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My Chief and I
Peter Ewart


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 1797
Location: Near Canterbury, Kent, England.
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Can anyone enlighten me on the specific background to this work? I'm fully aware, of course, that it is Frances Ellen Colenso's tribute to Durnford in the guise of a nom de plume. But how much of the work is fiction and how much of it is it fact, with the narrator - Atherton Wylde - being a substitute for Miss Colenso in the authorship but not in the character of the narrator?

By creating the character Atherton Wylde in the narrative of the work itself, she is able to portray Durnford's actions in 1875 through the observations of his fictional colleague, rather than through her own observations and personal knowledge, and I presume the content is a mixture of fictitious events and conversations which she was happy to portray as reflecting the truth (i.e. what Durnford would have done, or had indeed said to her or her father in PMB at times instead of, for example, on his journey with Wylde in and around Estcourt, as the book portrays). On the other hand, so many reported events and conversations are so clearly accounts of actual events and conversations, especially those with others - the magistrate at Estcourt and his brother, for example - that it is likely they were either witnessed (despite Atherton Wylde not existing) or must have been reported afterwards to the authoress accurately. And only Durnford can have done so. Yet if Wylde didn't exist, the events and conversations which involved him cannot, obviously, have occurred as reported - or at all.

Has anyone else here studied this work carefully? I'm not so much bothered by how fair or biased she was in her attempt to vindicate his memory, but more with the unusual method she has used to put the story together. It's a very unusual approach, it seems to me. Did she have any sources other than herself and her father? Anyone familiar with any suspects among the colonists?

And was her (or "Atherton Wylde's") statement in the preface about the MS having been completed in 1875 correct, or was this merely to illustrate certain points in Durnford's character? It suits the narrative for it to have been written in 1875 & published, for the reasons given, eventually in 1880, but was this the case anyway? I suppose this was all part of the "story" - but might Frances have written it in 1875 & intended to publish it there and then, with or without Durnford's requested amendments?

Have any studies been published on the actual reliability of this persuasive narrative? All in all, I think it a very clever approach. How early was the identity of the author known - any ideas?

Peter

P.S. Alan, I probably should have posted this in the books section. No doubt you'll switch it if necessary.
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Alan
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Joined: 30 Aug 2005
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Location: Wales
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Coll
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I found the book too much, even if about Durnford.

Too 'gushy' and one-sided. I gave my copy to Dawn.

Coll
Peter Ewart


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 1797
Location: Near Canterbury, Kent, England.
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Thanks, Coll. As I said, I'm not too worried about the opinions of Miss Colenso being too one-sided or "gushy" as that is to be expected. I do, however, think it is beautifully written, well constructed and - what is interesting to me - enlightening in intricate detail on the prejudices of the colonists/settlers (particularly in and around Estcourt) and especially as far as Durnford was concerned after the BRP episode.

As you know, he was in and around Estcourt a good deal in the mid-1870s and as so many specific (fictional?) incidents and conversations are recorded, I'm interested in knowing her sources, or whether every little bit had come straight from Durnford when he was alive. If she remembered (or recorded) all these details before he died (mid 1870s?) I still wonder whether she based Wylde on anyone - someone who could, just, have passed on the information which she can never have acquired as an eye-witness, because she wan't there. Clearly, much of this work, describing his experiences in 1875, is perfectly authentic but I can think of no Estcourt character who would even have dreamed of assisting her, with the exception, perhaps, of Macfarlane's brother.

For all its polemic, I think it's quite an important book. It's "gushy" style, of course, is no different from that of any other lady of that period and background. It's just that we tend to write slightly differently these days.

P.
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Keith Smith


Joined: 30 Aug 2005
Posts: 540
Location: Northern NSW, Australia
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Peter

I too have a copy of 'My Chief and I' and I feel much the same about it as others - far too adoring to be digestible. One must, however, bear in mind that it is a panegyric to Miss Colenso's personal hero. As such, it is almost as high-flown as Pliny the Younger's encomium to Trajan.

Had you noticed, by the way, that Atherton Wylde shares her initials with her hero's christian names?

