Fiela’s Child


Dalene Matthee

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Fiela’s Child Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Dalene Matthee's Fiela’s Child. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Dalene Matthee

Born Dalene Scott in the Southern Cape of South Africa, Dalene Matthee graduated high school in 1957. That same year, she married Larius Matthee, a local bank clerk. Matthee originally got her start as a writer writing in Afrikaans, although she also did the English-language translations for most of her works. She wrote children’s stories for the South African Broadcasting Corporation while living in Darling, outside of Cape Town. Her family continued to move around, at one point settling in Long Kloof on the Southern Cape. In the late 1970s, Dalene began publishing her first short stories for adults. Eventually, her husband’s health problems and early retirement led the family to move to Hartenbos on the Western Cape of South Africa. It was there that Matthee wrote her best-known works: the “forest novels,” whose titles (in English translation) are Circles in a Forest, Fiela’s Child, The Mulberry Forest, and Dream Forest. Although the novels all stand alone, they all take place in or around the Knysna forest, where Matthee herself spent a lot of time. Matthee went on to earn acclaim and literary awards for her work, particularly the “forest novels,” with Fiela’s Child and Circles in the Forest being adapted into films. She died in 2005, just 10 days after finishing the English-language translation of her novel Driftwood.
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Historical Context of Fiela’s Child

Although Fiela’s Child takes place during the 1800s, it references events that happened in South Africa both long before and long after the timeline of the novel itself. Dutch settlers began colonizing South Africa and driving out many of the region’s indigenous Black residents in the 1600s. South Africa became a busy trading hub where people from all parts of the world, including Europe, Africa, and Asia intermingled. It also became the site of several wars between new European settlers and indigenous African tribes. By the 1800s, when the novel takes place, there were four main population groups in the country: Black, white, “Coloured” (multiracial), and “Indian” (from India or Asia). White South Africans, often descended from Dutch (or later British) settlers, were a minority in the country, but they controlled much of the government and the economy. “Coloured” South Africans (like Fiela and her family) were also a minority in the country as a whole, but they were particularly prevalent on the Western Cape where the novel takes place. These “Coloured” South Africans typically had a lower status than their white neighbors due to racist laws and institutions. Matthee’s novel draws influence not only from the 1800s when it’s set but also from the 1980s when she wrote it. Although the events of the novel take place before apartheid (a system of institutional racial segregation in South Africa in place from 1948 to 1994), this practice looms large over Fiela’s Child, which explores the injustice of white supremacy and the institutions that enforce it.

Other Books Related to Fiela’s Child

Fiela’s Child has a particularly close connection to three of Matthee’s other works (Circles in a Forest, The Mulberry Forest, and Dream Forest), which are collectively known as the “forest novels.” These novels take place near or in the Knysna Forest and all to some extent deal with themes of environmental conservation and injustice. Matthee’s work came to prominence during a period of global interest in South African literature in the latter half of the 20th century. Some other South African writers from this time period include J. M. Coetzee (Waiting for the Barbarians; Disgrace), Nadine Gordimer (The Conservationist), André Brink (Kennis van die aand), Ingrid Jonker (“The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)”), and Breyten Breytenbach (True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist). These writers represent a wide range of styles, genres, and languages (including Afrikaans, English, and Dutch). What unites all of them is not only their South African identity but, like Matthee, their opposition to apartheid, the system of institutional racial segregation in South Africa (1948–1994).
Key Facts about Fiela’s Child
  • Full Title: Fiela’s Child
  • When Written: Early 1980s
  • Where Written: Hartenbos, South Africa
  • When Published: 1985 (Afrikaans), 1986 (English)
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel, Historical Fiction
  • Setting: Western Cape of South Africa, 1800s
  • Climax: Benjamin gets Barta to admit that he’s not Lukas.
  • Antagonist: The magistrate and the racist laws he represents
  • Point of View: Third Person Omniscient

Extra Credit for Fiela’s Child

Great Scott. Dalene Matthee’s unmarried name was Scott, and she was in fact a direct descendant of the famous Scottish historical novelist Walter Scott.

A Big Legacy. Dalene Matthee has a tree named in her memory in Knysna forest. The yellowwood tree is 880 years old and over 130 feet tall.