The Story of an African Farm
The Story of an African Farm
THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in South Africa during the 1850s and 1860s; published in English in 1883.
Three children living on a remote farm in nineteenth-century South Africa grow up to meet very different fates.
Born in Wittebergen, Cape Colony, in 1855, Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner was the ninth child of a German missionary, Gottlob Schreiner, and his English wife, Rebecca Lyndall. Home-educated and largely self-taught, she wrote one of the most influential and controversial novels—The Story of an African Farm—of the late Victorian era. She spent much of her childhood at various mission stations, and as an adolescent she kept house for her older brothers and sisters. In 1874 Schreiner became a governess, working for several Boer families and writing in her spare time. Her most famous work draws attention to the lives of working-class people, especially women, and she took pains to publish it at a price that its working-class audience could afford. In 1881 Schreiner traveled to Great Britain, hoping to train as a nurse in Edinburgh, Scotland, but having to abandon that plan because of ill health, she resumed writing full-time. The Story of an African Farm was published two years later under the pseudonym “Ralph Iron.” As The Story of an African Farm amply demonstrates, Schreiner—who declared herself a free thinker as an adolescent—questioned the traditional roles of women, the entrenched models of race and class that permeated Victorian culture in South Africa and elsewhere, and the very existence of God.
The British in South Africa
Schreiner does not pinpoint the location of the African farm in her novel, but it is most likely situated in Cape Colony, which had been controlled by Great Britain since 1896, where Schreiner herself spent much of her life. At the time the novel begins, the region was inhabited mostly by indigenous peoples and by Afrikaners (then called “Boers,” the Dutch term for “farmers”; the group was mainly of Dutch descent). The first official census of the Cape Colony, taken in 1865, reported 180,000 “Europeans” or “whites,” 200,000“Hottentots” and “Others” (designated as “coloured people”), and 100,000 “Kaffirs,” a term used at the time to designate the South African blacks, who had become the main labor force in the eastern districts. From 55 to 60 percent of the white population consisted of the Dutch-speaking Afrikaners. They had been settling in the interior of South Africa since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, bringing the customs and institutions of their homelands with them, adapting these traditions to their new country. By contrast, few immigrants of British stock settled in South Africa before the nineteenth century. In 1820 the British Parliament, hoping to solve problems of unemployment and social unrest in Great Britain, approved a sum of 50,000 pounds to transport British settlers to South Africa’s Zuurveld region and establish them as farmers on lots of approximately 100 acres. The Colonial Office in London selected 4,000 men, women, and children (out of 80,000 applicants) to participate in the settlement scheme. The immigrants were a mixture of English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish stock. Mostly members of the lower middle class, they generally had more experience as artisans than as farmers, and their inexperience was compounded by the terrain in their new location, which was ill-suited to farming. The result was that more than half of the new settlers abandoned their farms, setting themselves up as merchants and traders instead. Others prospered by raising sheep and selling the wool, as Em’s late father appears to have done in the novel. Significantly, the British settlers of 1820—and those who followed them—introduced a new dynamic into colonial society. They did not assimilate with the earlier white settlers, and regarded their Dutch speaking neighbors with “a marked lack of enthusiasm, if not with barely concealed hostility and contempt” (Schoeman, pp. 323-24). Intermarriage and socializing between the British and the Boers was rare: “Beyond the market square, the two white groups had little contact; living side by side in mutual distrust and incomprehension, each clung to its own language, traditions, and values” (Schoeman, p. 323).
In The Story of an African Farm, the hostility between British and Afrikaner is illustrated by the uneasy relationship between Tant’ Sannie and the two English girls who are her wards. Passive, compliant Em has little to say about her Afrikaner stepmother, but Em’s cousin Lyndall despises the “miserable old woman” as ignorant and superstitious, pointing out: “Your father married her when he was dying, because he thought she would take better care of the farm, and us, than an Englishwoman. He said we should be taught and sent to school. Now she saves every farthing for herself…. She does not ill-use us—why? Because she is afraid of your father’s ghost” (Schreiner, Story of an African Farm, p. 45). Lyn-dall’s resentment persists into her adulthood. As an adult she mocks Tant’ Sannie’s practice of marrying husband after husband, and although she attends her wedding to the much younger Piet Vander Walt, Lyndall remains aloof from the festivities, dressing in black and refusing to dance. One may attribute Lyndall’s reserve as much to British disdain for Afrikaner customs as to personal dislike for Tant’ Sannie. Gregory Rose, the snobbish young Englishman hired as a farmhand, is even more supercilious, declaring at the reception, “These Boer [Afrikaner] dances are very low things” (African Farm, p. 213).