KIS
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Keith Smith


Joined: 30 Aug 2005
Posts: 540
Location: Northern NSW, Australia
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Peter

I had another look at my copy of 'My Chief and I', which was published by what is now University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. The extensive Introduction, by M.J. Daymond, includes his description of the work 'as adventure-fiction, as a polemic and historical record'.

He also gives reasons for Colenso assuming a male persona:

'For a young woman to intervene in international politics and to take on the role of champion-at-arms is unusual even today. In Frances Colenso’s day, particularly in a remote colonial outpost, it was extraordinary. It necessitated her disguising her identity, and so she followed the example of many other women writers—she created a male persona for herself. Her Atherton Wylde is a young Englishman who arrives in Natal just after Langalibalele’s arrest. This disguise was necessary for many reasons. Propriety demanded that Frances conceal her own feelings for Durnford whose estranged wife was living in England. As no woman could have travelled with Durnford’s work party in the remote mountain regions of Natal, plausibility demanded that she create an author-narrator who could have had first-hand experience of the events she presents. Finally, given Durnford’s own exemplary purposes in employing the Ngwe, prudence demanded that the Colenso name should not be too closely associated with the publication of his exploits. At the time of Frances’s writing, hostility in Natal to the Colenso family was such that it might have damaged, not furthered, Durnford’s cause.'

My copy also includes a sequel called 'Five Years Later', previously unpublished.

KIS
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Peter Ewart


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 1797
Location: Near Canterbury, Kent, England.
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Keith

Very many thanks for that. It was exactly what I was looking for in the way of opinions cast by those trying to describe Frances Colenso's work and method. I only skimmed through the work some years ago but recently re-read it properly. My copy is only a modern reprint with no intro or anything but I've been fascinated by the way she records events and conversations which took place many miles from her but which, on the whole, seem undoubtedly to have taken place in more or less the way she has described them.

I've no problem with the florid language at all, as it reflects (a) her character, upbringing and adherence to the Colenso "cause" (b) provides us with an accurate insight into her own thinking, misguided or otherwise and (c) because it is more or less what one would expect, being virtually identical to the style of so many women who acted or wrote in support of the mission field, whether in this country or S Africa. There were shoals of them and they all wrote in the same way!

Her two aims were obviously intertwined. As well as being her paean to the deceased Durnford's memory, it's clear that this work is also a powerful attack on the Natal government and the settler mentality with regard to the huge black majority in their midst. It couldn't be one without the other, I suppose. I don't know how widely it will have been read, but it will have come as a rather nasty, unwelcome barb to the colonists only a year or so after they had seen their ambitions for "responsible government" dashed from their hands and would have been another reminder of all the bitterness which followed Bushman's River, the Langalibalele trial, Pine's recall and the Colenso protests about the amaNgwe etc.

I wonder how long the work remained genuinely anonymous. A number must have suspected the Colenso "camp" from some of the clues. I wondered about her sources but, since writing the other day, I suspect both Jabez Molife and even Hlubi himself may have provided detail (if only via the published reports as fas as the BRP incident was concerned, but possibly additionally directly to the Colensos). I think she must have recorded (or memorised) in detail many of Durnford' conversations with her and her father on the matter in 1873 and 1874. The last two sentences of Daymond's piece are, of course, spot on. There was enough nastiness directed towards her faction without attracting more. And Durnford's support for the amaNgwe was at least the equal of his criticisms of the Natal Carbineers as far as the causes for the colonists' vitriol towards him were concerned.

In many respects, Frances Colenso's style is not so much "gushing" as steely, targeted as it was at the Natal establishment, not surprisingly given the beleaguered position of her family at Bishopstowe.

Peter
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Dawn


Joined: 31 Aug 2005
Posts: 610
Location: Auckland, New Zealand
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I still have that book, Coll, in preparation for our court of inquiry. We will make use of it yet! I'm sure I can gush if I put my mind to it...
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AMB


Joined: 07 Oct 2005
Posts: 871
Location: Queensland, Australia
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Interestingly, of the several hundred books in my library pertaining to the AZW, my copy of My Chief and I is one hardly [if ever!] opened. So, thank you, Peter: I'm off to read it now!

AMB
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My Chief and I
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