Mary Benson : the problem of defining the "self".
This study investigates the problem of defining Mary Benson as a person and a writer. Her writing spans a range of generic classifications - biography, history, plays, a novel and an autobiography. Yet, all are centred on her preoccupation with the struggle for freedom in South Africa. All reveal, moreover, a great deal about Benson's own values and commitment, prompting us to question the validity, in her case, of such strict generic categories as useful defining properties in her literary career. Starting with her most recent publication, the autobiography A Far Cry. I shall look at the way she presents herself in a traditionally introspective genre. It soon becomes apparent that Benson views herself within a perspective of South African social reality, and that her sense of self is inextricably linked to her political involvement. Her personal needs and desires, to a large extent, remain unobtrusive as she foregrounds her public interactions and her concern with humanitarian and racial issues. A study of Benson, therefore, needs to address a selection of her work in an attempt to fully appreciate her sense of her own identity. In consequence, I go on to discuss her biography Nelson Mandela and her novel At the Still Point. .Both works confirm the portrait in A Far Cry of Benson as a responsible South African who has selflessly and consistently devoted herself to her role as a witness of racial oppression in South Africa. In her biography, Nelson Mandela, for example, the ANC leader emerges as an exemplary figure in the public world while his values and ideals are allowed to parallel Benson's own 'autobiographical' ideals. In At the Still Point, Anne Dawson, Benson's fictional protagonist, I shall argue, gives her author the opportunity to express her own feelings about private life in relation to sociopolitical action. These 'personal ' feelings seem to be avoided in the more direct opportunities of the autobiographical form. In exploring Benson's sense of self, therefore, this study suggests that for Benson 'commitment' overrides her sense of herself as a literary figure, and that this has consequences for the weight we give to content and form in the reading of her work. My conclusion is that we are looking not so much at the challenges of genre as at a large autobiographical project, in which the 'self is defined substantially in its meetings with other people in political circumstances