Written and published in 1883, The Story of an African Farm is set in South Africa in 1860. It’s a classic of feminist fiction but Olive Schreiner also discusses gender roles and loneliness,science and religion and the constraints imposed by a repressive colonial society.
‘The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain’.
The only break in the ‘solemn monotony of the plain’ is the farm where two cousins Emily and Lyndall live with the widowed Tante’ Sannie, the German overseer Otto and his son Waldo. This is Olive Schreiner’s own landscape, where she lived a lonely and isolated childhood with her Calvinist missionary parents. It’s a fictionalized autobiography that’s essentially a coming of age story told through a series of vignettes. Dream sequences, allegorical tales and extended metaphors often interrupt the realistic plot in a way that foreshadows modernist fiction, and makes for some quite odd reading at times.
Divided into two volumes, time is linear but quite disjointed, so that I wasn’t always sure how much time had passed, if any. Schreiner says in her preface that in life ‘nothing can be prophesied. . . Men appear, act and re-act upon each other, and pass away. When the crisis comes the man who would fit it does not return. When the curtain falls no one is ready.’ She is going to write about this life to show people as they are. Her characters are just left to be, any judgement is ours.
In the first volume Lyndall, Em and Waldo are children. The girls’ go about their mundane housework and Waldo herds the flock of ewes and lambs. They are all looking forward to being adults and escaping the dreariness. For conservative Em this means marriage, for rebellious Lyndall, education is the way to independence and for sensitive Waldo travel is going to help him in his search for truth. He is tortured by his questioning of his faith (inherited from his father). At night he hears the clock ticking and believes that with every tick a soul dies, he wants to save them but no matter how hard he prays he can’t. Waldo, weeps and weeps until he turns his back on his christian faith and instead of the bible begins to read science which takes him closer to the transcendentalist concept of God found in nature. His spiritual and intellectual development is a key theme that runs throughout.
Into the life on the farm comes an Irish conman, Bonaparte Blenkins, who we can see through straight away – so why can’t Tant’ Sannie? (I think this is meant to be humorous, but I found it really annoying) His aim of course is to marry the widowed Tant’ Sannie and take over the farm, and to do this he must drive out the intensely kind Otto, the farm overseer. This isn’t a book about race, it’s 1860 and people’s positions are accepted (the maids are black and the owners English, Dutch, German – all white) Otto doesn’t understand what he has done to deserve this unfair treatment and turns to a maid, who he believes to be his friend for explanation, the black maid is delighted:
‘It was so nice to see the white man who had been master hunted down’.
I think this is the only time Schreiner makes a distinct racial comment (which is surprising really), but I don’t think she’s writing the situation for emotional impact, simply for the truth of the situation, in a cruel and restrictive world.
In the second volume they are young adults. Lyndall, returns from her finishing school, declaring that ‘They finish everything but imbecility and weakness, and that they cultivate.’ Her desire for her own independence and for the rights of women has hardened, she is opposed to male domination and domesticity and wants to control her own life. Lyndall has been called by the critic Elaine Showalter ‘the first wholly feminist heroine’, because she doesn’t just talk, she acts. She is scathing about oppressive marriage bonds, comparing a loveless marriage to prostitution and the confines of female dress and the home to a chinese woman’s bound feet. The high rhetoric does at times read like a manifesto:
‘when love is no more bought or sold, when it is not a means of making bread, when each woman’s life is filled with earnest, independent labour, then love will come to her. . . ‘
and her struggle for gender equality, personal freedom and sexual liberation runs through her story.
Gender stereotypes have been played with since chapter one, with characters living outside their prescribed societal roles. But in volume two Gregory Rose arrives and it’s clear that Olive Schreiner sees gender as just another social construct. In a chapter entitled ‘Gregory Rose Has An Idea’, it begins:
‘Gregory Rose was in the loft putting it neat’
straight away we’re in female territory. As he tidies he finds a trunk of women’s clothes, the careful language and the way he smooths items out on his knee while looking at them is, I thought, incredibly understanding,
‘Next he took the brown dress, and, looking round furtively, slipped it over his head. he had just got his arms in the sleeves, and was trying to hook up the back, when an increase in the patter of the rain at the window made him drag it off hastily.’
She subverts the conventional notion of gender binary with a different kind of maleness. Not long after Lyndall meets him for the first time she says:
‘There. . . goes a true woman – one born for the sphere that some women have to fill without being born to it.’
Along with quiet, submissive Waldo, Gregory Rose is another new type of man. And whilst Lyndall is full of fierce rebellion she looks like an angel. Tant’ Sannie, in contrast, although fulfilling the traditional womens’ role is not so delicate:
‘She had gone to bed, as she always did, in her clothes; and the night was warm and the room close, and she dreamed bad dreams. Not of the ghosts and devils that so haunted her waking thoughts; nor of her second husband, the consumptive Englishman, whose grave lay away beyond the ostrich-camps; nor of her first, the young Boer; but only of the sheep’s trotters she had eaten for supper that night. She dreamed that one stuck fast in her throat, and she rolled her huge form from side to side, and snorted horribly.’
Em has stayed on the farm and is compliant and contented but she isn’t shown to be a fool and when Lyndall is asked ‘What is Em like?’ she says:
‘The accompaniment of a song. She fills up the gaps in other people’s lives, and is always number two; but I think she is like many accompaniments – a great deal better than the song she is to accompany.’
Reading this bought to mind lots of other books and characters, Jo March I think would be a friend of Lyndall’s, Bonaparte Blenkins reminded me of the Duke in Huckleberry Finn, in volume one the children speak to eachother like the children in The Waves, Lyndall and Waldo are friends like Catherine and Heathcliffe – but this seemed so radical for the time, a book of ideas in a very restrictive world.
‘but all things are in all men,and one soul is the model of all.’
I read this as a Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania for the Back to the Classics challenge.