Alan Paton was born in 1903 in Pietermaritzburg and educated at Maritzburg College, where he showed himself to be a brilliant and precocious student. He went on to take a degree in Mathematics and Physics, followed by a diploma in education at the Natal University College where he made significant contributions to the Debating Society, the Student Union, the Student Christian Association and became President of the Students’ Representative Council. As a token of the esteem in which his fellow students held him, he was sent to Britain in October l924 as their representative at the Imperial Conference of Students in London.

Alan Paton in 1963, at the hight of the repression of the Liberal Party
Paton with candidates for the first free hostels at Diepkloof Reformatory (1938)

Paton volunteered for service during Word War II, but was refused. After the war he took a trip, at his own expense, to tour correctional facilities across the world. During this tour, working in cramped hotel bedrooms, he wrote Cry, the Beloved Country. Published in February 1948, the novel was an immediate success, and brought Paton fame and financial independence. In the same year the political situation in South Africa changed when the right-wing National Party took over the government and Paton increasingly involved himself in the politics of his country, and in particular to supported liberal ideas and opposition to apartheid. Together with others, he formed the South African Liberal Association, which eventually became the Liberal Party. The government banned the party in the late 1960s because its membership comprised both “Blacks” and “Whites”. Although Paton adopted a peaceful opposition in protest against apartheid, his passport was withdrawn. As a result of the intense political pressure of these darkening years and his wife’s death, he went through a period of apparent despair.

After graduation, Paton worked as a teacher and got married in 1928. Following a serious illness he decided that he no longer wanted to be a teacher and applied for a job as warden at the reformatory for young “non-white” men, Diepkloof, near Johannesburg. Here he developed a novel system for rehabilitating prisoners by allowing them substantial increased liberty. For the introduction of these controversial “progressive” reforms he was attacked by Hendrik Verwoerd, the future architect of apartheid, in his newspaper Die Transvaler, but Paton was sustained by the support of his friend and patron Jan Hofmeyr, the then Minister of Education.

The novel Cry, the Beloved Country first published in 1948 but have been reprinted many times

In 1969 Paton married his secretary and began the long, happy conclusion to his family life. He retired to the small town Botha’s Hill, in KwaZulu-Natal, where he resided until his death in 1988. His courage, good humour and correspondence survived uninterrupted until the end, and many South African political figures, ranging from Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi to P.W. Botha, benefited from his wise advice.

Paton with Chief Buthelezi at the unveiling of the Paton bust, at the university of Natal, 7 Oct 1982

This publication is a collection of nearly 350 previously unpublished letters by one of South Africa’s greatest novelists. It throws a sharp light on a wide array of aspects of the country’s history in the 20th century. The letters range over Paton’s long life. When he wrote the first of the letters reproduced in this volume, in January 1922, he was 18 years old, a brilliant student at Natal University College. When he wrote the last of them, in March 1988, he was 85 and within a fortnight of his death.

This complex and many-stranded life produced a rich harvest of varied and always interesting letters, providing unrivalled insight into his personality and work. They give us access to the intimate thoughts of a great writer who was incapable of penning a dull or dishonest phrase. ‘I used to be a great letter-writer’, wrote Paton to an old friend in 1941 ‘but I dare not promise you that it can happen again. I can only say that your last letter has made me write this one.’

Alan Paton, Laurens van der Post, Enslin du Plessis, Roy Campbell and Uys Krige in London, May 1952

Paton clearly enjoyed the give and take of letter-writing and was dedicated to it. Many letter-writers seem to produce monologues; Paton’s correspondence is more like a series of vigorous conversations. His engagement with other human beings and his capacity for friendship are everywhere on display. His letters, full of insights into his personality and principles, are the major aspect of his writings to remain largely unpublished. The publication of this selection begins the process of filling the gap.


c/o Mrs. Dench,/25 Kenilworth Gdns/
Seven Kings/Ilford./Essex./Engl.

