The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

In fact, in the spiritual world, we change sexes every moment.
--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]
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.

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.

Monsman notes that African Farm displays many narrative modes: dream, sermon, confession, polemic, allegory, song, letter, etc.  This diversity of modes is stitched together through a careful, symmetrical pattern of events, imagery, ideas, and allusions -- what Monsman calls "an almost coldly rational design" (82).  I'd strike the "almost".  The cold, rational design of the book is one of its great strengths.  That design is a solid structure to contain and harmonize a cacophony of elements, and its coldness mitigates the wild Romanticism and high passions of the characters.  The ultimate effect is one of great contrast, suggesting a world that is too complex to be contained in any single mode.  As Monsman says,
The text continuously turns back upon its events and images, contrasting and diversifying them, prohibiting definitive form.  Its narrative web is undercut by chronological and scenic disruptions and juxtapositions that deliberately frustrate any attempt to fix a unilinear sequence of events, a rigid structure that encloses the story like a frame around a landscape painting.  Schreiner's sense is that the "story" of her African farm is simply a fragment of a larger context of incident, one story behind another like the layers of a lily bulb. (91)
The structural effect is necessary to the book's philosophical concerns, which are mostly questions of metaphysics and questions of power, particularly power as it relates to gender.  The novel offers us caricatures of power in the figures of Bonaparte Blenkins and Tant' Sannie -- cruel, greedy, ignorant people; it offers caricatures of passivity and gentleness, too, especially in the character of Waldo's father, Gottlob, who is a kind of holy fool.  Contrasted to these caricatures are more complex figures, the people to whom readers are encouraged to have at least some sympathy: Em, Waldo, Gregory Rose, and, especially, Lyndall -- except for Gregory, we meet each of them in childhood, and we watch the development of their lives and ideas.  Waldo seeks a spiritual life beyond the Christianity he inherited, while Lyndall seeks a way of living as a full, free human being, a person unencumbered by gender roles or by the power of other people over her.  Waldo and Lyndall are the fullest portraits in the novel (all the other characters could be seen as foils for them), and the sense of fullness comes from their complexity: these are not characters who can be summed up easily in a sentence or two, and both contain paradoxes in their personalities and actions.  By the end of the book, the effect is surprisingly powerful -- because of the coldness of the structure and the intellectuality of so many of the passages, I did not expect to be so profoundly moved by the final chapters.  It is one of the great accomplishments of The Story of an African Farm: a reader who engages with the ideas, who struggles through some of the dry philosophical passages, will be rewarded with final chapters of real intellectual and emotional power.

In The African Image, Es'kia Mphalele notes that The Story of an African Farm presents non-white African people primarily as part of the background landscape: "an organic part of the African setting: violate the black man, you violate the setting; respect the one, you respect the other."  This is mostly true, and the language and attitudes of the characters are generally consistent with what we would expect of Victorian whites.  What differentiates this book from so many not only of its time but after it is how a certain awareness of class is reflected in the portrayal of power relationships.

Olive Schreiner was not an aristocrat, and her perception of the Africa where she was born is a different perception than, for instance, the perception of someone like Karen Blixen, who, for all her remarkable empathy, brought her aristocratic assumptions to the continent and conceived herself as a benevolent goddess on a farm that existed because of the land-grabbing and punitive tax policies of the colonists.  Schreiner's parents were missionaries whose lack of success got them assigned to ever more remote parts of southern Africa, where they often lived in abject poverty, and her father's trading led to him being kicked out of various missionary societies until he tried to become an entrepreneur and went bankrupt.  Schreiner's experience of African farms was not an experience of her own family's farm, but of the farms where she worked as a governess or teacher, often in difficult and grueling circumstances.

