Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

Olive Schreiner was born in South Africa in 1855. Her father was a German missionary, so she spent most of her early life abroad. Between the years of 1874-1881, Schreiner was making money as governess on various Cape farms, simultaneously writing so that when she decided to go to London in 1881, she already had almost 3 completed novel manuscripts. In London, Chapman Hall accepted The Story of an African Farm and published it in 1883. The work was published under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. The novel was in a large part Schreiner's ticket into London intellectual circles: there, she developed relationships with Eleanor Marx, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, and Karl Pearson, among others. Schreiner's circle during this time inculcated her to scientific inquiry, and radical politics of movements like the New Woman movement.

Part I: 
The novel begins with episodes from the childhood of Waldo, the son of the widowed German owner of the farm. When all the others were asleep, Waldo anxiously listens to the ticking of the clock, imagining all those who die in the march of time. Terrified of God, the young child makes a sacrifice of his lamb chop to God, expecting Him to send the fire of heaven. Waldo is disappointed, of course, and this first chapter closes with his "confession": that he hates God (though still loves Jesus). Some years later in 1862 (the year of a drought), an Englishman named Bonaparte Blenkins stumbles onto the farm. Otto offers his hospitality, while the overweight Tant' Sannie loudly wines that she is afraid she'll be violated. Lyndall, the more intellectual companion of Em, Tant' Sannie's step-daughter, also doesn't trust Bonaparte. Bonaparte further takes Otto in, and manages later to win over Tant' Sannie as well. Otto hires Bonaparte as a schoolmaster to the children, and soon turns against Otto, twisting his words so that Tant' Sannie thought that Otto had been taking advantage of her). Otto is thrown out, but the night before he must leave, he dies peacefully in his sleep. Bonaparte becomes the overseer for the farm and behaves horribly to Waldo, crushing a model for a sheep-shearing machine that the boy had built, burning a book he had been reading (J.S. Mill's Political Economy), and whipping him. When Tant' Sannie was up in the loft rummaging through the old stockpiles of food belonging to Em's father (who had married her late in life in hopes to have Em provided for), her Hottentot servant takes away the ladder and she is trapped. Bonaparte, thinking her absent, courts Tant' Sannie's niece, Trana. Furious, Tant' Sannie throws him out, and Bonaparte is gone from their lives.

Part II:
Part II opens with a section called "Times and Seasons," which trace, in first-person-plural. the stages of life and belief. Though speculative, the passage yet strongly suggests that these stages are universally applicable. The following chapter tells about a stranger that comes to the farm (a French gentleman) who gets into a lengthy conversation with Waldo. Looking at Waldo's carving, the stranger relates to Waldo a full allegory of life experience and belief, leaving Waldo starry-eyed. The allegory is of a hunter who catches some beautiful birds, but he finds that these birds are beautiful lies to live by--including, pointedly, the bird called Immortality. The hunter gives up these birds, and then follows an arduous path to truth-seeking, climbing a seemingly endless mountain. Worn out, the hunter dies, dreaming that although he has forsaken everyone below, he has perhaps pioneered the way for future generations. As he dies, he receives one feather from the land of truth. After telling this allegory, the stranger leaves Waldo with a book (Schreiner told Havelock Ellis this book was Spencer's First Principles). At this stage we are introduced to Gregory Rose, who has been hired to help manage the farm. Gregory falls in love with Em, offering her an overly emotional proposal, which she dutifully accepts. Lyndall, in the meantime, has gone off to school, but comes for a return visit. She seems changed, impatient with Em's notions of marriage, and also gives Waldo a long speech on the position of women in society, espousing familiarly J.S. Millian concepts. She critiques the narrow scope of women's education, reveals the unfortunate effect of petty, domestic tyrannies which frustrated women enact over their spouses, and asserts that better love/marriage is possible when the partners are equal. As this is all happening, Tant' Sannie manages to engage herself to a 19-year-old. Gregory writes a letter to his sister betraying his interest in Lyndall even as he complains about her unladylike, improper tendencies. Em decides to break off her engagement to Gregory, having a sense of his attraction to Lyndall. Waldo leaves to travel out in the world, to the diamond fields. Meanwhile, Gregory hunts down Lyndall and he's clearly out of his depth, intellectually. Lyndall says, however, that she would marry him if he were willing to take her name. In the next chapter, Lyndall meets secretly with a lover who has come to the farm who also pleads with her to marry him. She refuses to marry him because, she says, he will try to master her and that though she loves him, she cannot accept that this what he desires. She does agree, however, to go away with him as long as they don't marry. Meanwhile, Gregory discovers some old clothes from Em's mother and has the strange idea of putting her mother's clothes on--the significance of this is revealed later, when Lyndall's going away with her lover doesn't work out. It turns out that she has fallen very ill after the death of her newborn. Gregory finds her, dresses up as a female nurse, and takes care of her until her death. This is all revealed to Waldo too late; on his return from the diamond fields he has composed a long letter telling Lyndall of his trying times working as a clerk, a transport rider, and finally box carrier/mover. The novel ends with Waldo's death; sitting in the sunshine, unaware and peaceful.    

In a Preface to a later edition, Olive Schreiner makes explicit that she is working against a more traditional form of the novel. She writes: "Human life may be painted according to two methods. There is the stage method" in which "we know with an immutable certainty that at the right crises each one will reappear and act his part..." and there is "another method--the method of the life we all lead. Here 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. When the crisis comes the man who would fit in does not return. When the curtain falls no one is ready." Indeed, her novel feels like the latter description--characters like Bonaparte stumble out of the narrative never to return, even the most central characters (Lyndall, and Waldo) disappear from the middle of the narrative making way for surprising new characters like Gregory Rose. And, as Joseph Bristow notes in his introduction to the work, there is a "marked imbalance of justice" in that "[t]he characters with the greatest moral strengths are the ones who enjoy the least material gain."

Schreiner's formal experimentation goes further, with the dream like first-person plural account in "Time and Seasons," with the embedded letters of Gregory and Waldo, with Lyndall's polemical speeches, and with the stranger's allegory. Each of these passages might stand apart independently from the novel and cohere, yet they hang together much in the same way that life hangs together: we select and collate arbitrarily amongst the experiences and circumstances that we know about.

What might Schreiner's departures from convention reveal as far as the content of her beliefs in this novel? As Bristow and also Schreiner's own contemporaries note, her work seemed not only to register but push forward important political and cultural changes that would come to a head during the Victorian fin de siecle. Lyndall prefigures the "New Woman" movement, which espoused the values of a free union (not marriage), and freedom from stilting conventions of female education. Waldo, having successively rejected the various frames of thoughts available on earth, dreams of a greater understanding premised on a growing agnoticism (more generalizable to the late Victorian era as a whole, with the rise of Darwinism, and also Higher Criticism) which acknowledges the limits of human understanding. In consideration of the Spencerian social Darwinism which informs Schreiner's work, it seems the likes of Lyndall and Waldo (sort of like Hallam in In Memoriam, too) are so "new" in their radical dreams that the world isn't quite ready for them yet.   

1 comment:

Brenda van Rensburg said...

My great great great (many great) aunt wrote that book! Yes...her name is Olive Schreiner and last name is not that! Although, I ironically LOVE writing! Must be in the genes!