Dominique Malherbe, Searching for Sarah: The Woman who Loved Langenhoven (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2021)

SARAH (Saartjie) Eva Goldblatt was born in London on Christmas Day 1889 to a Jewish family that emigrated to South Africa in 1897. She left school at 12 to work for her father in printing and bookselling; then from 1912 until his death in 1932 formed a close working and personal relationship with the literary giant, advocate of the Afrikaans language (which became an official national language in 1927), editor and politician C.J. (Cornelis Jacobus) Langenhoven. In his will he named Goldblatt his literary executor. For the next 43 years until her death, she devoted her life to the promotion of his memory and work.

It is an extraordinary story; one interpreted by Goldblatt’s great-niece. Dominique Malherbe has not only written a biography, but put a great deal of herself into it in a way that highlights the challenges of this most demanding of literary genres. Along the way she was hampered by missing letters, sometimes less than helpful librarians and archivists and reticent Langenhoven descendants, together with a general air of mystery that surrounded her great-aunt. At times this biography reads like a detective story and is all the better for it.

How and why did Goldblatt at the age of 22 end up in Oudtshoorn working for Langenhoven as his editorial assistant on Het Zuid Westen? There is the possibility that she was sexually assaulted by her father, David, who abandoned his family (or was kicked out by his wife) and settled in the United States. Goldblatt embraced the cause of Afrikaans language and literature with the passion of a convert. She is compared in this book with Emily Hobhouse.

Langenhoven was sixteen years her senior. In a sense this is a story of two fathers; and presumably of a search for identity. As an adopted Afrikaner she was to maintain a certain distance from her family. Legend holds that there was a child and available letters give vague hints to support this. While Malherbe was not specifically looking for him, she concludes that there was a son, born between 1923 and 1925, who was adopted. There is no trace of a birth or of a subsequent life or family history; simply silence. Malherbe questions the effect of this loss on Goldblatt’s already complex psyche. She was on good terms with Langenhoven’s wife (a marriage à trois, it seems) and his alcoholic daughter, and later cared for his grandson.

For all his literary genius and success in public life, Langenhoven suffered from depression, headaches and alcoholism. Goldblatt, clearly a liberated woman, drove around Cape Town on a motorbike searching bars until she found him, loading him into the sidecar and taking him home to sober up. Having arrived in Oudtshoorn with imperfect Afrikaans, twenty years later she controlled the legacy of one of Afrikanerdom’s pre-eminent cultural figures. This must have required considerable determination and single-mindedness, especially in an era in which anti-Semitism was rife. This particular issue is not addressed in Malherbe’s book.

Goldblatt was self-educated and matriculated only in her mid-30s, by which time she was already a teacher employed by the Cape Schools Board (from 1919 to 1929). She also worked as a journalist at Die Burger and was later to become a broadcaster. As a teacher it is no surprise to find her described as unconventional.

Haunting Malherbe’s research is the figure of J.C. (John Christoffel) Kannemeyer, Langenhoven’s biographer. He casts Goldblatt in an unflattering light for reasons that are unclear and suggests that she treated Langenhoven’s family badly after his death. Malherbe, constantly looking over her shoulder at Kannemeyer, demonstrates convincingly that there is plentiful evidence in letters to show that this was not so, and that he quoted selectively from them.

It is clear that Goldblatt was a driven and obsessive personality who could be jealous, impatient, controlling, demanding and downright disagreeable; but she took the responsibilities of literary executor extremely seriously. Indeed, some thought she turned the Langenhoven legacy into an industry, especially around what was described as the ‘super circus’ of his centenary in 1973 and a further edition of Versamelde Werke (Collected Works). Albert Grundlingh describes her as a ‘Boerejood on steroids’. But Langenhoven’s publications have sold millions of copies and Arbeidsgenot survives as a museum in Oudtshoorn.

Goldblatt’s death was complicated by dementia following treatment for eye problems. She wrote little about herself while Langenhoven was also shy of autobiography, so with her to the grave went many unanswered questions about an intense and complicated relationship that involved 60 years of devotion. There is the possibility that if the missing letters surface, some of these queries might be answered; and Malherbe wonders if her book might unearth the absent son and his descendants.

A great deal is made of history’s silences. This book shows that they can accompany, and outlive, famous and very public figures notwithstanding the existence in this instance of 3,800 pages of archived letters. Malherbe set out to provide a more balanced account of her great-aunt’s life than that available in print or in the collective memory. Not only has she done this with conviction and aplomb, but written a compelling book.