Jun 5, 2012

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

This review was originally posted at the Project Gutenberg Project.

Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, which dates from 1883, is often referred to as one of the earliest feminist novels written in English. It tells the story of three characters growing up together in a farm in South Africa: Lyndall, Waldo, and Em. The novel is loosely divided into three sections and follows the protagonists from childhood into adulthood. Schreiner’s narrative voice is very experimental and dreamlike: it moves freely forwards and backwards in time, it addresses the reader, and it delves into detailed philosophical discussions. This is a novel of ideas rather than a traditional narrative, which makes the plot difficult to summarise. But readers curious about an early feminist’s approach to themes such as religious faith, agnosticism, atheism and existentialism, sexual double standards, marriage and women’s economic dependency, and the social construction of gender roles are likely to find much of interest in this novel.

The Story of an African Farm is a book I felt close to even before I started it: some of you might remember that last year I read Letters from a Lost Generation, a collection of WW1 correspondence between Vera Brittain and her brother, her fiancĂ© Roland Leighton, and two close friends. Brittain and Leighton frequently discussed Schreiner’s novel in their letters – the line “a striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing” became like a metaphor for the futility of WW1 for them. There’s also the fact that The Story of an African Farm was obviously a book that helped shape Brittain’s feminism. Reading it as a woman still puzzling out some of these same questions over a century later made me feel like I was a small part of a large community of readers; of a literary conversation that stretches through time and place.

Lyndall, who functions as a mouthpiece for Schreiner’s feminism, was a particularly interesting character. For much of the novel we see her as an object of desire for the men around her, and the way she’s described (attractive, delicate, nymph-like) conforms to conventional patterns of beauty and femininity. But Schreiner subverts the male gaze by giving readers access to Lyndall’s thoughts, and by making us realise she’s aware of how she’s perceived and of the weight of what’s expected of her as a woman. There’s a long section in which Lyndall passionately exposes her views on gender roles that comes across as considerably aware of its time. Take this excerpt, for example, about the stigma and economic insecurity of unmarried women:
She smiled slightly. “They say that we complain of woman’s being compelled to look upon marriage as a profession; but that she is free to enter upon it or leave it, as she pleases.
“Yes—and a cat set afloat in a pond is free to sit in the tub till it dies there, it is under no obligation to wet its feet; and a drowning man may catch at a straw or not, just as he likes—it is a glorious liberty! Let any man think for five minutes of what old maidenhood means to a woman—and then let him be silent. Is it easy to bear through life a name that in itself signifies defeat? to dwell, as nine out of ten unmarried women must, under the finger of another woman? Is it easy to look forward to an old age without honour, without the reward of useful labour, without love? I wonder how many men there are who would give up everything that is dear in life for the sake of maintaining a high ideal purity.”
Almost as interesting to me was Gregory Rose, a character who embodies modern ideas about the performativity of gender roles in the final section of the novel. I don’t want to give away what happens in case you mind spoilers, but he comes to realise that it’s much easier for him to perform what society deems “women’s work” if he literally disguises himself as a woman and does away with all the social assumptions associated with masculinity in the process.

It was very exciting for me to find these themes in a novel from 1883, and I can only imagine how much more exciting it must have been for someone like Vera Brittain, who was reading it at a time when feminism as we know it today was taking its first steps. I should add, though, that like Eva noted in her review The Story of an African Farm is pretty blatantly racist. It’s quite possible that someone like Schreiner, who is otherwise very progressive, would not have absorbed the troubling attitudes towards race that make their way into this novel if she hasn’t lived in the nineteenth-century – for this reason, I do find it useful to take her historical context into account. But it’s equally useful to bear in mind that the novel’s particular brand of feminism doesn’t give us the full picture, and only champions the rights of one particular group of women. This is common enough in works from this period, and although I still find them interesting and valuable, I also feel the urge to find other sources that can give me an idea of what things were like for the women who are ignored and dehumanised here.

As I said earlier, The Story of an African Farm is primarily a novel of ideas. The ideas it deals with are all ones I’m interested in, which was enough to make it a worthwhile read. However, I must admit that I sometimes felt that the characterisation was sacrificed to Schreiner’s attempt to make everyone into a philosophical spokesperson. Not all of her characters felt like real human beings to me, which was a real pity. In addition to that, her approach is not exactly subtle, and she often tells far more than she shows. When I think of novels such as, say, To The Lighthouse, which combine a focus on ideas (some of the same ideas Schreiner tackles, actually) with subtlety and absolutely masterful characterisation, it becomes obvious that these shortcomings aren’t inevitable.