Indigenous people and colonial attitudes
Schreiner never overtly discusses race relations in The Story of an African Farm. Such unquestioning acceptance of the status quo in relations with South Africa’s indigenous people was representative of its time. As Dan Jacobson observes in his introduction to The Story of an African Farm:“A white South African … feels no need to ask himself how the black man came to be his inferior; he simply knows the black man is inferior” (Jacobson in Schreiner, p. 7). Schreiner’s novel, Jacobson continues, “is about the white people on the farm, not the black; it is far from being the novel of ’race relations’ which many people have come to expect every South African novel to be. The black people in it are merely extras, supernumeraries, part of the background” (Jacobson in Schreiner, p. 21). Schreiner’s use of contemporary terms for South Africa’s indigenous peoples, however, hints at a more complex social system than one might imagine. The term “Hottentot” (a word that many surmise to mean “stutterer,” a reference to the distinctive click sounds of the Khoikhoi language) was first applied to the indigenous Khoikhoi people by Dutch settlers led by Jan van Riebeeck, who arrived in the Cape region in 1652. Eventually “Hottentot” also came to refer to the mixed-blood descendants of the Khoikhoi and the Dutch. Consequently, Hottentots were often granted a higher social status than darker inhabitants of the area. In 1828 the Cape governor, General Richard Bourke, passed the Hottentot Charter, making the so-called Hottentots and other free people of color equal to whites before the law.
In the novel, the black residents of the farm reflect the different gradations in social status among nonwhites. Itala Vivan observes that “Schreiner places Africans in three groups: Kaffirs, Hottentots, and Bushmen…. [B]y ’Kaffirs’ Schreiner means the Bantu people, by ’Hottentots’ the KhoiKhoi [sic], and by ‘Bushmen’ the San people” (Vivan, p. 104). The novel’s picture, Vivan confirms, is both historically and anthropologically accurate, since all three groups were living in the Cape area at the time. The whites’ attitudes towards the indigenous peoples are likewise authentic. For example, only Tant’ Sannie’s “yellow Hottentot maid” is permitted, along with her husband, to attend Sunday services in the farm-house: “The Kaffir servants were not there because Tant’ Sannie held they were descended from apes and needed no salvation” (African Farm, p. 69). Even the adult Lyndall, whom Schreiner depicts as intellectual and enlightened, reveals some condescension when she comments upon a handsome Kaffir she glimpses from a distance: “There is something of the master about him in spite of his blackness and wool” (African Farm, p. 227).
Diamonds and industrial development
The Story of an African Farm takes place in a rural backwater, far removed from the cities in which significant changes, such as the appearance of the railroad and telegraph, first occur. In fact, fledgling attempts to introduce changes on the farm are frustrated. Bonaparte Blenkins, a greedy overseer, destroys a sheep-shearing machine, an invention of the boy Waldo, then burns the boy’s books. Tant’ Sannie sees no reason to do things differently from the way her ancestors did them. Near the end of the novel, she laments the very existence of the railroad: “Let them make their steam-waggons and their fire-carriages…. the destruction of the Lord will follow them. I don’t know how such people read their Bibles. When do we hear of Moses or Noah riding in a railway?” (African Farm, p. 294).
Even in urban areas nineteenth-century South Africa lagged behind many other nations in terms of immigration and economic development: “By 1870, the United States had a population of over 32 million people of European descent and nearly 53,000 miles of railroad, but in all of Southern Africa there were no more than 70 miles of rail and 250,000 white people” (Thompson, p. 53). The discovery of diamonds and the subsequent mineral revolution, however, laid the foundations for a modern industrial South Africa, accelerating social, economic, and political changes in the area.
In 1867 diamonds were found near the confluence of the Vaal and Harts rivers. Excited settlers converged upon the area to prospect for the precious gems and set up rough mining camps marked by frequent gambling, drinking, and whoring. Given the arduous road conditions and dearth of vegetation, the routes to such excavation sites could be notoriously difficult for miners and livestock alike. Karel Schoeman quotes one contemporary account: “Numerous skeletons of oxen and horns are seen on either side of the road, which becomes ever wider and more denuded of grass and is eroded by thousands of wagon wheels” (Schoeman, p. 249). At one point in Schreiner’s novel, Waldo works as a transport driver to the “Diamond Fields”; his employer’s cruelty to the oxen causes him to quit the wagon train in disgust.
