The Story of an African Farm is an exhilarating tale utterly unlike anything British readers had previously encountered from South Africa. It offers a picture of colonial life that is both comic and tragic, prosaic and haunting. The story follows the lives of three children that lived on a farm in the Cape Colony when Southern Africa was on the verge of capitalization and industrialization, following the discovery of diamonds that year. The Story of an African Farm is widely regarded as a central text in the ...
The Story of an African Farm is an exhilarating tale utterly unlike anything British readers had previously encountered from South Africa. It offers a picture of colonial life that is both comic and tragic, prosaic and haunting. The story follows the lives of three children that lived on a farm in the Cape Colony when Southern Africa was on the verge of capitalization and industrialization, following the discovery of diamonds that year. The Story of an African Farm is widely regarded as a central text in the development of South African literature in English.
Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner (1855-1920) was born on March 24, 1855, on the Cape Colony's mountainous northeastern border. She was the ninth of twelve children of a missionary couple sent to Southern Africa by the interdenominational London Missionary Society in the late 1830s. She wrote The Story of an African Farm while serving as governess on farms in the Eastern Cape, and moved to England in 1881 to study medicine. She settled in London, where she soon began moving in progressive intellectual circles and became intimate friends with leading radical thinkers and writers.
The Story of an African Farm (1883) is an exhilarating performance utterly unlike anything British readers had previously encountered from South Africa. Instead of the usual romances featuring hazardous journeys, wild animals, or encounters with Zulu warriors, this work offers a picture of colonial life that is both comic and tragic, prosaic and haunting. The novel is set on a farm in the Karoo, the arid high plateau which occupies much of the interior of what was then the Cape Colony. The novel begins in the late 1850s and concludes in 1867, when Southern Africa was on the verge of capitalization and industrialization, which followed the discovery of diamonds that year. This, of course, was followed by social and political upheavals. The novel charts several years in the lives of the farm's three children: Waldo, the son of the German overseer; Em, English stepdaughter of the farm's tyrannical trustee, a Boer woman called Tant (Aunt) Sannie; and Em's orphan cousin, Lyndall. The novel confronted many of late-Victorian society's most profound anxieties about faith and gender. Its boldness was heightened by the facts that its author, Olive Schreiner, was a woman (her identity only briefly disguised by a suitably masculine-sounding pseudonym, "Ralph Iron"), and that she was from the colonies. Not only did The Story of an African Farm introduce the so-called "New Woman" into English literature, changing the course of late-nineteenth-century fiction and providing a rallying cry for proto-feminist thinkers, Schreiner's novel is also widely regarded as a central text in the development of South African literature in English.
Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner (1855-1920) was born on March 24, 1855, at Wittebergen, on the Cape Colony's mountainous northeastern border with Basutoland (Lesotho), the ninth of twelve children of English-born Rebecca (neé Lyndall) and German-born Gottlob Schreiner, a missionary couple sent to Southern Africa by the interdenominational London Missionary Society in the late 1830s. In 1866, following her father's dismissal and bankruptcy, the family dispersed, and Olive lived with older siblings and family friends across the interior of the colony. She started her first novel, the posthumously published Undine (1929), while at the Kimberley diamond diggings in 1872, and began writing both The Story of an African Farm and what became From Man to Man (1926) sometime after 1874, while serving as governess on farms in the Eastern Cape. Hoping to study for a medical career, Schreiner left for Britain in 1881. Her health proved too fragile, however, and she settled in London, where she soon began moving in progressive intellectual circles and became intimate friends with leading radical thinkers and writers, including "sexologist" Havelock Ellis, eugenicist psychologist Karl Pearson, and Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor. The Story of an African Farm was accepted by the respected London publishing firm Chapman and Hall in early 1882, and appeared the following January to much acclaim. It soon became widely and highly regarded and sold more than 100,000 copies over the following twenty years.
Like so many nineteenth-century writers from the further reaches of the British Empire, Schreiner regarded Britain as an intellectual home, but struggled to balance a desire for metropolitan validation of her work with a deeply felt commitment to South Africa (then a purely geographical designation, and only a single political entity after 1910), the only place in which she felt fully creatively inspired. Her adult life was spent negotiating the demands of these transnational identifications: in Europe, she longed to be in South Africa, but when there, she railed against its narrow-minded colonial parochialism. Schreiner returned to the Cape Colony in October 1889, and after a short return visit to Britain in 1893, married Eastern Cape farmer-politician Samuel Cronwright (who subsequently styled himself Cronwright-Schreiner) in 1894. The couple lived in the Karoo, then in Kimberley, and finally in Johannesburg (in the independent Dutch "South African Republic"), before moving back to the Cape Colony at the outbreak of the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). They were among the most prominent pro-Boer figures in the Cape during this turbulent period, and Schreiner endured years of virtual house arrest under British martial law. She became a passionate advocate of women's and "native" rights in advance of the formation of the Union of South Africa, published a hugely influential polemical plea for women's rights, Woman and Labour, in 1911, and spent the years between 1913 and 1920 as a widely fêted and highly regarded suffragette and pacifist in London. She died, in Cape Town, shortly after returning to South Africa in late 1920.
