The Child of Queen Victoria by William Plomer, 1933

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by William Plomer, 1933

"The Child of Queen Victoria," the title story of the 1933 collection by William Plomer, is one of the finest South African stories ever written. It complements the author's pioneering novel Turbott Wolfe (1926) in developing the theme of love across the color bar: Frant, an English trader in "Lembuland," falls unsuccessfully in love with a beautiful Lembu girl. As in the novel, the girl in the story, Seraphina, has an uncommonly light complexion. Though it may well have been that Plomer was drawing from a living person with complete accuracy, that both his black heroines should need to undergo this bleaching process would not on its own be a notable testimony to his color blindness, and so it is a relief to find him assuaging this slightly embarrassing aspect by the unapologetic qualifications in the following portrayal of Seraphina:

… though unmistakably negroid, her features were in no sense exaggerated. Her nose, for example, though the nostrils were broad, was very slightly aquiline … and though one side of her face was marked with a long scar, this only drew closer attention to its beauty.

The three qualifications beginning with "though" are unapologetic, for while an unambiguously exultant negritude would undeniably be more acceptable to present-day orthodoxy, they show that Plomer, concerned as he is to present his black character in the best possible light, is nevertheless able to rise above the narrowly racial aspects of difference and, far from suppressing them, to make them a justification: the scar that may make Seraphina's face additionally attractive to another African is also able to draw the white man's "closer attention to its beauty." More ordinary black characters would, no doubt, be less tricky subjects in avoiding any hint of the "honorary white" condescension related to the kind of patronizing Plomer deplored in "an Englishman's praise of a foreigner for not behaving like a foreigner." But his African characters refuse to be shackled by ethnic generalizations, and even that physically typical Lembu Umlilwana, who is (it transpires in the end) engaged to be married to Seraphina, is not left ethnically "naked except for a fur codpiece and some bead ornaments" but rather carries "a large black cotton Brummagem umbrella, to shelter himself from the sun." Ultimately more problematic is not Plomer's treatment of blacks, who are neither patronized nor idealized, but rather his thumb on the scale against white characters like the archetypally awful trader MacGavin. "You've always given me the impression of being a bit too fond of the niggers," says MacGavin in one typical yet convincing utterance. But then, with a disquieting inevitability, the angry young author tips the balance a little too far to add, "treating them a bit too much as if they were really human beings."

Seraphina herself is fully human and full of character. She appreciates irony, and her speech contains much good-natured humor. By making him a gift of the skin of a python she has killed, she takes some of the initiative in her relationship with Frant. The tender yet awkward nature of this relationship is conveyed primarily by direct presentation rather than commentary, which is reserved for times when Frant is alone. An exception is his encounter with Umlilwana, whom he takes to be Seraphina's brother. Umlilwana tells him, without threat or condemnation, that it is not good for him to like a black girl, for "we are all people, but we are different." The implications of this conversation reverberate throughout the story, dominating much of Frant's thinking. The lonely youth's strongest feelings are aroused by "the immediate physical presence of the Lembus," and he is "sensual by nature and sexually repressed," the greatest repression being the wall of racial segregation.

The title of the story comes from the half-affectionate, half-ironical salutation S'a ubona, umtwana ka Kwini Victoli! ("Greeting, child of Queen Victoria!") that is given to both Plomer himself in real life and the fictional Frant by a vagabond Zulu/Lembu. But this amusing old man, though drawn from life in the person of one Nkiyankiya, is not a superfluous appendage to the fictional story. He appears again with almost supernatural effect at the end, all the comic trappings—like his teasing of MacGavin's sour wife with an assortment of cache-sexes—forgotten in the drama of the storm.

In the buildup to the climax, the weather mirrors the emotional climate of the story. As Frant's turbulent feelings mount without release, torturing him with unfulfilled desires, so the heat mounts every day and it seems that the anticipated rain will never come. After the tension has increased to almost unbearable heights, catharsis is finally achieved in a virtuoso resolution, the long-awaited storm exceeding expectations and in one terrifying night flooding the river and submerging the Lembu village. On the tableland above the valley, from where Frant sees the devastation of Seraphina's home, he meets the transformed old man, whose revelations about Seraphina, drowned in the flood, combine with the terror and destruction of the apocalyptic storm to make him feel "all was finished, all was destroyed … like the end of the world," though he knows that he must return to his world, his life. In its "great symphony" this is the greatest of several storms in Plomer's work, bringing to a desperate but satisfying close this unhappy, deeply impressive story.

—Michael Herbert

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The Child of Queen Victoria by William Plomer, 1933

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