31 March 2023
Edgar Mittelholzer’s Life in Guyana
A collection of correspondence, poems and booklets from the writer, Edgar Mittelholzer, to his friend, Ruth Windebank, have recently been catalogued and made available to researchers in the British Library reading rooms.
Edgar Mittelholzer was one of the earliest professional English-language novelists from the Caribbean and is widely considered to be one of the most prominent, having been among the first to gain a significant European readership.
Born in New Amsterdam, British Guyana in 1909, Mittelholzer was prolific, writing more than twenty novels over the course of his life. His work ranges in setting from the earliest period of European settlement to the then-present day, and are known for dealing with complex matters of psychological and moral interest as well as the historical and political, such as relations between ethnic groups and social classes, reflecting his own experiences in a middle-class colonial environment.
The archive, now catalogued among our Contemporary Archives and Manuscripts collections, contains 31 letters, 12 poems and 2 pamphlets, mostly dated between 1941 and 1943, and offering insight into his personal life and consequently his writing. The majority of the letters are from Mittelholzer to his friend, Ruth Windebank (nee Wilkinson), whose daughter donated the archive to the Library.
Mittelholzer’s close relationship with Ruth - affectionately referred to in the letters as ‘Ruthie’- is such that his correspondence to her provides particularly candid accounts of his personal experiences, with honest descriptions of matters as everyday as his eating habits to his deeper thoughts and feelings, such as his outlook on love.
In reading these letters, usually signed off with his nickname ‘Barno’, you accompany Mittelholzer through the early 1940s. He discusses his life, work and relationships in Georgetown, Guyana after the self-publishing of his first novel Creole Chips in 1937 and awaiting the publishing of Corentyne Thunder. He writes about his decision to join the Trinidad Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve (TRVNR) and his service, with letters from his time aboard the ‘Hellene' and HMS Benbow; he continues to write as he settles in Trinidad, discussing his first marriage and the birth of his eldest daughter.
Poems accompany many of the letters, with 12 in total in this archive, most of which appear to be otherwise unpublished. Some are written with Ruth or others in mind and certain lines are marked out for their intended recipients. Many have parallels with the letters, for example: conflict only briefly described during his time in the TRVNR is revisited in Mazaruni Rocks, Afternoon Reflections and Death in Prospect. Here, thoughts he alludes to in conversation are explored fully in his art.
‘Ruthie’ and ‘Barno’ had lost contact by the mid-1940s but in the last letter in the archive, dated 15th June 1962 the two have reconnected after 21 years. Mittelholzer writes from Farnham, in Surrey, where he would go on to spend the remainder of his life. The daughter he welcomed in his previous letters is now 19 and he also describes his other children and recent remarriage. Mittelholzer had just completed his novels The Aloneness of Mrs Chatham and The Wounded and The Worried and was awaiting the publishing of his autobiographical A Swarthy Boy.
This archive provides a small window into Mittelholzer’s inner world and into the difficulties that thematically underpin much of his published work. It also includes a selection of typescripts of poems including Afternoon reflections, Mazaruni Rocks, and Just Between Us, which has handwritten annotations.
Sadly, in May 1965, Mittelholzer took his own life by setting himself on fire, three years after the final letter in the archive. Mittelholzer’s end was foretold in his final posthumous novel, where the main character meets the same fate.
This quote from a letter Mittelholzer sent to Ruth on 15th May 1941 sums up his life reflected in the letters:
‘But life is so complicated that I just wonder where I’m going to end up. If you told me tomorrow that I’d be a millionaire in the evening I wouldn’t doubt you. Or if you told me that I’d be dining with the Governor or with an East Indian beggar in Albouystown this evening I wouldn’t doubt you, either.’
By Megan Richardson, Library Information and Archive Service Apprentice (LIAS) and cataloguer of the Edgar Mittelholzer correspondence.
Edgar Mittelholzer Correspondence to Ruth Windebank – Add MS 89653
Louis James, ‘Mittelholzer, Edgar Austin’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online) Accessed 25 February 2023: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/69688
James Ferguson ‘Edgar Mittelholzer: the Dark One’, CarribeanBeat, (2009) Accessed 29 March 2023: Edgar Mittelholzer: the Dark One | Caribbean Beat Magazine (caribbean-beat.com)