Cronwright-Schreiner published a Life of his late wife, and a heavily edited collection of her Letters, in 1924, both of which exercised a powerful-and many argue pernicious-influence on her reputation for at least two generations, until the publication of British psychoanalytic feminist Ann Scott and South African activist and writer Ruth First's impressively authoritative biography in 1980. Cronwright-Schreiner's picture of his wife was of a demanding, frail, childlike, otherworldly, and faintly hysterical genius, who struggled in vain to produce a worthy successor to The Story of an African Farm. It is true that her other novels were left unfinished at her death (and partly "reconstructed" by Cronwright-Schreiner before publication), but Schreiner produced highly influential allegorical stories about gender inequality and the iniquity of colonial expansion, including the hugely popular Dreams (1890), and scandalous Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897), as well as numerous political pamphlets and essays. South African novelist and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer is not alone, however, in venturing the suggestion-clearly informed by the privileging of an anti-apartheid rather than strictly feminist agenda in her own work-that with her lesser works, Schreiner squandered her creative energies, giving up the search for modes of fictional expression equal to the South African reality. Whatever truth there might be in this claim (and readers of Schreiner's complete body of work should decide for themselves), The Story of an African Farm stands as a bold expression, against tremendous odds, of forward-thinking views on the "woman question," late-Victorian crises of faith, and the power structures of late-nineteenth-century South African colonial life.
The manuscript of The Story of a African Farm was rejected by at least five other British publishers before being recommended for publication to Chapman and Hall by its reader, the novelist George Meredith. While it is certainly clear that her publishers knew she was a woman before publishing her novel and that her real identity would likely become known to the general public, Schreiner retained the use of her pseudonym for many years, apparently in an attempt to have the novel read as other than exclusively authored by a young woman, and a colonial. It appears that Chapman and Hall, fearing that the novel's treatment of illegitimacy might offend powerful and prudish booksellers, may have tried in vain to have Schreiner revise it to have protagonist Lyndall marry her lover. Lyndall's status as an unwed mother, and a freethinker, disgusted many socially conservative and religious reviewers, but is at the heart of Schreiner's project. Through her, Schreiner articulates most of her proto-feminist arguments about the structure and effect of women's social and economic dependency on men. Lyndall insists on being sent away for a proper education, and in her discussions with Em, Waldo, Gregory Rose, and her unnamed lover, she offers powerful indictments of processes which encourage the internalizing of psychologically damaging gender stereotypes-including education. Society shapes women, "by the ends it sets before us," she tells Waldo; to men it says "Work; and to us it says-Seem!" (154).
Lyndall's attitude toward marriage is perhaps her most striking position. Why, for example, does she accept Gregory Rose's proposal, subject to certain conditions, but refuse the offer of marriage from the man she appears to love? Schreiner's polemical and influential Woman and Labour engaged with a late-nineteenth-century eugenicist position that advocated that it was precisely because women bore the responsibility for ensuring physically and mentally strong offspring that they should be free to choose suitable partners, and enjoy the necessary social and economic independence to allow them to do so. Schreiner agreed that women should be free from these restraints, but suggested too that emphasizing the supremacy of women's childbearing abilities devalued them, and, should they choose this as their primary function, rendered them parasitic on society. She went further by linking this parasitism (a recurring theme in the volume) with the subjugation of others by society.
Woman and Labour represents Schreiner's considered and mature view on the subject of marriage, but its argument also informs an understanding of Lyndall's behavior in The Story of an African Farm. Having returned to the farm after her first connection with her Stranger, she determines to accept the proposal of marriage made by Gregory Rose, the farm's new tenant farmer, not because she loves him (she doesn't), but because it will at least give her the benefit of a married name without any of the drawbacks of subjection to a man who subscribes to the values of a patriarchal society. Gregory, after all, is not interested in possessing Lyndall in the "conventional" way; that he dresses in Em's mother's clothes, and later disguises himself as a nurse to tend the dying Lyndall, marks him as Schreiner's brave prototype of a "New Man," unwilling to be bound by gender stereotypes. Lyndall's unnamed lover, by contrast, is interested in her only as a sexual possession. She realizes that marriage to him would be suffocating, and accuses him of deciding to pursue her to the farm merely because she seemed unattainable (205). She is, however, prepared to live with him for as long as they love each other-but only outside of the Cape Colony, away from its restrictive social proprieties, which would condemn her as a fallen woman for being unmarried but sexually active.
