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The World that was Ours

by Hilda Bernstein
Persephone book no:

49 50 51

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The Far Cry
A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155400

'This has survived as a South African classic not just because it's beautifully written,' wrote Anthony Sampson in the Spectator, 'but because it conveys the combination of ordinariness and danger which is implicit in any totalitarian state.' The World that was Ours is a memoir about the events leading up to the 1964 Rivonia Trial when Hilda Bernstein's husband Rusty was acquitted but Mandela and the 'men of Rivonia' received life sentences.

The book starts by describing, in heartstopping detail, the twenty-four hours during which Hilda waits to hear the verdict of the trial, then fills in the background to the previous ten years. This is interwoven with domestic detail (babysitters have to be arranged even when an underground newspaper is being produced) and lyrical description of the South African landscape: the book was after all written in Camden Town by an exile heartsick with longing for her country.  

After Rusty was acquitted it was Hilda who was at risk, with the start of a new wave of arrests. She was at home loading the washing machine when the Special Branch came to the front door. 'And I am at the end of the garden among the trees, as they arrive at both the front and back doors, in less than thirty seconds. Somewhere behind me, in a kitchen never to be entered again, the washing machine is going into its rinsing cycle, the pressure cooker sends out its puffs of steam, the children are unaware that I have gone. The bright winter sun illuminates the normality of Saturday morning in a Johannesburg suburb.'

'This passionately political memoir,' observed The Times, 'is vibrant with the dilemmas of everyday family life, quick-witted dialogue, fast-paced adventure and novelistic detail.' Yet the political background is not dwelt on: it is simply taken for granted that civilised South Africans fought apartheid and the uncivilised propped it up. The main strength of the book is as an outstanding personal memoir; in this respect it bears comparison with autobiographies by Nadezhda Mandelstam and Christabel Bielenberg, which also describe traumatic twentieth-century events through the prism of a woman's gaze. Two worlds are being destroyed in the book, the public world of political activism and the private world of domestic happiness. 

'It reads like a thriller page after page... The loveliest of Hilda Bernstein's works about the ugliest of her times' said Albie Sachs in the Independent.

Also available as a Persephone Classic and a Persephone eBook.


The endpapers show a sample of a mid-1960s fabric designed in South Africa for manufacture in Belfast by Courtauld's, sometimes known as the German print.

Picture Caption

Nelson Mandela and Percy Yutar, the Prosecutor at the Rivolnia Trial of 1963-4

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Categories: Abroad Biography Education Gender and Race History

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