Although diamonds in the Vaal/Harts region were exhausted within a few years, explorers discovered much larger deposits in 1870, near the site of the future town of Kimberley. Four large mines were constructed, and sophisticated machinery, including steam engines, was brought in to excavate the diamonds more effectively than was possible with shovels, buckets, and hand scoopers. In the 1880s, Cecil Rhodes, the future prime minister of South Africa, acquired control first of the De Beers, then the Kimberley mine. By 1891 De Beers Consolidated Mines had established a monopoly over diamond production in the entire region
A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND?
As a young woman of 17, Olive Schreiner actually lived in the diamond fields at New Rush—later the town of Kim berley—for ten months while visiting her older siblings, Theo and Ettie. The family resided in a tent, like many people at the fields, while Theo worked as a digger, but he found no large diamonds to make their fortune. Schreiner, however, was intrigued and inspired by the bustling atmosphere of the camps and began writing stories about diamonds, though these works were never published. Several characters in The Story of an African Farm reveal a similar enthusiasm for the gems. As a child, Lyndall boasts that when she grows up, she will be very rich and wear real diamonds in her hair. When Lyndall returns to the farm as a young woman, Em notices “a massive [diamond] ring upon her forefinger” (African Farm, p. 184).
The Story of an African Farm begins at night as the inhabitants of the farm lie sleeping. The moonlight illuminates the African plain, transforming it into a place of “almost oppressive beauty” (African Farm, p. 36). Also illuminated are the sleepers in the house: Tant’ Sannie, the Afrikaner woman who runs the farm; her English stepdaughter, Em; and Em’s orphaned cousin, Lyndall. In another building, closed off from any light, Otto, the German overseer, also sleeps, but his son, Waldo, is awake. Listening to the loud tick of his father’s silver hunting watch, Waldo imagines that “every time it ticked, a man died!” (African Farm, p. 37). The fancy sends him into an agony of religious terror and he grovels on the floor, weeping and praying for the imagined dead.
The next morning the landscape and the people look very different: “The plain was a weary flat of loose red sand sparsely covered by dry karroo bushes, that cracked beneath the tread like tinder, and showed the red earth everywhere” (African Farm, p. 38). By daylight, Tant’ Sannie is revealed to be homely and coarse, Otto to be childishly simple despite his huge size, and Em to be plain. Lyndall, of “elfin-like beauty,” possesses a gravity and concentration beyond her years as she threads beads with her cousin (African Farm, p. 36). Meanwhile, Waldo, who works as a shepherd on the farm, drives the sheep out to pasture beyond the koppjie (hill). At midday, he builds an altar of stones and lays his lunch on it, praying to God to send fire from heaven to burn his sacrifice. When nothing happens, Waldo is devastated by God’s apparent rejection of him and his offering. Two years later, he sits alone on the koppjie at night and confesses that he loves Jesus Christ but hates God. He resigns himself to damnation: “He knew he was certainly lost now; he did not care. If half the world were to be lost, why not he too? He would not pray for mercy any more” (African Farm, p. 42).
The year 1862 brings drought and hardship. As the water sinks in the dams, many of the livestock die. That summer Em and Lyndall—now 12 years old—plan their futures. Em contemplates marriage after she turns 17, when the farm, which belonged to her late father, passes to her. But Lyndall intends to go to school. The girls’ conversation is interrupted by 14-year-old Waldo, who brings news that an “English stranger”—Bonaparte Blenkins—has arrived.
Tant’ Sannie strenuously objects to Bonaparte’s presence, but Otto, moved by the man’s hard-luck story of having lost his horse and purse on his journey, persuades her to let him stay the night. Bonaparte ingratiates himself to Tant’ Sannie through tall tales about his ancestry, pathetic tales about his dead wife, and impassioned, impromptu sermons. Pleased with his protègè’s success, Otto bestows a hat and a good black suit on Bonaparte and suggests that he stay on as a paid schoolmaster to Em and Lyndall, an offer the Irishman quickly accepts. The children, however, are not won over by Bonaparte; in fact, Lyndall refuses to return to his schoolroom when he cannot answer one of her questions correctly. Meanwhile, Bonaparte successfully schemes to supplant Otto as overseer and marry Tant’ Sannie; he lies that Otto has confided in him about having sexual liaisons with Tant’ Sannie, whereupon she fires Otto, demanding that he be off the farm by morning. In his cabin, Otto sadly packs for his departure, then lies down and dies in his sleep.
