist, psychological journey into the primitive and the exotic sexual fantasies of the lowbrow desert and ‘Empire romance’ (Gikandi, 178-189; Melman, 89-104, 134-144). Deliberately abstracting her first-hand travel experiences into overtly fantastical settings, Holtby avoids the realistic travel detail of African locations characteristic of the ‘Empire romance’ and equally refuses to reduce the South African veldt to a modernist exploration of the Western psyche. Holtby’s novels therefore use fantasy to accentuate rather than marginalise the underlying realities of economic, political and cultural interdependence binding Britain to its fantasised savage ‘other’. Disparities and injustices in the British and African landscapes are made to chime together to produce what Holtby, in a 1926 letter to McWilliam described as ‘the two-dimensional effect’, an effect that she experimented with in The Land of Green Ginger and which reached its accomplishment in her fifth novel, Mandoa, Mandoa! (Holtby and McWilliam, 435).

This emphasis on interdependence and integration present in Holtby’s novels can be situated within a wider ‘middlebrow’ context in light of Christina Klein’s Cold War Orientalism. Klein focuses on representations of Asia amidst competing cold war ideologies of containment and integration to reveal how the American ‘middlebrow’ culturally and ideologically legitimated its nation’s policies of economic expansion and globalisation. Instead of finding a process of ‘orientalism’ at work in these ‘middlebrow’ texts seeking to reinforce racial hierarchies and distinctions, Klein identifies an alternative emphasis on cultural connections and international interdependence (Klein, 5-16). Interdependence between East and West, between the metropolis and colony, underpins Said’s analysis of the novel in Culture and Imperialism (1993). As he makes clear, ‘[i]f I have insisted on integration and connections between the past and the present, between imperializer and imperialized, between culture and imperialism, I have done so not to level or reduce differences, but rather to convey a more urgent sense of the interdependence between things’ (72). Interdependency in terms of recognising the complexity of difference, exchange and integration is precisely what characterises Holtby’s ‘middlebrow’ depiction of Africa and international relations. In contrast to Klein’s cold war ‘middlebrows’ however, Holtby invokes global interdependence to criticise rather than endorse national, and for that matter personal, advancement. As such, this interdependence is never idealized in Holtby’s novels, which not only undermine complacent assumptions of national isolation but moreover self-consciously interrogate the personal, humanitarian and economic motivations for an integrated vision of Britain and Africa.

The Land of Green Ginger (1927)
Always admiring of her fellow female adventurers, Holtby wrote to Jean McWilliam in 1926, remarking that ‘V. Sackville-West has written a beautiful travel book. She went off to Persia through Iraq, and saw a station with “Change here for Babylon” on it – and stayed with Gertrude Bell, that lovely woman’ (Holtby and McWilliam, 432). The year of Holtby’s African adventure, 1926, was notable for its travel literature and the awakening interest in the Middle East sparked by the Arab revolts and T. E. Lawrence, whose Seven Pillars of Wisdom was also published in this year (Melman, 94). Dedicated to her childhood friend, Henry Pearson, ‘a philosopher in Peshawar who said that he wanted something to read’, Holtby’s third novel, The Land of Green Ginger, nods to this fascination with the Middle East, given that ‘H. [was] in India with Lawrence of Arabia’ at this time having ‘found his romance at last’ (Holtby and McWilliam, 449). Holtby’s novel, however, took its main inspiration from Africa, as Holtby was to relate to Brittain in May 1926:

I have a vague idea for a new novel, germinating in the back of my mind [...] a newish notion for making use of any travel experiences I may have had without moving the scene from Yorkshire... It all takes place at East Witton on the Wensleydale moors, but its vitality is to come from Hungary, Finland, South Africa and China! (qtd. in Brittain, 222)

Rather than following the trend for travel writing or choosing to set her novel in Africa, Holtby was keen to bring her travel experiences home to the Yorkshire landscape which she knew. This reticence to pronounce on Africa after only six months was certainly seeded in her mind by Jean McWilliam’s cautionary letters. Even before embarking on her trip, Holtby responded to Jean’s concerns about this literary appropriation of Africa: ‘As for a South African novel. That is a different question. I can write novels, and stories too, only on what is in my blood, part of my very self. That is why I can only really write with certainty of Yorkshire’ (Holtby and McWilliam, 313).

