Review: Vivien Horler
Searching for Sarah – the woman who loved Langehoven, by Dominique Malherbe (Tafelberg)
CJ Langenhoven, the Afrikaans activist, writer and poet best known – to English-speaking South Africans anyway – as the writer of Die Stem, the country’s former national anthem, had a long-time Jewish lover. Not only that, she had a son by him in the mid-1920s.
Skandaal – who would have thought?
After Langehoven’s death in 1931 Sarah Eva Goldblatt, the executor of his literary estate, devoted the rest of her life to promoting his work and his legacy.
By the time she died in 1975, aged 86, more than two million copies of Langenhoven’s books had been sold, one of the country’s greatest literary successes. In a blurb on the cover, publishers Tafelberg says Goldblatt made a significant contribution to Afrikaans literature – not bad for a girl reared speaking only English and Yiddish.
Yet until now her efforts have hardly been acknowledged, and in her dedication to this quest, author Dominique Malherbe says her book is for “the memories of countless women like Sarah, whose lives were lived in the shadows”.
In addition to his literary output Langenhoven became an MP and campaigned for having Afrikaans, rather than Dutch, adopted as the language of instruction in schools. In 1925 it became one of South Africa’s official languages.
Growing up in Namibia, Malherbe knew that her great-aunt Sarah had had “something” to do with Langenhoven and years later decided to investigate what that “something” had been. This book is the story of her search.
One of her first informants was the Afrikaans writer Elsa Joubert, author of Die Swerfjare van Poppie Nongena. Joubert and Sarah were friends, but Joubert told Malherbe she knew nothing of an affair. She did however quote the ageing Sarah referring to her greying hair, and adding: “I didn’t always look like this. I had flaming red hair and I was in love.”
Malherbe then approached the Brümmer family of Rondebosch. Guillaume Brümmer is Langenhoven’s grandson, son of the writer’s daughter Engela. The family still have many of the letters between Langenhoven and Sarah, and not all were shared with the Afrikaans writer John Kannemeyer who wrote the definitive Langenhoven biography.
When Langenhoven and Sarah met in 1913 in Oudtshoorn, where she worked on the Het Zuid-Westen newspaper with him, Langenhoven was married to a widow, Lenie vanVelden. At the time of their meeting, Langenhoven would have been 40 and Sarah 23.
Lenie, who was known as Vroutjie, was 10 years older than Langenhoven. Brümmer told Malherbe an anecdote about Engela once finding Sarah and Langenhoven in a “compromising position” in the kitchen.
An upset Engela told Vroutjie what she had seen, but Vroutjie seemed unfazed. Men had certain needs, she said to her daughter, and it was fine, as she was older and could not fulfil these needs all the time.
This prompted Malherbe to ask Brümmer if he knew of a love child. Yes, he replied, a boy.
So now the quest was to “find” both Sarah and her son.
Malherbe was fortunate in that not only was she able to acquire anecdotal evidence about Langenhoven and Sarah, she was able to draw on a vast collection of letters and other archival records, many of them held by the University of Stellenbosch.
One of the problems of writing this biography of Sarah, says Malherbe, was the “Kannemeyer context”. Kannemeyer evidently believed that during the years Sarah guarded and promoted the Langenhoven legacy, she had established her version of events.
Reading the Kannemeyer biography, Langenhoven: ’n lewe, Malherbe formed the impression that Kannemeyer was not impressed by Sarah and tried to downplay the relationship between the two.
Malherbe writes: “The important part of Sarah’s story was to tell it all from an entirely different perspective, free from the overriding Kanemeyer context. I wanted to understand and uncover the real loves of her life, and her passion for keeping Langenhoven alive.”
I think Malherbe has succeeded.
- This book is also available in Afrikaans under the title Op soek na Saartjie.