Monday, June 4, 2012

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1883

Genre: General Fiction

Topics: Coming of Age, Feminism, Religion

Review: Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm 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: 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.

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 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 later novel Man to Man and I’m really looking forward to reading it sometime soon, as well as to trying some of her non-fiction.

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