I was held spellbound by the fascinating story of Bertha Goudvis, nee Cinamon, as told in this recently released autobiography, published by Picador Africa. Hers is a name I have bumped into a few times in my quest to be a man of letters, something she herself had already notched up in the early 1900s.
Those who write about her say she was “an intrepid woman in the mould of Olive Schreiner”. Regrettably, she wasn’t written about as widely. Her novel Little Eden, sold well in 1949 and shortly after it came out. And she had short stories published throughout her writing career.
In this aptly titled autobiography, Goudvis tells the story of how she left England for South Africa when she was barely five. Her mother took Bertha and her sister along to follow her itinerant husband who had already preceded his family by two years in his search for the elusive fortunes represented by the discovery of gold in South Africa.
Two more brothers would be born in South Africa, one of whom Herschel, known as Harry, died very young.
Bertha could read from a very early age, a pastime that irked her father no end. This was at a time, remember, when education for girls was frowned upon – their duty was to grow up, get married and keep a good house. Nothing pleased the young Bertha more than the magic words of William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, HG Wells and Emile Bronte, among the established writers of her childhood. A stranger who teased Bertha into reading a paragraph from his newspaper exclaimed, “A child of five! I’ve never seen anything like it! You deserve a box of chocolates”.
For Bertha’s family, the South African Odyssey began when their ship Kinfaus Castle left Dartmouth in the autumn of 1881 for their new country of hope. They docked in Cape Town, and would set up home in the Cradock area, moving subsequently to Burgersdop, Volksrust and later, in married life, to Durban, Johannesburg and the Lourenco Marques of old, now called Maputo.
Bertha eventually married a fellow Jew – Lucas Goudvis, , who like her father, turned out to be a restless soul, constantly seeking after riches. In their life, they would own and run hotels in LM and KwaZulu/Natal.
In her early life, where the house telephone was a rare commodity, Bertha lived for reading and going to the theatre. The first letter she ever wrote to a newspaper earned her a job writing a column for The Natal Mercury. When she later moved to Johannesburg, she wrote for The Star for a whole decade – from 1950 – 1960.
While her father – a Polish Jew, spoke many languages, including Yiddish, which was never spoken at home, Bertha’s sole tongue was English. The good language in this autobiography attests to this fact.
Bertha tried her hand at playwriting and her plays were well-received, among these A Husband for Rachel. She moved in social circles that allowed her to rub shoulders with the likes of pioneer Afrikaner leaders like Paul Kruger and Jan Smuts. She championed many causes of the South African Jewry and was a reluctant orator, once ordered to address an applauding audience with general Smuts in attendance.
Bertha says she cut a lot out of the book to avoid being long-winded but whatever she kept in gives a clear impression of this woman of substance.
© makatilemedia 10/2011