Then again, The Story of an African Farm was Schreiner’s first novel, so it’s pretty unfair to compare it to one of (or perhaps even the) Woolf’s masterpieces. The good outweighs the bad by far, and I really enjoyed it overall – not only for the ideas but also for the lovely writing and sense of place. I own a copy of Schreiner’s novel Man to Man and I’m really looking forward to reading it sometime, as well as to trying some of her non-fiction.

You can download an e-book of The Story of an African Farm for free at Project Gutenberg.

Bits I liked:
At last came the year of the great drought, the year of eighteen-sixty-two. From end to end of the land the earth cried for water. Man and beast turned their eyes to the pitiless sky, that like the roof of some brazen oven arched overhead. On the farm, day after day, month after month, the water in the dams fell lower and lower; the sheep died in the fields; the cattle, scarcely able to crawl, tottered as they moved from spot to spot in search of food. Week after week, month after month, the sun looked down from the cloudless sky, till the karoo-bushes were leafless sticks, broken into the earth, and the earth itself was naked and bare; and only the milk-bushes, like old hags, pointed their shrivelled fingers heavenward, praying for the rain that never came.

The dog watched his retreat with cynical satisfaction; but his master lay on the ground with his head on his arms in the sand, and the little wheels and chips of wood lay on the ground around him. The dog jumped on to his back and snapped at the black curls, till, finding that no notice was taken, he walked off to play with a black beetle. The beetle was hard at work trying to roll home a great ball of dung it had been collecting all the morning: but Doss broke the ball, and ate the beetle’s hind legs, and then bit off its head. And it was all play, and no one could tell what it had lived and worked for. A striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing.

He lifted the black damp hair from his knit forehead, and looked round to cool his hot face. Then he saw what a regal night it was. He knelt silently and looked up. A thousand eyes were looking down at him, bright and so cold. There was a laughing irony in them.
“So hot, so bitter, so angry? Poor little mortal?”
He was ashamed. He folded his arms, and sat on the ridge of the roof looking up at them.
“So hot, so bitter, so angry?”
It was as though a cold hand had been laid upon his throbbing forehead, and slowly they began to fade and grow dim. Tant Sannie and the burnt book, Bonaparte and the broken machine, the box in the loft, he himself sitting there—how small they all became! Even the grave over yonder. Those stars that shone on up above so quietly, they had seen a thousand such little existences fight just so fiercely, flare up just so brightly and go out; and they, the old, old stars, shone on forever.
“So hot, so angry, poor little soul?” they said.
The riem slipped from his fingers; he sat with his arms folded, looking up.
“We,” said the stars, "have seen the earth when it was young. We have seen small things creep out upon its surface—small things that prayed and loved and cried very loudly, and then crept under it again. But we,” said the stars, “are as old as the Unknown.”
He leaned his chin against the palm of his hand and looked up at them. So long he sat there that bright stars set and new ones rose, and yet he sat on.
Then at last he stood up, and began to loosen the riem from the gable.
What did it matter about the books? The lust and the desire for them had died out. If they pleased to keep them from him they might. What matter? it was a very little thing. Why hate, and struggle, and fight? Let it be as it would.
He twisted the riem round his arm and walked back along the ridge of the house.
They read it too: Stuck in a Book, Verity’s Virago Venture, A Striped Armchair

(Have I missed yours?)


  1. Adding it to my list--thanks for the review!

  2. So interesting -- thanks for this post! Like you, I got interested in this book because of reading about how it influenced Vera Brittain, and it has been on my TBR pile for a while now. The issue of racism is troubling. I know Winifred Holtby was about as outspoken against racial discrimination (in South Africa, for instance) as against misogyny, but I don't recall if Brittain addresses it anywhere directly. I'll have to bump this up on my list.

  3. I've been intrigued by this one for a while--L. M. Montgomery mentions reading it in her journals, and I tend to be curious about any book she liked! Good to find out more about it than she mentioned, and to get a more modern perspective on it. :)

  4. I've had a copy of this for ages and never read it, I really ought to.

    I find it intriguing that someone can be so passionate about freedom and equality for one group of people and ignore another group's. I doubt Schreiner is alone in this though.

    I did appreciate your gratutious cat picture!

  5. It's so difficult, from our viewpoint, not too see the issues of a book that handles one modern theme so well and another so badly. That said, I absolutely love the passage about marriage, and it's almost ironic that it's still easy to relate to it.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.