Coetzee's criticism of the novel for not presenting a realistic economic portrait of farm life is a criticism that makes sense within the template he uses to discuss a wide range of novels by white writers about rural life in South Africa, but one that is useless outside such a context.  Though Schreiner avowed that she was seeking a kind of realism (see her preface to the 2nd edition), her realism is a felt realism rather than a fact realism.  Hers is a novel of perception, and the realities of how profit and loss are accounted on the farm are accounted outside the perceptions here.  Farm life is not romanticized -- I'd be surprised if any reader closed the book and thought, "Oh, I wish I, too, once had a farm in Africa!" -- but farm life is also not chronicled here as it would be in an almanac or history.  As Monsman notes, even the "facts" that appear in the book are sometimes contradicted elsewhere in it, preventing the reader from accessing any reality outside that perceived by the characters.

A tremendous influence on the young Olive Schreiner was Herbert Spencer's book First Principles, and the influence of Spencer is palpable throughout African Farm, though not for what he has generally been most known for (social darwinism).  There are echoes of social evolutionist ideas in Schreiner's work, and particularly echoes of recapitulation theory, but the obvious and pervasive influence is Spencer's idea of The Unknowable.  This influence is mixed with various Romantic and Transcendentalist ideas, especially Emerson's concept of Unity ("the Over-soul").  The Story of an African Farm was first published under the pseudonym "Ralph Iron", and main characters are named Waldo and Em -- the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson is not hidden.  Ralph Iron, in fact, creates a unity of the two main strands of the novel represented by the characters of Waldo and Lyndall: Transcendentalist metaphysics and cold, hard, stubborn self-reliance.

One of the most amazing sections at the end of the book involves Gregory Rose's cross-dressing.  Gregory is first given to us as a passionate, patriarchal character -- consumed with love for Em and utterly confident of the idea that women should be entirely subservient to men.  At first, he finds Lyndall and her self-sufficiency abhorrent, but his abhorrence, it turns out, is the inverse of his attraction to her, which reveals itself to be even more powerful than his attraction to Em.  His opinions of women's subservience also become inverted: his desire towards Lyndall is a desire to be a servant to her.  What doesn't change is his sense of gender roles (it is perhaps his strict idea of gender propriety that leads him to see things only as binaries: male/female; master/servant), and so, in the end, when he finally tracks Lyndall down and wants to serve her as a nurse, the only way he can do this is to dress himself in Lyndall's mother's clothes -- he becomes not only Lyndall's servant, but a servant dressed in a nurturing and engendering disguise.

The effect is not at all grotesque.  Gregory is accepted in his disguise, praised for his nurturing, and allowed to carry Lyndall into her last moments.  The chapter is titled "Gregory's Womanhood" and Lyndall had, much earlier, when Gregory was in the midst of his full patriarchal fervor, perceived him as a woman:
"There," said Lyndall, "goes a true woman -- one born for the sphere that some women have to fill without being born for it.  How happy he would be sewing frills into his little girl's frocks, and how pretty he would look sitting in a parlor, with a rough man making love to him!"
The limitations imposed by gender roles, by men's and women's spheres, are obvious to Lyndall, who has struggled so much against the expectations placed upon her, and it is central to the book's exploration of power.

Earlier, when Waldo and Lyndall were reunited after Lyndall had been away for years at school, Lyndall had asked Waldo if he ever wished he were a woman.  Waldo says no, and Lyndall accepts that, saying the only men who ever might have wanted to be women would be the lunatics on Robbin Island.  "It is delightful to be a woman," she says, "but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn't one."  When Gregory Rose cross-dresses, though, and is accepted by society as a woman, he is not crazy -- he is, the reader is led to believe, for the first time truly sane, complete, and happy.

There is much more to the novel than I have written here, but I simply wanted to record some of its richness and wonder.  I look forward to helping my students through it, for though it will require probably more help from me than any other book we read except Heart of Darkness (and, perhaps, even more than that), it is a book of such profound poetry and paradox that working through it with a group of people will be exciting.

Popular posts from this blog

On Academic Book Prices, and Other Subjects...

Ghosts: In Memory of Elizabeth Webb Cheney

A Conversation with Nathan Alling Long


Upcoming Publications