Still Life by Zoe Wicomb

Still Life

Jennifer de Klerk: Most biographies start with a date of birth and proceed from there.

Zoe Wicomb choses to shape her subject from shadows until he emerges as a rounded personage created by the perceptions of the people who knew him well.

It’s a very different approach, confusing at first, but persevere; it becomes worthwhile.

The subject is Thomas Pringle, an avid Scot, poet, scholarly cripple and man of letters, who led one of the 1820 settler parties to the Eastern Cape, attempted to start a school and newspaper and had to flee back to England after six years when his fiery articles about the conditions of the settlers and the treatment of slaves and indigenous races aroused the ire of Lord Charles Somerset, the autocratic governor of the Cape.

Pringle became known as the Father of South African Poetry, a fact little known today. He died in England in 1834, but was reburied in the Eastern Cape a hundred years later.

Why should we be interested? At first the author is not, but the shades of those around Pringle demand to tell his story. As they do, they tell their own and we discover Mary Prince, whom he rescued from slavery, Hinza, the Bechuana boy he adopted, and Vytje, the Khoisan maid.

To add weight to the narrative, somewhat to the confusion of the reader, the author adds time traveller Sir Nicholas Greene, a contemporary of Shakespeare, who never gets used to cellphones.

The sea voyage on the Brilliant and life on the frontier in the 1820s, a shock to the Pringle family to the amusement of their servants, are captured vividly. So are the twisted politics of the time on the brink of the abolition of slavery in 1835. Pringle did not live to see it.

Was he a saint, a servant, a hero, a poet, a jingle writer, an abolitionist, or a hypocrite? Take your pick, but you certainly know this mild little man infinitely better in the end.

That, after all, is what biography is all about.

This is an unusual and daring approach which delivers a book that at times is obscure to those who do not know the references and poems analysed. They are readily available, and I spent a couple of hours rediscovering them.

If you have interest in the history of South Africa, the Eastern Cape specifically, and the anti-slavery movement, you will enjoy meeting Thomas Pringle and his faithful friends in this sophisticated and challenging novel.

Still Life
Zoe Wicomb
Penguin/Random House
ISBN: 978-1-4152-1053-6

Jennifer de Klerk is editor of