Dora Taylor
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Dora Taylor

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About Dora Taylor

Dora Taylor was born in Scotland in 1899. Orphaned at an early age, she suffered physical abuse and neglect by a succession of indifferent relatives, until eventually she was adopted by the headmistress of the local Aberdeen school. Though this straight-laced Victorian spinster gave her neither love nor affection, she nevertheless gave her the opportunity to develop her intellectual abilities. After graduating with an MA Honours degree in English Literature at Aberdeen University, where she met her future husband, James Garden Taylor, she became a teacher, inspiring new generations with her passionate love of literature. In 1924 Jim, as James Taylor was known to all, accepted a post as lecturer in psychology at the University of Cape Town, where later his pioneering research into perception led to major advances in that science. After their marriage in 1926, Dora joined him in Cape Town, a city that would change her forever and inspire her life’s work.

With seeming inevitability Dora was drawn into intellectual discussion in a politically motivated climate where with her pen she was moved to contribute to the struggle for a non-racial democracy in South Africa, collaborating with the African leader, I.B. Tabata. Always careful to keep a low profile, she used a variety of pseudonyms. Her Role of the Missionaries in Conquest in particular was greatly valued, a radical history of missionary activity and colonial conquest in South Africa, first published in 1952 under the pseudonym Nosipho Majeke. This historical work was reprinted in 1986 and distributed in universities and colleges, devoured by those seeking to unravel the truth, and although now out of print is still sought after.

Dora Taylor in CapeTown, 1926But ultimately, while in Boston, Massachusetts where Jim had been invited in the early sixties to lecture at Harvard University, Dora was advised against returning home because of a spate of arrests by the S.A. Government. She never recovered from being torn from her beloved South Africa and the friends and colleagues she had left behind, and died in exile in England in 1976.

Dora was a poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist and novelist; a philosopher, a literary critic, a teacher and a lecturer. As a devotee of all the arts, and hungry for knowledge in every sphere, she was an avid theatre goer, film buff, music and ballet lover, and made frequent trips to museums and art galleries in Europe and America. She imparted this passion to her three daughters, and to all those friends, young and old, with whom she loved to talk away the night.

She was for many years Literary Adviser to the Junior Literary Society, during which time she was responsible for compiling The Treasure Casket, eight volumes of selected literature for children. For this publication she wrote the introductions and chose and edited all the works included in the volumes; she also responded to hundreds of young readers’ and their parents’ query letters on subjects ranging from birth control to the origin of the universe.

To her sorrow none of her prose fiction was published in her lifetime, though in 1928 four of her early poems were included in Some Scottish Verse – an Anthology of Contemporary Scottish Poetry, published in London. Although some of her plays were performed by an amateur group in Cape Town, none was commercially published, and the long, hauntingly beautiful dramatic poem, Tristan and Iseult, was never submitted for publication.

Dora Taylor with her daughter Sheila in Zambia. 1962However, the bulk of her work was non-fiction, and in the 1940s and 50s more than a hundred literary and political critiques were published in the progressive magazine Trek, using several pen names. Among her works of literary criticism is a 148-page piece on Gorky, and an almost complete study of Nadine Gordimer, which she was working on when she died. Other South African writers covered are Pauline Smith, Sarah Gertrude Millin, Olive Schreiner and Alan Paton, to name but a few. In her literary criticisms she always looked at the authors’ fundamental beliefs, including their racial attitudes, in the context of the socio-economic backgrounds. This gave her work a wider significance within the political climate of the time, making her a unique figure in the recent history of South Africa.

Dora was a small, graceful woman, nimble in her movements and nimble in thought. A person of intense emotion, exceptionally sensitive to mood and expression in others, she gave the appearance of being shy and reserved, but had great hidden strengths. Her deep concern, her pity and her empathy for all disadvantaged people, no matter who they were or where in the world they were, or how they came to be in a state of desperation, was the stimulus for all her writing.

In 2008, Dora was recognised with a Literary Posthumous Award at the annual South African Literary Awards ceremony in Johannesburg.

 

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