Zoë Wicomb

Still Life


A novel that looks at colonial legacy and issues of contemporary authorship, Zoë Wicomb‘s novel Still Life concerns the attempt of an author to write a biography of 19th century poet and abolitionist Thomas Pringle, sometimes known as the father of South African poetry. In her efforts to resurrect Pringle however, the writer summons the spectre of the former slave Mary Prince, who in 1831 became the first known woman to relate a slave narrative, The History of Mary Prince  — a book that was edited and published by Pringle. Also summoned are Hinza, Pringle’s adopted black South African son, and Sir Nicholas Green, self-regarding poet from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. In the following extract from the book, published by Peninsula Press, these competing voices begin to vie for control of the text.

Anyone with a South African education knows his story, or ought to know. But it may help to rehearse with objectivity the bare bones of that history and clarify his relationship with Mary and the young man, Hinza. Many a dictation has found its own momentum in the mind of the scribe, so this woman writer may well run with it, find her own voice, as they say.
…….He clears his throat, nods at her, and she dutifully scribbles as he dictates the sketch in the third person:
…….Born on the Borders, the poet Thomas Pringle was educated in Thurso and thereafter at Edinburgh University. In that city he led a distinguished literary life, befriended by the luminaries of the time. The extended Pringle family suffered difficulties, and assisted passages offered by the Colonial Office spurred him in 1820 to lead a party of Scots emigrants to the Cape Province. Once the family was settled as farmers in the Eastern Cape, Thomas and his wife Margaret went to Cape Town where with his bosom friend, John Fairbairn, he championed freedom of the press, started an academy for young gentlemen, and developed the National Library. Thomas keenly felt for the oppressed indigenous peoples. Their cause, he believed, would also be served through poetry that exposed their plight, but his progressive views fell foul of the autocratic governor, Lord Charles Somerset, whose persecution drove him out of the colony to London, where he alerted the world to the true nature of slavery at the Cape and exposed the conditions of the benighted native peoples of that land. The native boy, Hinza Marossi, whom he had rescued, was given permission to accompany the Pringles to London, but sadly he did not survive the inclement climate. As secretary for the Anti-Slavery Society, Thomas signed the Abolition Act in August 1833; he had earlier facilitated the writing of The History of Mary Prince, the first female slave narrative published in England, for which he was roundly reviled. He died in 1834 whilst preparing for his return to the Cape, but his reputation as the Father of South African Poetry endures.
……This, in short, is the story that needs to be fleshed out. The time has come to challenge nineteenth-century class bias and pernicious Toryism, all of which were responsible for thwarting Pringle’s ambitions and keeping him out of the annals of history.
……(I do, of course, know this much, but knowing also of the ambiguities, uncertainties, the alleged duplicities and repackaging of that life, I am not keen to meddle and offer judgement. No doubt there will be apologetics and smokescreens, let alone the residual beliefs of the times, for which I do not have the stomach. For the moment, however, I must listen without interruption to the voice, into which has crept an unmistakable whine.)
……Cut down in my prime, Pringle complains, there was no time to convert our people to humanitarianism and the ways of Christian compassion for the natives. Certainly there was not enough time to hone my poetic skills. So short a life, so little achieved; nevertheless, there isenough to remember with pride: an admiring letter from none other than the great Coleridge himself, commending ‘the most perfect lyric poem in our language’; the support of Scott, Sir Walter no less, and also of James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd whose death is lamented by the great Wordsworth; and my very own signature on the Act of the Emancipation of Slaves, a signature that my dearest Margaret held to her lips. But what did my countrymen across the border care? Not a fig. Rather, they would have me pilloried for my very commitment to freedom. I remember every vituperative word, the slanders are etched in my mind, and really I was powerless against the influential MacQueen of The Glasgow Courier, who called me a liar and advised that I be taken by the neck and with a good rattan or a Mauritius oxwhip be lashed through the streets of London. All for exposing the illegal slave trade in Mauritius. And such calumny published in Blackwood’s, the very journal established and once edited by me! Can anyone blame me for wanting to return to the world and recover my reputation in my beloved Scotland? In this
new era, I would surely be guaranteed a hearing.