My dearest Dorrie,

I have just sent you a cable to say ‘Letter delayed all well love writing today’. And this letter will explain why. I left Stockholm at 9 pm on 24/9/46 & woke up in central Sweden. The woods were turning yellow & red among the dark green of the pines. We crossed into Norway, & some of the mountains were covered with snow. Norway is a beautiful country, not so mountainous as I discovered Sweden—or those parts of it where I was—to be. I got to Trondheim at 2.0 pm & stayed at a cheap hotel. An engineer named Jensen asked if I would like to see the cathedral. He was an enthusiast & knew every stone in it. There is a great rose window that defies description, & it is interesting in this Protestant church to find chapels to the Blessed Virgin. It was raining heavily & I returned to my room & began my novel about South Africa. At 7.0 pm I met Jensen & we went to a restaurant where I stood him dinner in return for his kindness. On Tuesday I caught the 8.0 am to Oslo, & we climbed up to the Dovre mountains. Here the autumn colours are unbelievable; the moors are yellow, green, red, orange—such colours as you have never seen. A young girl next to me spoke English, & we had a pleasant journey. We descended from the mountains through the Gudbrandsdal, a lovely valley between the mountains, with flowers & big green rivers that foam their way through the narrow pass. We got to Oslo at 10.0 pm & I went to another hotel, this time very expensive. Next day it was raining & I set out to explore, but turned back. But Oslo is a poor city compared with Stockholm, & the Norwegians suffered much during the war. The trains & trams are dirty, the shops are poor, taxis are scarce. I returned to the hotel & wrote more of the book. At 5.40 pm of that day 27/9/46 I caught my train. You can imagine my horror when I was ordered to get off the train at Halden, on the border, because my visa did not allow more than one journey into Sweden. I pleaded but in vain, so there I was dumped in the dark, not knowing a soul, & having no money, except a traveller’s cheque that could not be cashed in Norway. I rang up the wife of the British Consul, Mrs. Thompson. She was very kind & actually walked down to the station to get me & took me up to her house for tea. There we tried to work out some kind of plan. My idea was still to try & catch the boat at 5.0 pm for Gothenburg, but I first had to go back to Oslo to get a visa, & then take a taxi to a bridge, & Mrs. Thompson would arrange for a Swedish taxi to meet me on the bridge. Total distance about 300 miles, total cost about £20. As there were so few taxis in Oslo, I decided to take a taxi from Halden to Oslo for 130 crowns (£6.10.0). You can imagine I was very depressed, partly because of the money involved, partly because it was a very tight fit as far as time was concerned, partly because I had a tour of northern England due to begin on Thursday Oct. 3. I went back to the station where a young man who could speak a little English was most kind to me, & at 6.30 am set out by taxi for Oslo. We got there at 9.0 am, only to find that the Consulates do not open till 10.0 am, but I got my visa at 9.30 am. Back to the British Consul who lent me 150 crowns, & advised me to cancel my passage by telegram, & give up the taxi idea. Mr. Thompson, the British consul from Halden, was there, & shared my taxi back to Halden. I was determined not to stay at the depressing & expensive hotel. Back at Halden Mr. Thompson got me a nice room at a cheap hotel, & took me home to tea. Then after tea to dinner with people called Refsaas. There we ate & drank from 7.0 pm to about midnight, with breaks for music & singing. I went back to the hotel & wrote some more of the book. After breakfast Mr. Thompson called for me, took me for a drive to his quarry, & back to lunch. There I stayed till the evening train, & believe me, neither customs nor passport official came near me, so to be safe, after getting a passage for Wednesday thro’ the intervention of the S.A. Consul, I reported to the police. My three days in Gothenburg I spent writing, after having been forced to take a double room for the sake of getting somewhere to sleep. I cashed my last cheque for £5, & tho’ I did nothing extravagant except send three cables to England to explain the delay & cancel engagements, I spent it all in 2½ days. I was glad to get on the boat & found myself in a 2-berth cabin with another Johannesburg man, Fletcher from Parkview. He knew the Rouses well & taught John special lessons. At the Customs I got a letter from Jonno & David, which cheered me up. During the night the boat began to heave & roll, & only about six of us (out of 100 2nd class) turned up for breakfast. I enjoyed it. We got to Tilbury yesterday morning (Friday 4/10/46) & was I glad to see England again. I went to draw my money this morning & see that for September you got your £17. But they are still not deducting the new insurance. Please go to see the Insurance people, & ask why the stop-order is not in force, & please pay the back amounts out of Hoffie’s money. You need not worry about the passage on the Queen Elizabeth—I was glad to get it, & have cancelled my other application, & will fill in the form you mention. They were a bit peeved to know that Johannesburg could do it, & they couldn’t. I came back to a big post, two letters from you, one from Mr. Laas, two copies of Common Sense, letter from Ronald, etc. etc. Tomorrow I leave to go to Tubby Eaton at Leicester, & have a very heavy programme of work, visiting. I hope to get in a bit of writing too.

Three months are gone & before you know where you are I shall be back. Hope Jonno is better. Had a letter from Hoffie too, in which he commented on David’s mountaineering! Shall write to you next Monday from here probably, after I return from the North. No more news at the moment. Remember me to Stanley & Beryl, & Oubaas too. Have they started on Stanley’s house? Shall try & write now to Mr. Laas, to David & Jonno, to Ronald & Hoffie, & then I shall be free this evening to play crib with Mrs. Dench.

Much love to you, my dear. I shall be careful of passports in future.


Edited and introduced by Peter F. Alexander
Peter F. Alexander, born in Grahamstown, South Africa, in 1949, was educated at the universities of the Witwatersrand, Leeds and Cambridge, and has lived in Australia since 1978. A literary biographer and Professor of English at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, he has been a Visiting Fellow at Duke University, North Carolina, and at Clare Hall, Cambridge, Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and Visiting Professor at Princeton University and the University of North Carolina. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He wrote Alan Paton: A Biography in 1994 as well as other literary biographies.