Smith, Pauline (Janet)

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SMITH, Pauline (Janet)

Nationality: South African. Born: Oudtshoorn, Little Karoo, 2 April 1882. Education: Educated in Scotland and Hertfordshire. Career: Moved with family to England, 1895; contributor under pen names Janet Tamson and Janet Urmson, Aberdeen Evening Gazette, and other Scottish journals, from 1902; close friend of Arnold Bennett; visited South Africa, 1905, 1913-14, 1926-27, 1934, and 1937. Lived with sister in Dorset, England, from 1930s. Died: 29 January 1959.


Short Stories

The Little Karoo. 1925; enlarged edition, 1930.


The Beadle. 1926.


Radio play:

The Last Voyage (produced 1929). 1965.


A.B.: A Minor Marginal Note (biography of Arnold Bennett). 1933.

Platkops Children (stories for children), illustrated by BarbaraShaw. 1935.

South African Journal 1913-1914, edited by Harold Scheub. 1983; as Secret Fire: The 1913-1914 South African Journal of Pauline Smith, 1997.

The Unknown Pauline Smith: Unpublished and Out of Print Stories, Diaries, and Other Prose Writings, edited by Ernest Pereira, Sheila Scholten, and Harold Scheub. 1993.



Smith Collection edited by Leonie T. Jones, 1980.

Critical Studies:

"'Quaintness' in Smith: Observations on Her Style and Dialogue" by Charles Eglington, in English Studies in Africa 3, March 1960; "Smith" by Arthur Ravenscroft, in A Review of English Literature 4(2), April 1963; Smith, 1969, and "Smith: The First Full-length Study," in Lantern, June 1970, both by Geoffrey Haresnape; Smith: A Commemorative Introduction to Her Life and Work by Jeanne Heywood, 1982; Smith by Dorothy Driver, 1983; "P.S.: A Minor Marginal Postscript?" by Michael Cosser, in English in Africa, December 1996.

* * *

Pauline Smith's reputation as a writer rests on two slim volumes: a collection of short stories, The Little Karoo; and a novel, The Beadle. As her slender oeuvre perhaps reflects, Smith is renowned for the pared-down simplicity of her prose, a feature that scarcely disguises the complexity of her artistic vision. Her fictional locale is the Little Karoo, an expanse of land in the southwestern Cape bordered by a mountain range and, beyond that, the sea on one side and on the other the Great Karoo, a vast, forbidding hinterland.

Each of the ten stories included in The Little Karoo (two were added to the original eight of the first edition) exemplifies Smith's remarkable ability to capture the stark, elemental quality of her rural Dutch characters and the ponderous Biblical cadences of their speech, the harsh oppressiveness of a life spent wresting the barest of yields from the reluctant earth, the austerity of their Protestant faith, and the tragic dimension in their human fallibilities. So compatible are the stories in terms of theme and setting that they have been profitably read as a "cycle."

In "The Pain" (often considered Smith's best story) Juriaan van Royen undertakes a journey to Platkops dorp to seek help for his terminally ill wife at the newly established hospital there. The humble, rustic lifestyle of the simple peasant couple—a life closely tied to the soil and the elements and presided over by a benign but frugal God—comes up against a newer world of modern medicine and impersonal efficiency, a world with new rhythms and rationales. In this bewilderingly new setting Juriaan's God deserts him, and the central irony of the story unfolds: Deltje's physical pain, which persuades them to undertake the journey, is not cured in hospital, but it is merely eclipsed by the greater pain of spiritual suffering. The couple secretly resolve to leave the hospital, and the closing passage sees them on their way back to their isolated homestead, where Deltje will await a lingering but certain death and, with her passing—the reader is left to presume—will come the inescapable fact of Juriaan's own demise.

"The Schoolmaster" concerns the youthful, selfless love Engela feels for Jan Boetje, a man on the run from his own past. Jan Boetje becomes the teacher to the young children on Engela's grandparents' farm. He teaches the children and Engela about the far-off wonders of Europe, while Engela instructs him in local veld-lore. One day, in a fit of rage (which signifies something about his troubled past), Jan Boetje blinds a pair of mules when they refuse to cross a stream, and he subsequently banishes himself to a life of drawing a hand-cart across the veld, buying and selling goods to eke out an existence. In the depths of her anguish upon his departure, Engela draws comfort from the thought that what she taught him about the veld would help him in the physical and spiritual wilderness that he has damned himself to inhabit for life. In a tragically ironic final twist the family discovers that Jan Boetje has drowned in a flood at the drift near the farm.

The story illustrates Smith's immense power as a writer in the tragic mode and marks her position in this tradition in South African literature. "The Miller" is another example of this tendency in Smith's work. Andries Lombard, the miller, is described as "a stupid kindly man whom illness had turned into a morose and bitter one." His illness causes him to become estranged from his wife and children, and this culminates in his refusal to attend the annual Thanksgiving ceremony at the local church. At the last moment, when the service is already fully underway, he suddenly desires to be reunited with his wife. He makes his way down to the Thanksgiving but collapses outside the church, coughing up blood; slipping from her arms, he dies without achieving full reconciliation. (Significantly, the person who helps him when he collapses is Esther Sokolowsky—the "Jew-woman"—a refugee persecuted in Russia and now condemned to be an outsider in this rigidly Calvinistic community. This detail, like the minute description of the way the church congregation is segregated by gender and race, testifies to Smith's acute perceptiveness regarding matters of oppression.)

A similar tragic lack of fulfilment in a love relationship characterizes "The Pastor's Daughter," while "Desolation" and "The Father" are masterpieces in portraying the harshness of the lives of the poor laboring classes and the societal forces that drive people apart and ultimately consign everyone to a bleak and lonely fate. "Desolation" traces the fate of "poor white" Alie van Staden, who suffers one harsh blow after another. She loses her son and is turned out of the house on the farm where the son worked as a "bijwoner"; finally, friendless and financially destitute, she makes her way to the small town of Hermansdorp where she finds a place in the orphanage for her grandson. Succumbing to the fate that has dogged her so relentlessly, she dies.

Smith's skill as a story writer manifests itself chiefly in the austere economy of her stories—a quality perfectly commensurate with the frugal, self-denying lifestyles of the people of the Little Karoo. This gives the stories an archetypal, timeless quality: the ageless themes of thwarted love, familial conflict and betrayal, and the depredations of a baneful fate all surface again in these stories and are stripped of ornamentation, reduced to their bare, elemental features. It is not surprising, therefore, that the stories leave the impression of being ineluctably familiar, of having surfaced from the wells of a shared human unconscious.

Smith's achievement is to have traced in the geography of the Little Karoo some of the primary contours in the landscape of the human mind. The starkness of her settings, the harsh, unforgiving nature of the terrain, and the attitudes it has etched into the psyches of its inhabitants imbue her stories with an enduring, emblematic quality and attest to the unflinching steadiness of her artistic vision.

—Craig MacKenzie