I have been reading The Cape Journals of Lady Anne Barnard, 1797–1798, edited and published in 1994 for the Van Riebeeck Society (second series, no. 24) by A. M. Lewin Robinson, assisted by Margaret Lenta and Dorothy Driver. Lady Anne comes across as a cheerful, intelligent, well-read, certainly fearless, and shrewd if decidedly condescending and above all loquacious observer of Dutch society at the Cape. Her arrival coincided with the moment when Britain had not yet resolved to hold onto it permanently. Instead, she appears to have been happy enough to remain for as long as was necessary to dissuade the French from helping themselves, and, as the events of the past 110 years amply demonstrate, paid little heed to the consequences of shutting out, or, at least, not accommodating the Boers. Acting as a quasi-official hostess to the new stop-gap governor, Lord Macartney (he of the famous embassy to China, 1792–1794)—her husband, Andrew Barnard, was Lord Macartney’s colonial secretary—Lady Anne moved with ease through Cape society. Certainly she and I are in perfect agreement about the impressiveness of the topography. “The Table Mountain in Africa,” she wrote, “is, as a mountain, what St. Peters is, as a Church, ...the King of Prussia as a General... or Pitt as a Statesman, with this difference only, that it will stand the test of time better than St. Peters...the King...or the Minister...They will all in its course prove themselves to be the ‘baseless fabric’ of visions which have left scarcely the wra[c]ks of their existence but the World must open its mouth in one great Yawn ere it can so swallow itself up as to leave ‘no part behind’ of the immense mass of stone which rises perpendicular here before our eyes, loading poor Mother Earth who groans, but bears it without floundering. [p. 218]” It is impossible not to like a diarist who sews the seeds of perpetual confusion by deploying so many sets of her own, brightly sequential ellipses, and, also, incidentally, trusts her readers to pick up with ease the reference to Prospero’s marvelous “baseless fabric” speech in Act IV, sc. i of The Tempest. Lady Anne was inclined at first to regard the local Dutch population as a kind of interesting but very exotic zoological species. Perhaps the funniest passage concerns the ball given by the acting governor, General Sir James Craig, to Lord Macartney shortly after Lady Anne’s arrival at the Cape:
The Hall of reception here, which was decorated with Orange Trees on the plan of my little Vauxhall [Gardens] seemed to have devoured all the accommodations of the house, so that had Lord Macartney brought a Wife and Family with him he could not have known where to put them. The Ball room, generally used as an eating room was covered with paper a deep Orange colour, in compliment I suppose to their Prince [the Stadholder]—Indian flowers and Parrots covered it all over which no quantity of candles could have brightened. When we entered it we found it lined with two rows of Ladies, all tolerably well dressed and all “mad in white Muslin.”...
The reference this time is to The Critic, a play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1779) Act II, sc. i, where the heroine and her confidante appear respectively “mad in white satin” and “mad in white linen.” She resumed:
...I had expected to find them handsomer but here was no real beauty to be seen…no countenance…no manner…no graces…no charms…tho’ plenty of good looks & the freshness of health with a vulgar smartness accompanying it which spoke the torch of Prometheus which animated them to be made of mutton tail. They danced without halting a moment and in a sort of pit a pat tingling little Step which they have probably learnt from some beauty on her way to Bengal—upon the whole, they were such Women as were to be found in a Country Town at an assize Ball, a great way from the Capital, and saying so I do not think I disparage their appearance. What they want most is shoulders—and softness of manners—the term “a Dutch doll” was quite explained to me when I saw their make and recollected the dolls—but what is most exceptionable about them is their teeth—and the size of their feet. A Tradesman in London hearing they were very large sent a Box of Shoes on Speculation which almost put the colony in a blaze so angry were the fair ones—but day by day, a pair were sent for by a Slave in the dark till at last the shoes vanished. Mrs. Baungardt…tells this Story of the immense size of the Shoes whenever she can, her foot is pretty and her white Satin Slipper a handsome one—“Sure you do not think my voot so fery large do you Sur?” [p. 197]
It is also impossible not to be charmed by a diarist who urges upon her readers this curious line on “no real beauty” but “plenty of good looks,” to say nothing of those shoulders, the teeth, and, above all, the feet. Lady Anne has a tendency to keep coming back to the feet, right the way through her account. Upon bidding farewell to the Cape, for example, she arranged to dispense with various unnecessary belongings. “I had some neat Shoes tho’ large which I meant for Miss Slaber,” she writes, “[yet] they were too small, but her Sister in law said she was sure they would fit her. So on she forced them and I saw the Shoes were ‘lost muttons’...” I like that choice of words: forced, which manages to indicate that, large as they were, the shoes were still too small for Miss Slaber’s sister-in-law, to which the only added thought is this: What, then, were they doing in Lady Anne’s wardrobe? As with the feet, from time to time Lady Anne returned to the issue of the teeth when she remarked about another “vrow” that she had “tolerable good teeth, a very rare thing to be seen as the women here as I have before mentioned lose the front ones entirely when they pass 30, and they have no idea of supplying them.” Bearing in mind that this is an eighteenth-century Englishwoman writing, the impression is a disturbing one, but I do not myself recall noticing when I was in Cape Town and Johannesburg last year whether Afrikaner ladies are challenged in the shoulder department or if they have especially large feet—modern dentistry has presumably fixed up the teeth—so I very much fear that on my next and subsequent visits to South Africa I may find it sorely tempting to look rather more closely.