The novel’s multi-national and hybrid perspective is therefore embodied in its protagonist, Joanna, who is born in South Africa, the daughter of an imaginative and adventurous missionary’s wife but raised by her spinster aunts in Yorkshire after her mother’s death in childbirth. Joanna inherits her mother’s adventurous spirit and yearns to return to her South African birthplace. This return to South Africa, imagined as ‘the goal of all men’s longing’ by Joanna, governs the trajectory of the narrative (Land of Green Ginger, 20). Named after Johannesburg, Joanna is the ‘Adventurers’ daughter’, conceived in contrast to the stereotypical male adventurers of late Victorian imperial romance. This revision of the masculine imperial romance to foreground a female protagonist’s adventure aligns The Land of Green Ginger with the popular magazine stories of ‘Empire romance’. As Melman has identified, the ‘Empire romance’ followed two main paradigms of the emigration story: the ‘Proper English woman’ who travelled to the colony or commonwealth to find a home or husband, and the woman born in the colony pursued and finally won by the Englishman (137). Joanna’s longing for South Africa might therefore be elided with a longing for marriage and home as in the ‘Empire romance’ but she is not a typical heroine for this genre. Having been born in South Africa, she is neither a ‘Proper English woman’ nor in need of domestication through marriage to an Englishman. Indeed, Joanna’s inability to conceive of England as her real home opens up the critical space for Holtby to interrogate feminine identity in relation to the home, romance and marriage.

Departing from the ‘Empire romance’, Holtby depicts travel and sexual romance as mutually exclusive. The novel’s sub-title, ‘A Romance’, thus reverberates with the competing narratives of marriage and travel to South Africa, recalling the imperial romance genre. Playing out this equivocal sense of romance, the novel upturns the conventional romance plot and begins rather than ends with Joanna embarking on marriage. Convinced that it is the adventure she has been seeking all her life, Joanna imagines ‘marriage will be one long voyage of discovery’ (LoGG, 31) but is sorely disappointed. Her husband, Teddy, whom she had fantasised as the adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh, proves instead to be a consumptive ascetic, embittered by his personal sacrifice in the First World War and agonised by his thwarted ambitions to join the clergy. Another male traveller, the family’s Hungarian lodger, also becomes a romantic hero for Joanna’s displaced fantasies of travel. Paul Szermai’s foreign presence on the Yorkshire farm and the exotic hues he and his party of East European foresters cast over the bleak Yorkshire landscape enchant Joanna. Yet his personal story of travels to Finland and Russia during the Hungarian revolution replicates Teddy’s bitter sense of loss rather than idealistic fulfilment. His is no heroic tale of adventure but a harrowing account of political treachery, imprisonment and bereavement. Travel is allied here with the violent realities of Bolshevik upheaval, revealed through Szermai’s tragic story of alienation and loss, an insight no doubt informed by Holtby’s attempts to avert communist extremism within South Africa’s black trade union movement. Trapped between these two damaged and destructive men, Joanna becomes the unwitting object of desire for Szermai’s frustrated grief. Her husband’s insane jealousy reaches a disturbing climax in marital rape, which leaves Joanna pregnant.  

