In fact, in the spiritual world, we change sexes every moment.I first tried to read The Story of an African Farm some years ago when I went on a Doris Lessing binge; I hadn't heard of the novel before reading Lessing's praise of it, and what she said intrigued me. But I went into The Story of an African Farm expecting it to be, well, a story, and it was soon apparent that, for all the book is, it is only "a story" in the loosest sense -- indeed, it's more accurate to say it is a book containing a lot of stories, but even that misses much of what is wonderful and unique in Olive Schreiner's creation.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men
I object to anything that divides the two sexes ... human development has now reached a point at which sexual difference has become a thing of altogether minor importance. We make too much of it; we are men and women in the second place, human beings in the first.
--Olive Schreiner to Havelock Ellis, 19 Dec 1884 [quoted in Monsman]
The next time I thought about reading African Farm was when I first encountered J.M. Coetzee's White Writing, wherein Coetzee seems somewhat dismissive of the book, noting that it is a kind of fantasy because the reader gains almost no sense of how the farm in the novel is able to be sustained. I then assumed African Farm to be just another Africa-as-exotic-setting novel, something of historical interest perhaps, but not much more than that.
As I was first thinking about putting together a new version of my Outsider course, though, I came upon some references to Schreiner and this novel that piqued my interest and brought me back to it. I wanted some context to consider the book in, so I grabbed library copies of Olive Schreiner's Fiction: Landscape & Power by Gerald Monsman and Olive Schreiner by Ruth First and Ann Scott. These were extremely helpful, especially the Monsman, because he provides a valuable analysis of the book's structure, defending it from the many critics who have said that African Farm, whatever its virtues, is a failure as a novel. Monsman places the book within a tradition of philosophical novels such as those by Walter Pater and Thomas Carlyle, although Schreiner's book is, to my mind at least, more accessible and emotionally affecting than those. Nonetheless, they are important to mention in any defense of Schreiner, because it's too easy to assume a narrow definition of "the novel" and judge Schreiner a failure against it. She clearly wasn't trying to create a book to fit that definition.