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"Out of Africa": Lady Margaret Herschel's Letters from the Cape, 1834-38

Easton, Kai (2009) "Out of Africa": Lady Margaret Herschel's Letters from the Cape, 1834-38. In: Locating African Culture, 7-8 September 2009, University of Stirling. (Unpublished)

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Abstract

This chapter considers how we might locate ‘Africa’ or ‘African Culture’ in the letters Lady Margaret Herschel wrote from the Cape of Good Hope between 1834 and 1838. In her four-year residency with her famous astronomer husband, Sir John Herschel, and her growing family (having arrived with three children, aged only 23, she produced a further three children while at the Cape, and another six on her return to England), Lady Herschel was a dedicated correspondent, particularly to her mother ‘Mrs Stewart’, her brothers in India, China and London, and Sir John’s cousins Thomas & Mary Baldwin and his celebrated aunt (his father’s assistant astronomer), Caroline Herschel in Hanover. The collection of letters we have also includes one local friend, Mrs Maclear, wife of the Royal Astronomer at the Cape, recent arrivals like themselves. There is something of a Herschel at the Cape industry, sparked primarily by the prolific professor of astronomy, Brian Warner, at the University of Cape Town. Warner has also taken a great interest in archival material which is not of a scientific nature, editing not only the selection of letters by Lady Herschel, which I am focusing on here, but also her husband’s Cape sketches, and their collaboration on botanical paintings; additionally, Professor Warner has edited the papers of Lady Jane Franklin, who visited the Cape with her husband Sir John during the Herschels’ sojourn at the Cape and on their way to his Governorship of Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania). Warner has done the most to focus readers on Lady Herschel’s experience at the Cape, as well as Sir John’s. His focus, however, is not on the content of her writing or her travels, which have yet to be given extensive critical analysis. Rather, Lady Herschel’s letters – which are introduced by her descendant, John Herschel-Shorland, who has given permission to Warner to reproduce them here – are seen here as a supplement, interesting for what her letters provide regarding Sir John’s family life and the social history of the Cape in the early nineteenth century. In addition to Warner’s editorial role with regards to Lady Herschel, this chapter will address Elizabeth Green Musselman’s fascinating work on Sir John Herschel at the Cape. While attentive to metaphor (‘hunt’ and ‘harvest’) in Sir John’s diaries and letters from the Cape and incorporating fragments from Lady Margaret Herschel’s letters, Green Musselman does not consider questions of gender and empire and how Lady Herschel’s letters and botanical paintings significantly expand Herschel’s narrative of Africa. Thus if Green Musselman wants to read Herschel in the tradition of scientific explorer-adventurer in the service of Empire, we might consider how Lady Margaret Herschel acts both independently of her husband and as his collaborator in the pursuit of knowledge about ‘Africa’ or – at the very least, a small corner of the western Cape. One of the reasons we are gathered here is to debate the very idea of how we ‘locate African culture’ in our various disciplines and with our different methodologies. Ideas of what is authentic to Africa or authentically African still seem to provoke controversy, despite the inevitable essentialist nature of these very terms. What does it mean, then, to look at the European encounter with Africa in regional and gendered terms? How diverse and how fluid are the identities of the European writing subjects I focus on here, and their impressions of the landscape they have come to temporarily or permanently inhabit? How much does ‘Africa’ resist colonial inscription? As you will easily recognize, the phrase ‘Out of Africa’ in my more specific title alludes immediately to a more famous story of settler-colonial life in East Africa by Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, and whose autobiographical account in the Highlands of Kenya inspired the popular film starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. In Dinesan’s book, the romance element that was marginal to her plot was emphasized in the film adaptation at the expense of her story of an encounter with Africa and Africans. But in my casting about for a new title, and in my anxiety that my subject has in fact not enough to do with ‘Africa’ (which is exactly what intrigued me), I was reminded of an article by J. M. Coetzee which reviews Ali Mazrui’s film series on Africa. ‘Out of Africa’ is now both something of a brandname, and a way to refer to what might be considered a superficial, surface encounter with a continent that has often been spoken of in monolithic terms. (There are similar issues when we look at the series ‘Into Africa’ with Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and ‘Geldof in Africa’.) The story of the Herschels at the Cape is also a romance of a kind: of serious stargazing, bird hunting, bulb collecting, flower painting, and raising children in the idyllic surroundings of their renamed Dutch homestead Feldhausen (alias ‘The Grove’). According to Lady Herschel, her industrious husband is never more ‘idle’ – a word she uses often – and ‘free from anxiety’ – than during his time at the Cape, despite the magnificent effort of late nightly watches to sweep the southern hemisphere. This chapter will consider how Lady Herschel ‘maps’ the Cape in her letters, and how we might read her narrative of family life at Feldhausen and her tours up-country with Sir John – and the final achievement of an ascent of Table Mountain (and a galloping on horseback across it while apparently four months’ pregnant – hence the chair, according to Prof Warner) – as a turning away from or turning to ‘Africa’, or ‘South Africa’. Remembering that her travels took place only 20 years after the Cape was secured by the British (after the end of the Napoleonic Wars), and that she was there to accompany her husband, the famous astronomer, in his mission to sweep the southern hemisphere at ‘the far end of Africa’ (his phrase), how does her own authorship to a private audience negotiate her own temporary residency in a British colony in Africa? What references does she make, if any, to Africa as a whole, and how much is British possession of the Cape naturalised in the discourse of the time? Does this change significantly, once we get to Lucie Duff Gordon, writing in the 1860s? Can we expect these two liberal-minded women, living quite different lives at the Cape, to share the same political views a generation distant?

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Items (Paper)
Keywords: gender, travel, Cape of Good Hope, Lady Margaret Herschel, Sir John Herschel, Feldhausen, letters, imperial networks, colonial discourse, Adam Kok II
SOAS Departments & Centres: Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies
Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Centre for Gender Studies
Faculty of Languages and Cultures > Department of the Languages and Cultures of Africa
Regional Centres > Centre of African Studies
Depositing User: Kai Easton
Date Deposited: 26 Aug 2010 10:37
URI: http://eprints.soas.ac.uk/id/eprint/9814

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