With Otto dead, Bonaparte turns his malice on Waldo. As punishment for a trumped-up charge of theft, Bonaparte ties Waldo to a post, horse-whips him until he collapses, then leaves him locked up in the fuel-house all night. The next day, on learning of Waldo’s beating and imprisonment, Lyndall defies Tant’ Sannie and Bonaparte—neither of whom dares to stop her—by releasing her friend. Soon after, Tant’ Sannie witnesses the duplicitous overseer’s attempts to court her rich niece, Trana, and, in a rage, overturns a barrel of salt meat on the head of her faithless suitor. The next morning Bonaparte steals away and is never seen on the farm again.
The second half of the novel begins three years later. After weathering various spiritual crises, Waldo takes consolation in nature itself. One summer day, he is carving a grave-post for his father. Em, now 16, brings him lunch and excitedly informs him that an Englishman whom Tant’ Sannie has hired to work on the farm is approaching on horseback. Favorably impressed by the stranger’s looks and youth, Em hopes that he is bringing letters from Lyndall, who has been in school for several years now.
Alone, Waldo continues to work on his carving when another stranger, “a dark, somewhat French looking little man of eight-and-twenty” rides up to rest for an hour (African Farm, p. 156). The stranger offers to buy the carving but Waldo refuses to sell, explaining that it is for his father’s grave. When the stranger identifies himself as “a man who believes nothing, hopes nothing, fears nothing, feels nothing,” Waldo is excited to find someone who thinks as he does (African Farm, p. 159). He awkwardly tries to explain the human and animal figures on his carving. The stranger reveals his understanding by relating an allegorical tale of a hunter who must abandon all superstitions, travel through the Land of Absolute Negation and Denial, and climb the mountains of stern reality in search of the snow-white bird, Truth. After years of unsuccessful toil, in his last moments he realizes, “Where I lie down worn out other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I have cut they will climb…. They will find her [Truth] and through me! And no man liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself” (African Farm, p. 168). Then, just as death approaches, a single white feather from Truth drops from the sky onto the hunter’s breast and he dies holding it. Profoundly moved by the stranger’s understanding, Waldo declares, “All my life I have longed to see you” (African Farm, p. 171). The stranger proceeds to listen closely to the story of Waldo’s life, then urges him to stay on the farm and resist the temptations of the outside world until he is certain of his path in life. After giving Waldo a much-handled book whose tenets “may give you a centre round which to hang your ideas, instead of letting them lie about in a confusion,” the stranger takes his leave (African Farm, p. 172). Waldo ties his carving to the stranger’s saddle before the stranger rides off. They part with a handshake and the hope of meeting again someday.
The focus switches to Gregory Rose, the new farm worker. Snobbish and somewhat effeminate, Gregory pours out his complaints about his life to his sister in England. In one epistle, Gregory confesses his love for Em and his desire to marry her. A tentative courtship ensues. Em, believing herself to be neither pretty nor clever, is moved by Gregory’s ardent protestations. After accepting his proposal, she eagerly anticipates her wedding.
Six months later, Lyndall, now a beautiful woman, returns to the farm but, to Em’s dismay, is unimpressed by Gregory. After seeing a large diamond ring—inscribed with the initials R. R.—on Lyndall’s finger, Em wonders if her cousin has also become engaged but Lyndall quickly denies any such arrangement. Later, she seeks out Waldo and resumes their childhood intimacy, confiding in him about her years at school. She also reveals her intense interest in the position of women and her bitterness towards a society that allows them little scope for their talents beyond marriage and motherhood. Waldo, in turn, confesses that he plans to leave the farm and see something of the world after Gregory becomes master.
Meanwhile, Tant’ Sannie, soon to turn over the farm to Em, plans to remarry to a much younger man, a distant relation. Gregory again writes his sister, ostensibly to inform her of Tant’ Sannie’s wedding, but more genuinely to complain about Lyndall, to whom he has become reluctantly attracted. At Tant’ Sannie’s wedding, Lyndall spends much of her time with Waldo, reaffirming their unique bond: “When I am with you I never know that I am a woman and you are a man; I only know we are both things that think. Other men … are mere bodies to me; but you are a spirit” (African Farm, p. 210). The two friends share further confidences and plans for their respective futures. Waldo intends to travel, while Lyndall contemplates becoming an actress. Both agree that work of some kind represents their best hope of fulfillment.
