Reënboog in die skemering: book review
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve just finished reading Reënboog in die skemering (Rainbow in the twilight), the third book of the Diepfontein trilogy (the other two being Towergoud and Fata Morgana and so now I can look back on the series as a whole. And looking back, it seems that the most appropriate title might be “The story of an African farm”.
Since finishing the books I have tried to find out a bit more about the author. I didn’t want to do that beforehand, because I thought it might reveal too much of the story, and I wanted to read the books just as they came. I didn’t even read the jacket blurb that was on the last of the series.
But web searches reveal little about the author, other than that Elizabeth Vermeulen was born on 15 May 1897 in Aberdeen, in the Karroo. Last year we passed through Aberdeen on holiday, and stopped to take photos of some of the Victorian houses for which it is famous. One of my wife Val’s colleagues at work was born there, and asked us to take some photos of the town.
One of the things I was hoping to learn was whether Vermeulen was influenced by Schreiner in any way. Apart from the setting of a Karroo farm, the books are very different. It is a long time since I read The story of an African farm so my memory of it is a bit hazy. But both have written about a farm and its people.
In the Diepfontein trilogy, the farm is a central character. People come and go, but the farm remains. At first I thought the books were a kind of family saga, following a family through several generations, but they actually remain in focus only when they are on the farm. Occasionally the story follows characters when they leave the farm, , but usually only briefly, and for parts of the story that are significant for the life of the farm itself. Once the characters leave the farm permanently, for the most part they leave the story as well.
When thinking about the possible influence of The story of an African farm, I wonder if Vermeulen might have written her story in reaction against against Schreiner’s work. There is nothing of Schreiner’s incipient feminism in the Diepfontein trilogy. Sex roles are fairly fixed. The farmers are male, women know their place, as housekeepers, and the only other careers that are open to them are as nurses and teachers. The servants, too, know their place. That is, of course, true to much of the period covered by the story (1864-1957), and to describe things otherwise would be anachronistic.
The books were published during the first decade of National Party rule in South Africa, and so I wondered if there might be a political slant to them. Most publishers of Afrikaans books in that period were wedded to Afrikaner nationalism, and, to use an anachronistic term, “affirmative action” was all the rage. To be promoted in the civil service, one needed to be a member or supporter of the National Party, a member of one of the three Afrikaans Reformed Churches, and a member of the Broederbond. So one expects Afrikaans books published in that period to reflect these concerns. But, apart from the period of the Anglo-Boer War, there is little mention of politics in the books. I imagine that if Elizabeth Vermeulen grew up in Aberdeen, she would have been two years old when the war started, and five when it ended, and over the next few years would have heard adults talking about it. But there is no mention of the National Party coming to power in 1948.
So in a sense the books are very ordinary. They paint a picture of ordinary people living ordinary lives. They have conventional values for people of their time and social status, and I think the book paints a pretty realistic picture of the kind of life they lived. It is a historical novel with fairly good history, in the sense of the social history of people living on isolated farms, their joys and sorrows, and how they respond in prosperity and adversity. What I liked about the books was that I could identify with these very ordinary people and their struggles, and was drawn in to the story. I wanted to know what happened mext, and how things turned out in the end. So they drew me in and kept me reading.