Page 63 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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e r n s t e in
— J
ew ish
o u t h
fr ica
Earlier in the 1890’s a Cape Town Jewess, Gussie
Rodolf, had published a work of South African fiction—a novel
based on one of the Kaffir Wars. Both books were amateurish
and of little literary value. They had their place, however, in
the incipient efforts to pioneer a distinctive South African
The Work of Sarah Gertrude Millin
I t was in the years after the establishment of the Union of
South Africa in 1910 that South African literature in English
really began to take shape. Here the name of Sarah Gertrude
Millin stands out—a Jewess who became not only South Africa’s
foremost writer, but one of the leading writers in English in
our day. Previous to Mrs. Millin, the only English writer of
stature in South Africa was Olive Schreiner, whose
Story of an
African Farm
(published in 1883) remains a South African
classic to this day. Olive Schreiner’s lustre produced no new
star. The writers who followed in the next twenty-five years
wrote romantic fiction of mediocre quality. Mrs. Millin was the
first to strike a new note. She began her literary career in 1920
with the publication of
The Dark River,
a novel of the Vaal
River diamond diggings where she had spent her childhood
years. In a simple, compact style, devoid of sentimentalism and
without striving after dramatic effects, it captured the day-to-
day mundane routine of life on the diggings, the frustration of
the people who do not find wealth.
Mrs. Millin’s second novel,
followed a year
later. Its locale was Johannesburg, and again portrayed very
ordinary people—their dreams, their hopes, disappointments
and compensations. The next year brought
Adam’s Rest,
its plain human story against the background of a country
town. The interplay of characters is well limned in this chron-
icle of human frustration. Next came
The Jordans,
dealing with
life in Johannesburg during the 1922 mining strike that almost
became a civil war. This was followed in 1924 by the novel
that sealed Mrs. Millin’s reputation—
God’s Step-Child:ren,
moving study of the effects of miscegenation on the life of a
South African family down four generations.
These novels—five in as many years—not only heralded the
emergence of a superior talent elevating the standard of
contemporary South African writing, but also hewed a path
away from the prevailing romanticism and blazed the trail to
South African realism. Mrs. Millin charted the sterner course
subsequently followed by writers like William Plomer, Pauline
Smith, Daphne Muir, Stuart Cloete, Laurens van der Post,
Nadine Gordimer, Peter Abrahams and many others. The
University of Witwatersrand, awarding Mrs. Millin an honorary
doctorate of literature in 1952, cited this aspect of her con­