After the wedding Gregory offers to drive Lyndall home. Initially, she refuses, then just as suddenly changes her mind and consents. Em, who has noticed Gregory’s attraction to Lyndall, rides home with Waldo and wonders whether she should go through with her own marriage. Shortly after, Waldo embarks on his travels and Em breaks her engagement to Gregory, who soon starts to pursue Lyndall. To his chagrin, Lyndall refuses to take him seriously at first. Later she does an about-face and offers to marry him in name only. Lyndall coldly lays out her terms: “You wish to serve me, and to have nothing in return!—you shall have what you wish…. The knowledge that you are serving me is to be your reward” (African Farm, p. 232). Gregory agrees to this arrangement. Though hurt by the news, Em conceals her feelings. That night she visits Lyndall in her room to tell her of a disturbing dream. In the dream, Em, a little girl again, enters a large room and sees Lyndall’s dead baby laid out upon a bed. Alone again, Lyndall lies awake, wondering about the dream.
Just before the wedding, another stranger—a blond, blue-eyed Englishman—arrives at the farm. Lyndall intercepts him before anyone can meet him and puts him in Waldo’s now-deserted cabin. Later, when everyone else is asleep, Lyndall and the stranger talk. He is the lover who gave her the diamond ring and he has come in response to her letter informing him of her marriage to Gregory. The stranger wants to know why Lyndall will marry a foolish farmer whom she does not love, rather than him. Lyndall replies that she will be able to keep Gregory at a distance and thus retain her independence. The stranger urges her to change her mind, but Lyndall refuses. After the stranger continues to importune her, Lyndall makes him another offer, “I cannot marry you … because I cannot be tied, but, if you wish, you may take me away with you and take care of me; then when we do not love any more we can say good-bye” (African Farm, p. 239). Lyndall’s stranger is startled by her proposal but ultimately agrees. They plan to go to the Transvaal in northeastern South Africa, where no one knows them. Before her departure Lyndall visits Otto’s grave and bemoans her sense of isolation and inability to love anything utterly.
Six months later, Gregory, still reeling from Lyndall’s abandonment, resolves to search for her. Meanwhile, a gaunt and ragged Waldo, gone for seven months, returns to the farm in the middle of a storm. He asks about Lyndall, but Em avoids answering in any detail. Waldo then composes a letter to Lyndall, relating all of his experiences while he was away. On his travels he worked at several jobs, serving at one point as a transport driver to the diamond fields. But each job was lacking in some way. Feeling isolated and unable to concentrate on anything, Waldo decided to return to the farm. He realizes much of his longing for the old life is tied up in his feelings for Lyndall: “I knew you were not here, but it seemed as though I should be nearer you; and it is you I want” (African Farm, pp. 262-63). As Waldo composes these words, Em approaches and gently tells him not to continue: Lyndall is dead.
Gregory returns to the farm and gives Waldo and Em a full account of his search. He tracked Lyndall and her lover through several towns, finally coming to one in which he learned by chance that a young Englishwoman was staying in the hotel. The landlady revealed that the woman arrived alone six months earlier and soon after gave birth to a baby who lived only a few hours. The mother then slipped into a decline. She was not, said the landlady, expected to survive.
After hearing this news, Gregory disguised himself as a woman, shaving his beard and dressing in female clothing. He then offered his services to the landlady as a nurse for the dying woman. On being shown to her bedroom, Gregory was grief-stricken to see Lyndall in such a sorry state. He nursed her tenderly and never revealed his identity. A letter arrived from Lyndall’s lover begging her to marry him, but still she refused. During her last days, Lyndall asked to be taken outside to the blue mountain she glimpsed across the plain. Gregory carried her down to a wagon and drove her out to the mountain, where Lyndall regained her faculties long enough to accept her fate.
Back on the farm, Em and especially Waldo are devastated by Gregory’s story. After hours of anguish, Waldo finally accepts her death: “It is but the man that dies, the Universal Whole of which he is part re-works him into its inmost self” (African Farm, p. 290).
Sometime later, Tant’ Sannie, along with her husband and new baby, pays a call on Em to congratulate her on her upcoming marriage to Gregory. Sannie monopolizes the conversation, praising the wedded state, wishing Em many children, and complaining about new inventions like the railway. After her visitors leave, Em goes into the wagon-house to talk to Waldo, who is busy building her a new table. When she offers him money to go abroad and study, Waldo gently refuses. After she leaves, Waldo rests in the sunshine, utterly tranquil, watching a brood of nearby chicks. He appears to fall asleep. When Em returns, she finds the chicks perched on him and thinks Waldo will soon awaken: “But the chickens were wiser” (African Farm, p. 301).