After the death of her husband and disappearance of the Hungarian lodger, Joanna is left feeling ‘lost in an alien place’ (LoGG, 288), and forced to realise that Scatterthwaite ‘has become a foreign country’ (LoGG, 293). Socially marginalised as a consumptive’s widow and suspected adulteress, she becomes a stigmatised foreign ‘other’ in the Yorkshire landscape. Joanna’s open-hearted love of the immigrant East European foresters’ culture and her friendship with the Hungarian lodger feed village gossip, turning village hostilities to the immigrants against her also. Her home of Scatterthwaite farm becomes the exoticised and morally depraved site of ‘nameless orgies’ in the villagers’ imaginations (LoGG, 117). Joanna’s inability to conform to class and sexual propriety, along with her outlandish behaviour and dress, highlight her alterity in English society. Her final determination is to liberate herself and her daughters by leaving Yorkshire to find her true home in South Africa; finishing one romance narrative and beginning an adventure romance.

The Land of Green Ginger depicts both the lure of foreign climes and also the factors propelling the female adventurer to emigration. As a widow who then also declines the civilising Vicar’s hand in marriage, Joanna represents not only a foreign ‘other’ in the English landscape but also one of those threatening superfluous women – widows, spinsters and flappers - castigated by the interwar press. Melman identifies how the ‘Empire romance’ chimed with the economic and political drive encouraging the so-called ‘superfluous’ woman to emigrate to the colonies to find a husband (144). Female emigration was promoted after 1918 not only to solve the demographic imbalance but also as part of an imperialist project to domesticate the dominions through women playing the vital role of colonial wives and home-makers (Bush "Gender and Empire", 87-92). This conflation between imperialism and conventional gender roles is, however, rejected in The Land of Green Ginger. Joanna does not after all sail for South Africa to find a second husband and become a conventional home-maker, a white European bastion of civilisation amidst the primitive wilderness. Indeed, The Land of Green Ginger attempts to look beyond what McClintock has identified as the familial and domestic genealogy of nation and Empire by offering the pregnant Joanna a direct political and social relation to South Africa that is not mediated by marriage (McClintock, 357-8). Joanna travels to begin a new life in South Africa with the help of a Jewish female friend, who has already emigrated to become a lecturer in economics at a Transvaal university. Instead of marriage, Joanna seeks to provide for her three children by running a boarding house for ‘young women earning their own living’ (LoGG, 298). Significantly, Joanna aims to secure financial independence in South Africa by working to support other independent women settling in the Empire. In this light, South Africa promises to be an inclusive site of social and economic emancipation, where marginalised women can fulfil ambitions beyond marriage through travel, work and supportive female networks.

Holtby does not, however, leave the reader with this idealised view of South Africa. The Land of Green Ginger is also a romance in the sense of a delusion or fabrication. As Margaret Waley (Intro, LoGG xi) suggests, ‘[t]he idea that runs through the novel is that crucial help can come in times of trouble from vivid imagination’. Certainly throughout her poverty-stricken married life on Scatterthwaite farm, Joanna’s imaginative reveries conjure up fantastical visions of her friends in South Africa to console her in her domestic drudgery. She composes imaginary letters from Agnes about China as she milks the cows. After the pig dies of swine fever and her daughters risk contracting tuberculosis from their father, she soothes her nerves by imagining Rachel and Agnes in South Africa: ‘Perhaps at this moment they rode into the opalescent twilight of an African evening’ (LoGG, 80). South Africa as a site of imagination or romance, however, remains elusively ambiguous and as Jean Kennard suggests ‘it would be possible to argue that this entire ending is ironic’ (90). Despite its promises, Joanna’s ‘Land of Green Ginger’ threatens to emulate the dark by-road in Hull after which the novel was named, treacherously leading Joanna back into the reality of poverty, isolation and suffering that she so desperately strives to escape. This is ominously signalled in the self-consciously circular narrative with the last chapter title echoing the first chapter. The ending of The Land of Green Ginger therefore becomes an ironic comment on the freedom and self-realisation imagined by the ‘Empire romance’, particularly in the light of Holtby’s own travel experiences. The inspiration for Joanna’s struggle against poverty, disease and spiritual frustration emerged from what Holtby learnt of the arduous isolated life in a South African farming community whilst visiting Bloemfontein. In her letters to Brittain, Holtby confides that in such revelations there was ‘enough to fill a novel’ since ‘[i]t embraced passion, tuberculosis, suicidal mania, neurasthenia, lack of sanitary accommodation and stifled creative desire’ (Brittain, 221). The Land of Green Ginger therefore refuses to fully endorse a romance of Africa where the colony becomes a background against which the English woman, like the male adventurer of the imperial romance before her, ascends to triumphant autonomy or as in the ‘Empire romance’ finds the home and marriage that eluded her in British society. Instead, descriptions of the South African landscape actively rupture the romance of Africa, destabilising the difference between home and dominion so that Yorkshire and South Africa merge into a ‘two-dimensional’ landscape embodying both exotic emancipation and inevitable hardship.

Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933)
Whereas The Land of Green Ginger offers a romance of Africa filtered through women’s dreams of fulfilment beyond marriage and heterosexual romance, Mandoa, Mandoa! adopts a more panoramic perspective to explore Western fantasies of Africa in the context of economic depression, imperial decline and political instability attending the formation of MacDonald’s National Government in 1931. Published in 1933, this novel manifests a more mature and confident approach to exploring the role of Africa in the ‘middlebrow’ imagination, that moves away from the familiar Yorkshire setting to pose as a romance of Africa itself. Set in the fictional state of Mandoa, the novel recalls Walter Raleigh’s poem, Manoa, which had been so prominent in Holtby’s mind when on her own African adventure in 1926 (Brittain, 223). Mandoa is partially based on Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia), one of only a small minority of African states independent of European administration in the 1930s. Though Mandoa, Mandoa! differs from The Land of Green Ginger in that the narrative shuttles back and forth between England and Africa, Holtby once again refrains from writing an explicitly South African novel and refuses to specifically centre her narrative on black and white race relations in Africa. Instead, racial inequality is broached via the contrast between the Mandoan nobles, descended from European Portuguese settlers, and the other African tribes, the Kikuyu and Bantu, whom they enslave. Located on the border with Kenya, near the Sudan and Uganda, Holtby’s imaginary African state proved more topical in the 1930s than a South African context. The coronation of Emperor Haile Selaisse in 1930 had generated British interest in Abyssinia and marked a shift in political and literary focus from South Africa to East Africa during this decade (Bush, 210). Holtby’s fifth novel also speaks to the growing British interwar fascination with travel and the growth of tourism. Centred on a British travel company’s enterprise to build a new holiday resort in Mandoa emulating the hedonistic splendour of Monte Carlo, Mandoa, Mandoa! also gestures to interwar British perceptions of colonial Kenya as an imaginative licentious space beyond social censure (Bush, 93).

Such was the imaginative lure of East Africa in the 1930s that Holtby’s Mandoa, Mandoa! found a literary competitor in Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, also based on the Abyssinian coronation. Unlike Holtby, Waugh had witnessed the coronation whilst travelling in East Africa and published his novel in 1932, three months earlier than Holtby’s. These two novels have been productively contrasted by Susan Pedersen in the context of modern re-evaluations of early twentieth century British imperialism. Pedersen highlights how both Waugh and Holtby deploy comedy and irony to question the ‘civilising mission’ and depict the failure of modernisation in Africa (205). Yet Pedersen also draws some important distinctions between the two. Waugh, she suggests (209), though conscious of African primitivism as a Western construction, ultimately falls back on exploiting a hierarchical distinction between a civilised white Europe and chaotic black Africa in order to alleviate anxieties about disintegrating Western values. Holtby, by contrast, presents the Western construction of barbarism as a destructive alien force in Africa and ‘thus succeeds in blurring any hierarchy between African and European values, between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’ (Pedersen 205). Building on Pedersen’s analysis, I want to argue that Mandoa, Mandoa! blurs these hierarchies through a peculiarly ‘middlebrow’ satire on high and lowbrow literature, which serves to substitute the oppositional relationship between Britain and Africa with one of interdependence.