The depiction of adult cruelty and narrow-mindedness in the first part of the novel offers a trenchant critique of the abuses of power; Tant Sannie and the faintly Dickensian trickster, Bonaparte Blenkins, embody the worst aspects of conservative (specifically Calvinist) religiosity and anti-intellectualism. Lyndall tells Waldo, after he has been savagely beaten by Blenkins: "we will not be children always; we shall have the power too, some day" (94). The treatment of black and other indigenous characters by Sannie and Blenkins is likewise cruel and unsympathetic, while the kindly overseer, Otto, appears to empathize with them, seeking to assist a woman turned away from the farm after her husband is accused of stealing sheep. Schreiner is satirizing the widespread colonial treatment of servants as little more than property; but what is the reader to make of representations of black characters in the second part of the novel? In the final chapter, for example, a black child playing with curls of wood-shavings from Waldo's carpentry is referred to as a "small naked nigger" and a "little animal" (261). Black figures remain largely invisible, or rendered in terms that hardly transcend the stereotyping of the day. This presents problems for the contemporary reader, but, as several critics have noted, Schreiner's concern was with the effects of colonialism on white colonial society. In The Story of an African Farm, the tyranny endured by the children, and the expectations placed on women, both symbolize and reflect the operation of power in a colonial system, and its consequences. In particular, the novel's critique of adult cruelty to children can be extrapolated to a critique of the cruelty of colonialism, which treated colonized people like children. The Story of an African Farm also inscribes the tragedy of colonization vividly in the white children's musing, in the chapter "Plans and Bushman-paintings," about the San people whose rock art adorns the kopje; as Waldo explains, they have now all been shot by the Boers (16).
In the novel's second part, set approximately three years after the first ends, a generalized description of the processes by which a child (in this case, specifically Waldo) becomes disillusioned with the pattern of Christianity which he has been taught, mirrors the widespread crises of faith in late-Victorian society inspired by, among other things, Darwin's theories of natural selection, and research into the fossil record. No divine power would structure the universe so relentlessly, the child thinks, realizing in terror that "[t]here is no order: all things are driven about by a blind chance" (114). He turns in wonder and relief to the world around him, and perceives in nature "[n]ot a chance jumble," but a "living thing, a One" (118). It is no accident that the names Waldo and Em, as well as Schreiner's pseudonym, Ralph Iron, echo the name of the great American transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose work Schreiner greatly admired. In the second chapter of part two, an unnamed stranger offers Waldo an allegory of a hunter who dies in pursuit of a white bird symbolizing truth. The allegory in fact suggests the futility of a positivist scientism, a judgment that the novel as a whole strives to endorse. Enthused by his misunderstanding of the allegory, Waldo leaves the farm, a hunter in search of his own symbolic white bird, but returns, chastened, at the end of the novel. Grappling with death and the absence of the consolation drawn from belief in an afterlife, he draws on his love of the farm, and a transcendent and transcendentalist vision of the unity of things remaining: "It is but the man that dies, the universal Whole of which he is part reworks him into its inmost self" (259).
Both the "Times and Seasons" chapter and the Stranger's allegory of the hunter (which became one of the most excerpted and anthologized sections of the novel in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries) share with Schreiner's other published dream allegories an earnestness which may strike the modern reader as unduly ponderous. But it is important to view them, along with Lyndall's expostulations about women's rights, and the inconclusiveness of the narrative as a whole, as part of Schreiner's conscious attempt at a new kind of writing. The Story of an African Farm is concerned, throughout, with modes of narration, with storytelling, reading, and visual or aural representation, and each of the children is associated with a different kind of storytelling, as they accept or deconstruct the narrative order of the adult world, or strive to write their own lives. Schreiner's novel itself explores the value or otherwise of numerous narrative modes, drawing on several generic conventions-including those associated with the sermon, allegory, the polemical essay, dream narrative, and the memoir-in order to reinvent them, weaving a structure which is open-ended, and subverts any desire for closure. In her striking preface to the second edition of the novel, Schreiner argued that human life could be "painted according to two methods": the predictable "stage method," in which characters appear and duly act their expected parts, or "the method of the life we all lead," in which "nothing can be prophesied. There is a strange coming and going of feet. Men appear, act and re-act upon each other, and pass away" (xxxix). This dedication to portraying the seeming confusion of everyday life, as well as to suggest characters' psychological processes as vividly as possible, makes Schreiner almost anachronistically modern-she was writing, remember, before Freud, and before the relatively widespread experimentalism which has in retrospect been labeled "modernism."
A history of the contexts and reception of Schreiner's most famous novel should not only pay attention to details of the author's life and historical and intellectual contexts, but also to the history of the novel's packaging and contextualization for different audiences, at different historical moments. For more than a century, it has been promoted variously as groundbreaking New Woman fiction, a manifesto for agnosticism or even atheism, an insightful analysis of the intellectual development of children, and as the first important novel in English from Southern Africa. This Barnes and Noble edition becomes another instance of the novel's repackaging and contextualization. Early twenty-first-century North American readers are likely to be struck differently by, or by different themes, motifs, and concerns than those which either enthused or reviled late-Victorian readers. Like its first readers, however, today's readers are unlikely to remain unmoved.