The Story of an African Farm is structured mainly around the destinies of Em and Lyndall. The Victorian era provided few opportunities for women beyond the traditional roles of wife and mother. Sheltered and protected during childhood, young girls came of age and were duly married off, their husbands assuming the responsibilities as protectors and providers that had once been their fathers’. Despite such legislation as the Divorce Act of 1857, which took jurisdiction over divorces away from the church courts and gave it to a new civil divorce court, and the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, which allowed women to treat as their own the money they inherited or earned from various investments, most women remained dependent on their fathers, husbands, and male relatives for their entire lives.
Unlike men, who were expected to make places for themselves in public life, women remained ensconced in the domestic sphere, tending to their homes and children. During the 1860s, the period during which The Story of an African Farm takes place, “woman worship” was a common practice. Victorians idealized the selfless wife who devoted her energies to making her home a haven for her more worldly husband and provided him with a source of “moral inspiration” (Houghton, p. 350). Many women, however, found their pedestals rather confining; even as wives, women’s activities were restricted by masculine authority.
Women played no part in public life, attended no public gatherings, and served on no public bodies; they neither signed petitions nor, in normal cirumstances, wrote letters to the press, and they obviously had no franchise, whether locally or nationally. Generally, they spent their lives within the confines of their homes and their families, venturing abroad only for the most ordinary and trivial social events such as receptions, balls, and concerts.
(Schoeman, p. 213)
Even in colonial South Africa, Victorian standards of behavior were maintained with regard to young English girls. Unlike Tant’ Sannie who, inured to the rigors of frontier life, enjoys considerable independence and autonomy, Em and Lyndall are hampered by their British heritage. Both are expected to conform to the social standards of Victorian England, despite having grown up in foreign surroundings. Indeed, all Englishwomen living abroad were expected to uphold the standards of their homeland:
[T]he white woman managed to assert the norms of Victorian Britain even in this unlikely new environment… [T]he settler woman, after her brief liberation from convention, reverted to being a lady. Safely raised on a pedestal and shielded, as under a glass dome, from too much contact with and contamination by everyday realities, she was hemmed in, idealised, and frustrated.
(Schoeman, p. 210)
In the novel, Lyndall becomes bitterly aware of the “hemming in” process when she goes away to a private school. Hoping to gain an education, she is appalled to find that her fellow students’ lives are monopolized by such trivial pursuits as painting and needlepoint. Lyndall comments trenchantly on the insidious process leading to the separation between the sexes: “They begin to shape us to our cursed end …when we are tiny things in shoes and socks…. [The curse] finishes its work when we are grown women, who no more look out wistfully at a more healthy life” (African Farm, p. 189). Lyndall is even more frustrated by the widespread belief that a socially or an economically advantageous marriage is the only goal to which a woman can or should aspire: “Marriage for love is the beautifullest external symbol of the union of souls; marriage without it is the uncleanest traffic that defiles the world” (African Farm, p. 190). Unwilling to lose what independence she has, Lyndall considers a loveless marriage to the weak Gregory, but refuses the proposal of her domineering lover, offering instead to be his mistress. Lyndall maintains her independence, albeit at a hefty price. Her rebellion against the social mores of her time ultimately costs her her life.
Unlike Lyndall, Em embraces the likelihood of marriage and motherhood. Even as a child she displays no ambition but to inherit her farm and eventually marry, declaring, “’I should not like to go to school!” (African Farm, p. 45). As a woman Em remains domestic and conventional, though her kindliness and good nature endear her to others. Lyndall compares her cousin to “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” (African Farm, p. 231). Em’s sole chance to be “number one” arises when an impassioned Gregory first proposes to her: “She had given out so much love in her little life, and had got none of it back with interest. Now one said, ’I love you better than all the world.’ One loved her better than she loved him. How suddenly rich she was” (African Farm, p. 179). One might expect Em’s desires—more modest than Lyndall’s—to be easily fulfilled, yet happiness also eludes her when Gregory becomes infatuated with Lyndall. Although Gregory and Em are reconciled after Lyndall’s death, Em’s romantic views on love and marriage have been permanently altered by Gregory’s betrayal. Towards the end of the novel, a wistful Em asks Waldo, “Why is it always so, Waldo, always so? …we long for things …but we never reach them. Then at last, too late, just when we don’t want them any more, when all the sweetness is taken out of them, then
“THRILLING, LIBERATING, AND HIGHLY SECRET”
The Story of an African Farm created quite a stir among young Victorian ladies; one historian notes that “virtually every recollection of [working-class student-teacher] life in the last decades of the nineteenth century that I have discovered mentions—with bated breath and great excitement, as a thrilling, liberating, and highly secret experience—reading Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm” (Mitchell, p. 37). Enjoyment of the book cut across the social classes. Many an English girl at the turn of the century read it furtively in closets, under the covers, in a deserted corner of the house. What they all found so compelling was the novel’s attention to violence, to sex, to disbelief in Christianity, and to the changing attitudes of women to their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Schreiner’s novel and its tragic heroine, Lyndall, were important to the rising “new girl” in the late Victorian world, a girl who cast her eyes about for daring alternatives to being a bit-part player in a man’s world.