Holtby’s Mandoa is not a primitive African state distinctly ‘other’ from civilised England. It already owes its development to the influence of Western missionaries who have converted the people to Catholicism. An American film crew stranded there have also served to introduce the nation to Hollywood cinema, which is accepted as another religious institution. Exalted as ‘the voice of civilisation’, the ‘talkies’ teach the Mandoans to speak a pidgin English littered with Americanisms (MM, 24). The Lord High Chamberlain of Mandoa, Talal, is a character partly inspired by the ICU trade unions leader Clements Kadalie (Shaw, xvii), who dreams of modernising his country according to the Western taste for technology and domestic consumables as advertised in English magazines:

Had he not read it in the magazines? In Harper’s and The Tatler, in Good Housekeeping  and The Saturday Evening Post?A civilised life demanded exquisite little houses, clean and orderly, with electric light and central heating, hot and cold water laid on in every room, and all modern conveniences [...] There were motor cars and aeroplanes; trains and cruising steamers like hotels; health could be bought in tins and tubes and bottles, beauty hired on the instalment system; intelligence was the gift of institutions; personal magnetism could be learned by correspondence courses.
Ah, why had Mandoa prided itself on isolation? (MM, 22-23)

Instead of contemplating an exotic, primitive ‘other’, the ‘feminine middlebrow’ reader is confronted with an Africa that mirrors middle-England’s desire for a consumerist culture with all its advertising, press, hero-worship and hybridised American-English.

Therefore when Prince’s Tours flies the first tourists into Mandoa, the upper-class tourists, expecting a wild and barbaric time, are disappointed. The novel lampoons their eager anticipations of primitivism, thereby distinguishing itself from the modernist highbrow construction of the primitive ‘other’ as the psychological origin of the rational Western self (Gikandi, 179-182). The upper-class Cardovers are satirised for their pretentious speeches on primitive communities: spurning the Western equivalents in sport, Cardover proclaims, ‘What are they […] compared with your natural, sinless, cool, lustful completion of bodily bliss? Unselfconscious, unafraid. Your wholeness with the community! Your deep tranquil blood-unity!’ (MM, 275). His enthusiasm for ‘blood unity’ recalls D.H. Lawrence’s ‘drowse of blood intimacy’ (The Rainbow, 2), a celebration of instinct often critiqued by Holtby (Women and a Changing Civilisation, 158-9) in the 1930s.  Mandoa, Mandoa! also distinguishes itself from the lowbrow ‘desert romance’, deliberately undercutting Talal’s similarities with EM Hull’s iconic Sheik. Refusing to follow the brutal machismo of this stereotype, Talal recoils from the vamp, Felicity Cardover, who eagerly waits to be seduced. His bemusement at the tourists’ disappointment with Mandoa - ‘For the men, it appeared desired violence, and the women expected rape’ – offers a comic and satirical reflection on the European romance with Africa (MM, 280).

The disjuncture between the Mandoan fantasies of Britain and the British tourists’ fantasies of Africa uncovers racial oppositions between Europe and Africa as mutual fabrications.  Distinctions between imperial sovereign and colonial subject, between master and slave, are undermined; the British adventurers who travel to Mandoa therefore find themselves questioning rather than affirming both their imperial and gender identity. The imperial romance is again invoked both to challenge the assumption of accomplished white European masculinity through Empire and to self-reflexively question the modern women’s humanitarian intervention in Africa.

