Before Bluestocking came Kites of Good Fortune, which had as narrator Anna de Koning, my grandmother eleven generations back. It has been said that the story of Annie Bergh, her Swedish husband and her Bengali mother is not an historical novel in the conventional sense. I agree; it was a long first chapter in my autobiography. Bluestocking is the second, even longer, chapter.
My middle name is Anna. It is a strong palindromic name, which I inherited from my grandmother, ‘mooi’ Annie Bergh. Her face was familiar; her portrait hung on the wall in my mother’s bedroom next to the medicine cabinet. The stories about her were mostly sad. I could not imagine a smile on that serious face on the wall. Half martyr, half saint, her presence hovered in the ether, casting a gloomy shadow. She had died of breast cancer in her early fifties, when my mother was eleven. Her eldest child was eighteen and the youngest three.
For many years I suppressed my middle name perhaps, subconsciously, thinking it might be bad luck. My Aunt Anna, whom I met on a few occasions, had enough bad luck to drive her a little batty. Then I made a discovery. Apartheid was in its hey day and I was riding the wave of my rebellion against my upbringing. Hypocrisy was my foremost foe. With like-minded friends I went to listen to a lecture by Dr H. F. Heese on his research for Groep Sonder Grense (Group without Borders). I soon discovered that my acknowledged Swedish ancestor, Olof Bergh, revered by my family for his blue blood, blue eyes and blond hair, had a beautiful illegitimate, half- Bengali wife with brown eyes and black hair. If my family knew the facts about Anna de Koning’s mixed race, they had been careful to conceal them. Where I grew up blue-blond was best; admitting to Bengali-brown out of the question. On the front of the publication supporting the lecture, was the ghoulish portrait of the ancestor of whom I had been taught to be proud despite the slur on his character in the history books of the time. His name made me glow with pride though his image was a disappointment. The real revelation was on the back cover: another portrait, another Anna – the original Anna – ‘Anna de Koning, daughter of Angela of Bengal, wife of Olof Bergh’. There it was, in black and white, the other side of the story. The pretty face stared at me and I imagined her smiling. Over her shoulder I could almost make out the ghost of her mother. You belong to me, I thought, we belong together. I will find out about you and let the whole world know.
It took twenty years before I would be able to examine my lineage and write Kites of Good Fortune. The research was an adventure in its own right: it took me from the Cape Archives to the Botany Library in London to my husband’s large Africana library in our house in Pakistan. As I tracked Olof Bergh’s well-documented life, I began to see a life for Annie. I knew the perils of the publishing jungle. I had written, and tried to sell, a couple of ‘exercise’ books before. So, I decided to please myself: I would weave my interests around the life of Anna de Koning. Even if I had to self-publish a hundred copies, my family and friends would not only know about my heritage but would recognize my passion for plants, textiles, music, silkworms, travel, love and life.
Now there is Bluestocking, a story about another Annie Bergh and her daughter Petronellie, my mother. This time I am exploring my moral and intellectual heritage. The title is taken from an argument I had with my mother: I was twenty, much influenced by my Lit Crit English courses and highly disapproving of my mother’s library books. After some superior remark on the subject, my mother rose to her full height:
“Don’t be so high and mighty, young lady. I, too, was a bluestocking once upon a time!” The term has been used to describe intellectual women since the 18th century and was particularly popular in South Africa the 20’s and 30’s. The official mouthpiece of the South African University Women’s Association was the Bluestocking. Incidentally, one of the founders of this association was Bertha Stoneman who left her indelible stamp on my great-aunt, Nellie, who insisted that only those who knew the Latin names of plants were properly educated.
The other bluestockings were, of course, the Puritans. There is much in the novel about the imperatives of Calvinism and the way in which it shapes the lives of people. The protagonists like Ds Macaulay (the Andrew Murray character) and Alwyn Cronjé (based on my father) are counter balanced by Ferdi Buccholdt (based on C. Louis Leipoldt) and Floris Romein, a fictitious composite. My mother’s character is caught in the middle and, eventually, she must decide.
When Abbie Ferguson and Anna Bliss came from America, on invitation from Dr Andrew Murray – that arch-Calvinist- to establish Huguenot College, they planted Mary Lyon’s ‘head, heart and hand’ tradition on the Dark Continent. Here Afrikaans girls were for the first time taught what their brothers learnt: Mathematics, Science, English, Latin and Greek along with Astronomy and other subjects in a formidable academic curriculum. That took care of the ‘head’ part. The ‘heart’ was trained in disciplined daily devotions and Bible study. Extra-curricular activities such as Chautauqua Circles and clubs with a focus on temperance and missionary work, served to enhance the cultural and moral life. The ’hand’ was employed in the practical life; girls cleaned their own rooms, made their own beds and laundered their own clothes. Only cooking was left to outside staff.
It was this way of life that I was taught. Bluestocking is a reflection on this heritage.