they come” (African Farm, p. 296). Em survives while the more audacious Lyndall dies, but neither can be said to have achieved fulfillment. By refusing to bestow a happily-ever-after ending upon either woman, Schreiner illustrates the unhappiness that characterized the lives of many immigrant women on the South African frontier and elsewhere.
Sources and literary context
Although The Story of an African Farm is not strictly autobiographical, Waldo undergoes a series of religious doubts and crises similar to those Schreiner herself experienced when (beginning at age 10) she was rejecting Christianity. Schreiner based Waldo’s encounter with the nameless Frenchman who “believes nothing” on her chance meeting with John William Bertram, the son of Gottlob Schreiner’s predecessor at Wittebergen, in 1871. Traveling to Hermon on business, Bertram stopped in Basutoland where the 16-year-old Schreiner was staying with an aunt. It was a stormy night and Schreiner’s aunt’s house was the only one within 50 miles. Bertram stayed that night in the house and became acquainted with Schreiner, speaking to her seriously about art, books, and religion. Bertram lent her Herbert Spencer’s First Principles—the Freethinkers’ bible—which introduced Schreiner to an alternative creed that avoided the extremes of “dogmatic Christianity” or “blank atheism” (Schoeman, p. 193). Schreiner was profoundly affected by this brief encounter, claiming that “I always think that when Christianity burst on the dark Roman world it was what that book was to me” (Rive, p. 36). Bertram committed suicide in August 1879 by taking an overdose of morphine. News of his death reached Schreiner shortly after she completed the chapter based on their meeting.
Spencer’s First Principles appeared in 1862, three years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection. In it, Spencer, an agnostic, argues that human religious feeling is rooted in utter ignorance of the nature of ultimate reality (or the Ultimate Being); all that religious feeling can recognize is that such a reality exists. It is humanity’s “highest wisdom and our highest duty to regard that through which all things exist as the Unknowable”; religious inquiry into what this Ultimate Being or reality might be is not just pointless but misguided (Spencer in Boiler, p. 48). Spencer pointed out the inconsistencies and absurdities in human religions, while acknowledging that perhaps such religions did respond to an eternal truth. Schreiner sums up his influence on her: “He helped me believe in a unity underlying all nature” (Schreiner in First and Scott, p. 59).
A concrete South African literary tradition cannot truly be said to have existed when The Story of an African Farm was first published in 1883. Although several works of poetry, including Thomas Pringle’s Ephemerides (1829), were printed during the early years of British occupancy, the verse was of an uneven quality and showed a strong British influence. Novels dealing with South Africa frequently fell into the “adventure story” category—such as E. A. Kendall’s The English Boy at the Cape (1835) and Mayne Reid’s The Bush Boys (1856)—and were directed at younger audiences: “As a land of potential adventure, Africa lent itself ideally to youth literature, and since it was also missionary country it offered the wherewithal for a very effective blend of entertainment and edification” (Schoeman, p. 415). The drawback to such novels, however, was that few adult readers were inclined to take South Africa seriously as a subject for fiction.
The 1870s saw the emergence of a new kind of South African literature, written by authors who lived in and knew the country and whose themes were “less sensational and presented more realistically” (Schoeman, p. 422). Attempts were made to depict the realities of daily South African life and to convey a sense of the country’s unique atmosphere and terrain. Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm grows out of that new movement, along with G. H. Close’s The Rose of Rietfontain: A South African Pastoral Romance (1882) and A. P. B.’s Rochdale: South African Story of Country Life (1885). But while the latter titles have been forgotten, The Story of an African Farm is considered one of the pivotal texts that helped to establish a South African literary tradition.