As in The Land of Green Ginger, travel experience seems to fracture and jeopardise masculine identity. Prince’s Tours’ agent in Mandoa is the middle-class Bill Durrant, a war-hero manifesting the agony and trauma of post-war masculinity through a rootless defection to socialism. His employment in Africa by Prince’s Tours is a family attempt to socially redeem Bill, judged to be ‘far more at home among the Pukka Sahibs’, working abroad where he ‘can live like a white man maintaining a benevolent interest in the natives’ (MM, 73). Yet these imperialist assumptions of feudal power are subverted by the Mandoan slave economy; instead of triumphing against savage adversity, Bill is only allowed to live in Mandoa as Talal’s slave. His friendship with Talal which, as Shaw has observed (Intro to MM, xiii) echoes that of Fielding and Aziz in Forster’s Passage to India, therefore opens up a dialogue that problematises the hierarchical binary oppositions between Britain and Africa. Bill is unable to refute Talal’s comparison between British capitalism and the Mandoan slave economy; ‘[w]hen Bill described the queue at the Labour Exchange, Talal countered with the slave train to Abyssinia and the Red Sea. When Bill urged the mercy of unemployment allowance, Talal remarked that in Mandoa, if a noble allowed his slaves to starve he lost the worth of them’ (MM, 140). Similarly, Talal highlights British hypocrisy in permitting prostitution whilst protesting against the white slave trade, and in colonising Kenya whilst denouncing Mandoan slavery. As he clarifies, ‘No Briton owns a kikuyu. No, sir! Britons own government’ (MM, 140). Along with Bill, the reader is compelled to recognise that trade routes opened up between Britain and Africa by Prince’s tourist industry alleviate economic depression and unemployment in Britain. Mandoa demands ‘[r]ails from Sheffield; engines from Doncaster; gramophones, work-baskets, sewing machines – good British labour’ (MM, 220) and generates ‘blood money made on the sale of slaves’ (MM, 222); as Bill points out, without the success of the Mandoan development then ‘[I]n Sheffield, Manchester, Guildford, Leeds, the men making this stuff [...]  would be unemployed again’ (MM, 222). This integrative vision springs from Bill’s startling epiphany that ‘he was not a tragic, adult personality working out his fate against a fantastic background of comedians, but that he and the Mandoans were human beings together, trapped in an inescapable relationship of destiny’ (MM, 164). Such revelations impress upon the reader the interdependent relationship between Britain and Mandoa, as Bill comes to encapsulate the novel’s hope for international understanding.

Nevertheless, interdependence expressed as international understanding and human connection is also severely tested in the novel through the experiences of its female protagonist, Jean Stanbury. Working for the International Humanitarian Association (IHA), a fictional League of Nations Union, Jean is sent to investigate Mandoa’s slave trade. Like Joanna in The Land of Green Ginger, Jean is ecstatic at the prospect of travel to Africa by plane– ‘I’m going to Mandoa. I’m going to have an adventure’ (MM, 229). Yet her romance of public service and adventure is punctured when she and her IHA colleagues are imprisoned by reactionaries violently opposed to the encroachment of British technological and capitalist development in their country. Captive, the reformers are forced to reflect on the artifice and insincerity of their contact with Africa and by extension each other. ‘Into contact. But who ever came into contact with others? Jean questions, ‘Why, we aren’t even in contact with each other’ (MM, 262). Consequently, the inflated philanthropic dreams of Africa and international understanding are diminished to contested shibboleths of personal ambition.

