About Cynthia Stockley
& her African Romances
illustrated with art nouveau
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
She was born Lilian Julian Webb in London in 1862, but in later life frequently shaved ten years off her age. In 1896 the future Cynthia Stockley went to Zimbabwe, at the time colonized under the name Rhodesia. Her first marriage was to P. G. W. Stockley of the Rhodesian police. She later married Colonel Pelham-Browne, a Rhodesian pioneer velt farmer. Her brother-in-law Captain Greenfield was one of the 33 men with Alan Wilson's famed "Shangani Patrol" who died in a bold stand against Lobengula during the 1893 Matabele War. There's a pictures of Major Wilson & some of his men at this Shangani Patrol Memorial Website. Without detracting from the heroism of valiant men in even an unjust war, it is worth understanding that they died in support of genocidal land-grabs, without which there would never have been a Rhodesia; but something all too similar could be said of the United States. This website about the The Destruction of the Lobengula & the Matabele 1880-1893 helps put that in perspective, besides exemplifying why there is today so guilty a silence rendering little-known the bibliographies of the first White South African writers.
Cynthia's 1904 publication of the short story collection Virginia of the Rhodesians brought her international recognition, while her novel Poppy, The Story of a South African Girl (1910) received a good deal of attention due to its outspokenness about marriage, morality, gender & depression. It was adapted to the screen in 1917, starring silent film giant Norma Talmadge. The book had sold 177,000 copies by 1919 in England, & she was just as popular in America.
Yet poshumously, Cynthia Stockley has been even more neglected than most once-popular writers. Though she often wrote of independent women she is excluded even from such huge compendiums as The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present & similarly extensive overviews which attempt to rectify the neglect of just such writers.
Given her vast success in her day, the suddenness by which she fell from the map even for specialists in women's writings needs investigation. I think foremost is her adoptive status as a white South African. Today her subject matter does not appeal to the properly guilt-stricken who hate to be reminded that the farms depicted in Three Farms, A Story of South Africa (1925) thrived at the expense of black Africans. Yet within her novels are many signal portraits of how white South Africans viewed themselves & the native population. In Kraal Baby (1933), for a single example, we have a Dutch South African theme about a young woman raised in the veld & almost certainly part black for which reason she is unjustly treated. Through Stockley's novels one will find a valuable history deserving clear critical evaluation whether finally judged for better or for the worse.
This was a writer who sold well & whose works were frequently adapted to the screen. That she merited not even minor posthumous inclusion in the largest literary histories is bizarre, but rendered explicable by more than just white guilt over South Africa. I believe her neglect also stems from the manner of her death -- by suicide in 1936 -- as is not noted in her very few biographical notices. The heroine of her somewhat autobiographical & prophetic Panjola reveals some element of Stockley's emotional state that ended in her electing to suffocate herself with the assistance of a gas stove. The heroine of Panjola, having fallen from London society circles, moves to Paris where she fares no better. On the eve of intended suicide, before she has thrown herself into the Seine, she meets an enthusiastic gentleman from Rhodesia. He inspires her to set aside suicidal impulse. She soon disguises herself as a man & sets out for Rhodesia. A fairly serious work overall begging some slight comparison to works of Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville West, or fellow South African Olive Schreiner -- struggling at least with like themes. Suicide also pops up as a theme in Tagati (Magic) (1930) as well as in some of her shorter works.
It's sometimes forgivable that a "serious" author who is focused on madness or depression in her poetry or fiction should fulfil a seeming destiny by killing herself, as in the case of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf whose choices to die at their own hands lends a type of finality that stands harmonious with their art. But for a light romancer to do so, well, only a children's writer would be more wholeheartedly shut out from common awareness. Hence within days of her suicide as reported in the international press, further notices of her life & works vanish -- as though she had never written.
Her works are varied, as she strove for originality & was not a monotonous romancer. The Claw, A Story of South Africa (1911), twice filmed in 1918 & 1927, seems somewhat inspired by H. Rider Haggard & best exemplifies why Stockley's style was sometimes called "masculine" for its moments of toughness. To the oposite edge is Wanderfoot: (The Dream Ship) (1913), a shipboard tale of America, Jersey & France featuring an authorly protagonist based on Stockley herself. Blue Aloes: Stories of South Africa (1919) includes four tales ranging from grim to romantic: Of these tales -- "Blue Aloes" "The Leopard" "Rosanne Ozanne" & "April Folly" -- the last-named became a 1920 film starring Marion Davies as April Poole. Della, the Lion Cub (1924) was not about a lion cub but about a woman with a strange affinity for wild animals; it was first serialialized in Cosmopolitan Magazine February through March, 1924, & immediately adapted the same year as a silent film called The Female so that's its first book publication was as a Photoplay with numerous stills as illustrations. The book's popularity justified a sequel, Leopard in the Bush (1927) but having no film attached sold fewer copies so the sequel is harder to find. Other movies based on her works include Ponjola filmed in 1923 & Wild Honey filmed in 1922, from 1923 & 1914 books respectively.
As an author of short stories & novelettes she was one of the best. The title story in Blue Aloes is a macabre tale of crime & leprousy justifiably one of her most famous tales during her life. Even more horrific is "The Mollmeit of the Mountain" in Wild Honey about a Dutch South African sorceress & serial killer. This story was once reprinted in what has to stand as the best anthology of weird fiction issued in the 1920s, T. Everett Harre's Beware After Dark! (1929) but other than that Stockley has not found her way into anthologies. Even on a less "severe" level her more homespun tales of South African conflict & settlement life, from cosmpolitan Durham to the Transvaal, are rich in character & incident & "prose pastels" of the countryside.
Stockley's rightful position is as a precursor to Doris Lessing's African tales. South African romances had formerly been tales of conquering white heros, sturdy male settlers protecting their families, always with an underlying sentiment of the propriety of Empire. Women ranged from inconsequential to supernatural in such stories but were never developed as credible human beings with lives of their own. Stockley made her tales about frontier domesticity, helping to dispell the self-importance of male myth-building within imperial romance. And though Stockley too often ignored rather than dealt with issues of the black majority population, she did at least occasionally confront issues of the unfairness of racism, as she did in Kraal Baby. Her great strengths lie in discriptions of South African vistas, velds, & farms, & in the depth of her characters sufficient to place her at the very least as "a lesser Olive Schreiner" worthy of modern recovery & reevalation.
See also the illustrated, annotated
Cynthia Stockley Bibliography
& see the article on
Cynthia Stockley's Norfolk Home
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