Heritage, letters, and public history : Dorothea Fairbridge and loyal unionist cultural initiatives in South Africa, circa 1890-1930'

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The study of the life and work of the 'nation building' author Dorothea Fairbridge is framed by the concept of the inventing of heritage for the Union of South Africa, circa 1910. The thesis begins with a historicizing of the concept of heritage, which is shown to have enjoyed a complex and wide range of social and cultural implications during the period roughly 1880 to 1930. This heritage paradigm or heritage discourse is reflected in the narrative dynamics of the contemporary novel, and samples including Fairbridge's fiction are discussed. The heritage paradigm is then applied in a survey of the Fairbridge family and its contribution to public culture. This paradigm is turned to the idea of the inventing of heritage for the Union, with a study of the rise of a 'Cape vernacular' architectural style and related topics, at the time of Union. The 'Van der Stel controversy' of 1909 plays a central role in Fairbridge's literary and historical work. The place of Van der Stel's farm, Vergelegen, as a cultural centre at the time of Union, is discussed, along with Fairbridge's classic studies of old Cape architecture and history. The exportation of the Cape vernacular building style as a national architectural idiom for South Africa at large is explored in a case study of the Tongaat-Hulett sugar estate in Kwazulu-Natal. The role of genteel anglophone Englishwomen in defining Cape identity at the time of Union is explored, and Fairbridge's Guild of Loyal Women is shown to have been the origins of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Questions of archivism, memory, history and memorialism are linked. The significance for literary production, of British immigration schemes, is discussed. The idea of national identity is then pursued in terms of the period genre of the 'new pageantry' where national and ethnic identity are performed. This is compared with mural painting in public buildings, and a case study is made of the 1908 Quebec Tercentenary pageant and the 1910 South African Union pageant. The study of Fairbridge and her milieu closes with a reconstruction of the cultural matrix with which the 'Cape-to-Cairo' idea was sustained for three decades, including an examination of the concept of the Cape as 'Mediterranean'. Thus, Fairbridge's contribution to South African public culture and identity is traced through her thirteen books and in the context of heritage, Africana, archives, colonial book production, architecture, gendered interests and activities, public performances, cultural geography and travel writing.

Bibliography: p. 287-312.