The debacle of Jean’s humanitarian venture paves the way for a return of the conventional imperial romance where Africa becomes the setting for masculine adventure, against which British manhood is proved and defined in an era of post-war disillusionment (Brantlinger, 190; Dawson, 167-190). The hero of this adventure is Maurice Durrant, Bill’s brother, who contests Bill and Jean’s socialist and humanitarian insights. A Conservative MP and committed imperialist, Maurice promises his electorate national security and renewal in the face of Bolshevik internationalism, economic depression and class war, proclaiming ‘freedom, unity and Empire’ (MM, 29). Riddled with insecurities about not fighting in the Great War and coming a poor second to his war hero brother Bill, Maurice’s adventure in Mandoa gives him the opportunity to prove himself a real man of action. He rescues Jean and her colleagues, triumphing with white, European superiority by bartering for the reformers’ lives with the life of a Mandoan noble, ‘only a native’ to Maurice (MM, 330). This act of racial discrimination secures for Maurice Jean’s hand in marriage, a disturbing turn of events which foils the romance plot between Jean and Bill. The reader is forced to question the unsatisfactory nature of Jean’s marriage to Maurice, asking whether it entails the surrender of Jean’s beliefs in racial equality and international humanitarianism to Maurice’s racist imperialism. This romance also signals the disaster of the Mandoan development: Talal’s enemies burn down Prince’s Hotel and the British tourists finally flee back home. Mandoa, Mandoa! therefore unexpectedly re-introduces the conventional imperial and heterosexual romance to implicate such narratives as symptomatic of economic and political instability in the 1930s.  

The ‘Altogetherness of Everything’
Mandoa, Mandoa! like The Land of Green Ginger, however, refutes the narrative closure of either romance; the reader is left not with a triumphant return home but with a contemplative and panoramic gaze outwards to Africa and unstable global politics. Jean, the now pregnant wife of Maurice, guides the reader’s imagination away from Britain and back to Mandoa where ‘her lost lover’, Bill, remains to keep the country’s single run-way clear amidst the wreckage of abortive modernisation (MM, 375). Bill’s reflections mirror Jean’s integrative vision of Britain and Africa:

People said that the fabric of civilisation was crumbling, even in its oldest centres. The flood of barbarism might pour back across the world as it did in the dark ages. The little fortress man built for himself might vanish like abandoned huts in the Mandoan wet season, choked and buried below invading weeds. (MM, 382)

Mandoa and England are united here in their fight against ‘the flood of barbarism’, a ‘barbarism’ not merely distanced to the reactionary forces of Africa but also identified within the heart of Europe itself. As the reformers back in England discuss ominously: ‘[i]n Germany, revolution perhaps, war, perhaps in six months’ (MM, 373). Indeed, Holtby’s novel was to gain its second wind of popularity when these far-sighted concerns about imperialism, fascism and Africa were played out with Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. Mandoa, Mandoa! closes with a critical allusion to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land as Bill and Talal stare at ‘the black pool of darkness which was the city’s empty, weed-grown heart’ (MM, 382). Yet this is not modernism’s pessimistic gaze into the incomprehensible otherness of Africa amidst a disintegrating Western civilisation. Instead, Talal’s pledge ‘we will build it better’ (MM, 382) echoes Jean’s determination ‘We’ve got to go on’ from the penultimate chapter, uniting rather than distancing British and African endeavours to preserve freedom and civilisation against chaos, invasion and dictatorship (MM, 374). 

Holtby’s parting vision of international interdependence in Mandoa, Mandoa! is optimistic in its hopes for inter-race relations and cross-cultural co-operation: a belief encapsulated in the poignant biblical refrain throughout her 1930s work of  ‘we are members one of another’ (South Riding, 490). Yet this optimism is tempered by ambiguity in the closing scenes of both Mandoa, Mandoa! and The Land of Green Ginger. Instead of answers, Holtby’s novels open up the space for an ambivalent and contradictory attitude towards the British traveller, who not only embodies the dilemma of imperial power and responsibility towards Africa but also dramatises how conventional gender roles potentially reinforce racial hierarchies. Shuttling betwixt lowbrow escapism and highbrow obsessions with primitivism and between heterosexual and imperial romance, Holtby weaves a ‘middlebrow’ romance of her own, crafted out of her travel adventures and political convictions. With imperialism neither utterly denounced nor vindicated, Holtby’s readers are encouraged to expand their imagination to envision what Bill Durrant describes as ‘the altogetherness of everything’: a way of seeing that becomes the ethical standard by which ‘middlebrow’ race consciousness and imperial subjectivity is measured and engendered (MM, 222-23).


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