The tyranny of giants
The Novels of Mary Elizabeth Martens

Occasional Publications imprint
The Natal Society Foundation.

The journalist Mary Elizabeth Martens (1870–1939), who had grown up in the Colony of Natal under Responsible Government, published two novels in 1911 and 1915: A Woman of Small Account and A Daughter of Sin. Like the writing of most women of her era, in the words of Valerie Letcher these novels ‘disappeared from the South African literary consciousness’. Agreeing with Letcher that recognition is overdue, the novels were rescued by two of Martens’ great granddaughters, Lynn McMaster and Nancy Bowring, and are republished in modern format together with biographical and historical background. They contain significant social commentary on their times, portraying suffocating patriarchy in which wives and children were regarded and treated as property. White men could behave as they pleased, while white women who transgressed were regarded as ‘fallen’ and sometimes punished as criminals. The penalties for black men who crossed racial boundaries were extreme. Of A Woman of Small Account, a contemporary reviewer wrote ‘The book, though it assumes the guise of a story, is a powerful plea, worthy of Olive Schreiner, for the fair treatment of the natives of South Africa, male and female’ (The Advertiser (Adelaide), 23 September 1911). Recurrent moral panics were fuelled by male psychological insecurity about race and early stirrings of feminism evident in suffragism. Fear of challenge to the social order manifested itself in misogyny and racism in a rural society that was philistine and backward. These themes emerge strongly from Martens’ writing, which required considerable courage for her time just over a century ago.


Book details

Natal Society Foundation
Publication date:
Paperback, section sewn
348 pp
  24cm x 17cm
Selling Price:
Christopher Merrett, Lynn McMaster & Nancy Bowring
Suzie van der Merwe
Proof Reader:
Catherine Munro
Design & layout:
Jo Marwick
Printed by:
CPW Printers, Pietermaritzburg

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