……Yes, my time has come, he declaims, the time to gather stones together in the land that will embrace the poet and activist and allow me to belong to more than one country. Poetry has ever dissolved boundaries. If that makes me a vain man, so be it. In the words of Ecclesiastes, all is vanity, a striving after the wind, and nothing to be gained under the sun, yet I have seen with my own eyes all the oppressions practised under the sun, and have spoken out. If only there had been time left to roam the Eastern Cape and learn to sing in clearer voice of the koppies and vleis, the gold and violet sunsets, the stark thorn trees silhouetted in evening light, the honeyed mimosa. Pringle’s voice grows peevish: A longer life, and I would have managed to forge a suitable voice for the African veld. How churlish that I now should be reviled for resorting to English literary conventions, when there had simply not been time to attune the ear to the trill of the bokmakierie or the roar of lions! He beats his hollow chest – I am above all a poet – wheezes, and collapses into a coughing fit.
……Mary stumbles, reaches over with nursing arms to pat his back and enfold him. No one, she consoles, pursing her full lips, no one under the sun escapes vanity; every one of us strives after the wind, and that, God’s own truth, is the end of it. So let’s get the project off the ground, get Mr P’s Life written, and as a matter of urgency fix up a contract with the writer. She, Mary, has after all in the past come a cropper in that respect. Uncivil perhaps to mention it now to one who has been her benefactor, who arranged for her history to be told, and she does of course not apportion blame, but a contract then might well have ensured that her own story be accurately written down.
……Pringle withdraws from her embrace and clears his throat to continue. If only he’d been spared for a decade or two to see things through. A few years back at the Cape to keep an eye on the letter of the law, wipe out the persistence of slavery in its various guises, for sadly their fellow Europeans could not be trusted. With the Whigs in power, he and Fairbairn would have turned the colony into a beacon of truth and light with which to instil compassion and humanitarian values in the hearts of white men. Besides, as Fairbairn pointed out, to civilise and convert the natives into friendly customers would have been more profitable than to exterminate or reduce them to slavery.
……Hinza, shaking his head, staggers to his feet, makes as if to speak, but Mary roughly pushes him back, gesturing vigorously, so that he sighs, slides down with his head in his hands and mutters, All astride the wind. None of which appears to be registered by the poet, who continues after yet another clearing of the throat.
……Once Abolition was achieved, he would have returned to the Cape and settled for an appointment as resident magistrate in the new district on the Cafferland border, or even a modest post at the Kat River Mission, Dr Philip’s haven for Hottentots. In that heat and clear air his lungs would have healed, and allowed him to plan the next phase of moral and intellectual development for natives. But even the Whigs denied him, could not countenance him as Magistrate. Such are politicians: nothing is to be expected on the grounds of merit; his humble origins never to be forgotten, in spite of all his achievements. No, that office was kept for applicants of another caste, in spite of his high connections. And then, God’s inscrutable will – even with a ticket in his hand, the coffers packed, the sails of the Sherburne all but set as a fair wind swept east-north-east – to strike him down. Cruelly cut off when there was still so much to do.
……And now this opportunity: a chance to resist fate and make known his life’s work. Let it not be forgotten that he had resisted injustice all his life. Had he not taken on the arrogance of the Cape Governor, Lord Somerset and his Reign of Terror? Or the Scottish Tories? (slavers really, for those who benefit from slavery are no less than that). Besides, he has been made and remade so many times, in a hayrick of words heaped upon each other, the tattered old stories raked over, heaped in both glory and scorn, his precious verse laid out for scrutiny. The time has come to take control. There have been no concessions, none for a man on crutches, a man with poor lungs, and for that he feels gratitude of sorts. He has long since forgiven the malice of his own people, but it should be known that they were mistaken in overlooking him. He, Thomas Pringle, is yet a man of the Cheviots and the Eildon Hills. Oh, for a ramble along Linton Loch in the rising light of February, the wind keen and the rain fresh, and there by the brae … there stands Nanny Potts, her hands on her hips, dear Pottsie waiting, scolding – the gypsies will come and take you away if you don’t eat your kale … the alphabet again, in best copperplate this time … do stop teasing your wee brother, or the gypsies … dear Nanny Potts … and the Paps of Eildon veiled in the rain …

The above is text is reproduced with permission from the novel Still Life by Zoë Wicomb, published in the UK by Peninsula Press. For more information on the book, go here.


Zoë Wicomb is a South African writer living in Glasgow, Scotland, where she is Emeritus Professor at the University of Strathclyde. She is the author of OctoberThe One That Got AwayDavid’s Story, and Playing in the Light, all published by New York’s The New Press. She was an inaugural winner of the Windham-Campbell Prize in fiction. Upon its US publication, Still Life was listed under Best Historical Fiction of 2020 by The New York Times.

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