New opportunities for women
In the novel Lyndall laments the poor quality of the education she received at a finishing school in the 1860s: “They finish everything but imbecility and weakness, and that they cultivate” (African Farm, p. 185). Such “schooling,” she maintains, leaves women unfit for any kind of useful labor. The following decade, however, saw several developments in the cause of women’s rights. In Britain, the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum and training programs for nurses and governesses were established. There was also an increased interest in the education of women: Cambridge established a college for women—later called Girton—in 1869. The effects of these social changes soon spread to South Africa; in particular, the education of girls received far more attention. Female pupils in South Africa were formerly taught by unqualified teachers at little one mistress schools or at home by untrained governesses, the way Schreiner herself had been taught. During the 1870s several seminaries and girls’ schools were founded, including the Good Hope Seminary in Cape Town and the Huguenot College at Wellington. In 1877 a girls’ school opened in Cradock, where Schreiner had worked as a governess.
The Anglo-Zulu War
During the 1870s, the British Empire sought to expand its territorial holdings in South Africa, annexing the Transvaal in 1877, then setting its sights on Zululand, an independent Zulu state on the Natal border. Sir Theophilus Shepstone, Administrator of the Transvaal and a former Zulu sympathizer, betrayed his allies by persuading the British high commissioner that Zululand’s strong military organization—led by King Cetshwayo—represented a threat to peace and order in South Africa. Cetshwayo was ordered by the commissioner to disband his army within 30 days; he responded by mobilizing 30,000 men. British forces invaded Zululand on January 11, 1879, but suffered a major defeat at Insandlwana, where a Zulu army surprised and slaughtered nearly 1,600 British soldiers on the morning of January 22. Humiliated, the British army fought back, invading Zululand again in late May 1879 and this time razing the royal town of Ulundi. Cetshwayo was captured and exiled to Robben Island and Zululand was divided into 13 separate territories to be governed by less powerful Zulu leaders.
While The Story of an African Farm never mentions or even foreshadows the Anglo-Zulu War, the event nonetheless influenced the novel’s success: “Seen from outside and at a distance, the drama, romance and tragedy of the Anglo-Zulu War stirred the imagination of the world and dominated the image of South Africa in the seventies” (Schoeman, p. 495). Indeed, the Anglo-Zulu War, like the later Boer War (1899-1902), sparked the British public’s interest in South Africa, increasing the demand for such works as The Story of an African Farm.
The Story of an African Farm was well received when it first appeared in 1883. Edward B. Aveling, writing for Progress in September 1883, described it as “cosmopolitan and human,” praising its “portrayal of emotion and of the working of passion” (Aveling in Clayton, p. 67). Aveling also commended author “Ralph Iron”—whom he suspected, correctly, of being a woman—for “her bold outspeaking” and audacity in discussing “political matters” in the novel (Aveling in Clayton, p. 68). Henry Norman, writing for the Fortnightly Review in December 1883, likewise found Schreiner’s confrontation of such issues as religion, women’s rights, and immortality “refreshing,” adding, “what is still more surprising and refreshing, she has the right words to say about almost all” (Norman in Clayton, p. 69). An anonymous critic in the Church Quarterly Review, however, was disturbed by the novel’s apparent advocacy of agnosticism: “The Story of an African Farm is one of the most intensely painful books we ever read … because of the revelation the work affords of a mind that seems hopelessly diseased” (Church Quarterly Review in Clayton, p. 74).
Twentieth-century critics, while noting Schreiner’s lack of objectivity and inconsistent characterization, nonetheless acknowledge the novel’s peculiar appeal and its importance to South African literature. Uys Krige, writing for The Cape Argus in 1955, declares, “Yet—and it is a big yet—notwithstanding all its faults, The Story of an African Farm is a most moving book, still after 80 years perhaps the most remarkable novel to have come out of South Africa, of so direct an appeal and so haunting a quality that the reader will not forget it as long as he lives” (Krige in Clayton, p. 77). The book’s influence on other women writers in Africa has been strong. Doris Lessing (see African Laughter , also covered in African Literature and Its Times) writes that she responded to Schreiner’s “sense of Africa the magnificent” and that “I had only to hear the title, or ’Olive Schreiner,’ and my deepest self was touched” (Lessing in First and Scott, pp. 93-94). Isaak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa (also covered in African Literature and Its Times) likewise had the book in mind during her stay in British East Africa (now Kenya), and acknowledges her debt to Schreiner.
—Pamela S. Loy
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