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The Story of an African Farm (thoughts)

April 14, 2011

Sorry I took a mini-blogging break there; I desperately wanted to blog, but my arm, wrist, and hand had other ideas. But this morning, they seem willing to cooperate again; let’s hope it lasts! -Eva

So, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm is one of those books I’ve been wanting to read for ages but couldn’t get my hands on a copy. That is, until Athie the Nook appeared on the scene, and I was able to download an ebook file, which sat patiently waiting for me to give it a go. I had the haziest impression of the book; I think I was expecting a memoir along the lines of Isak Dinesen, but for southern Africa instead of eastern. I couldn’t have been more wrong! This is a novel, and what a novel. It’s pretty obvious that it’s a debut, but I mean that in a good way; it’s bursting with passion and ideas, and it has a kind of pastiche feel since Schreiner tries out a few different writing styles. Her writing is incredibly evocative; here is the novel’s opening:

The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plains. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted karoo bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.In one spot only was the solemn monotony of the plain broken. Near the centre a small solitary kopje rose. Alone it lay there, a heap of round ironstones piled one upon another, as over some giant’s grave. Here and there a few tufts of grass or small succulent plants had sprung up among its stones, and on the very summit a clump of prickly-pears lifted their thorn arms, and reflected, as from mirrors, the moonlight on their broad fleshy leaves. At the foot of the kopje lay the homestead. Even on its bare read walls, and the wooden ladder that led up tot he loft, the moonlight cast a kind of dreamy beauty, and quite etherealized the low brick wall that ran before the house, and which inclosed a bare patch of sand and two straggling sunflowers. On the zinc roof of the great open wagon-house, on the roofs of the outbuildings that jutted from its side, the moonlight glinted with a quite peculiar brightness, till it seemed that every rib in the metal was of burnished silver.

Can’t you see the place coming to life before your eyes? I love writing with a strong sense of place, and The Story of an African Farm is deeply grounded in the South African bush.

And the characters! Schreiner has an eye for humanity, with its strengths and weaknesses, and she isn’t afraid to ruthlessly skewer most of the people who wander through the story. Fortunately, at the heart of it are two heroines, Em and Lyndall (cousins raised as sisters), and one hero, Waldo (the son of the farmstead’s manager) all of whom Schreiner treats with more generosity. This is definitely a book of ideas and philosophies, to the extent that both Waldo and Lyndall end up being ‘spokespeople’ for certain beliefs of Schreiner, but at the same time she managed to make them appear as living, breathing people, who I cared about. That’s a tough balance to strike and made me all the more impressed with Schreiner’s talent.

This has been described as the first feminist novel, and I can see why. There’s a scene when Lyndall, who has returned home from a girl’s boarding school, is declaiming with all of her youthful passion against women’s fate:

“Don’t you wish you were a woman, Waldo?”
“No,” he answered readily.
She laughed.
“I thought not. Even you are too worldly-wise for that. I never met a man who did. This is a pretty ring,” she said, holding out her little hand, that the morning sun might make the diamonds sparkle. “Worth fifty pounds at least. I will give it to the first man who tells me he would like to be a woman. There might be one on Robbin Island (lunatics at the Cape are sent to Robbin Island) who would win it perhaps, but I doubt it even there. It is delightful to be a woman; but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn’t one.”

And here’s another bit from the conversation:

“They begin to shape us to our cursed end,” she said, with her lips drawn in to look as though they smiled, “when we are tiny things in shoes and socks. We sit with our little feet drawn up under us in the window, and look out at the boys in their happy play. We want to go. Then a loving hand is laid on us: ‘Little one, you cannot go,’ they say, ‘your little face will burn, and your nice white dress will be spoiled.’ We feel it must be for our good, it is so lovingly said: but we cannot understand; and we kneel still with one little cheek wistfully pressed against the pane. Afterwards we go and thread blue beads, and make a string for our neck; and we go and stand before the glass. We see the complexion we were not to spoil, and the white frock, and we look into our own great eyes. Then the curse begins to act on us. It finishes its work when we are grown women, who no more look out wistfully at a more healthy life; we are contented. We fit our sphere as a Chinese woman’s foot fits her shoe, exactly, as though God had made both-and yet he knows nothing of either.

I could keep going, but I think you get the gist!

Possibly just as fascinating is Schreiner’s gender bending; Gregory is presented as a man who, temperamentally speaking, might have been better as woman. At first, this was said in a bit of sneering manner, which made me disappointed, but then towards the end of the book there’s this remarkable scene. Gregory realises that the only way to nurse the woman that he loves, but is not married to, is if he disguises his gender.

He drew from his breast pocket a little sixpenny looking-glass, and hung it on one of the roots that stuck out from the bank. Then he dressed himself in one of the old-fashioned gowns and a great pinked-out collar. Then he took out a razor. Tuft by tuft the soft brown beard fell down in the sand, and the little ants took it to line their nests with. Then the glass showed a face surrounded by a frilled cap, white as a woman’s, with a little mouth, a very short upper lip, and a receding chin.Presently a rather tall woman’s figure was making its way across the veld.

Once he is dressed as a woman, he’s free to connect with the more compassionate parts of his nature; indeed, while earlier in the novel he’s shown as quite selfish, as a nurse he comes into his own, and the scenes are as tender as one would expect from a Victorian depicting Florence Nightingale.

There are so many other things packed into this book; belief in God, the power of nature itself (while always present, and often depicted with affection, Schreiner never romanticises it), the idealism of youth and how it inevitably starts facing compromises, etc. But there is one point where the book definitely shows its age: race. Both the Boers and the native Africans are depicted in quite unfortunate terms and stereotypes; indeed, during the final scene of the novel, a young native African child is directly compared to a dog, as if they were parallel. This is quite sickening, and it’s especially disappointing in a book so progressive on so many points. I don’t believe it’s worth boycotting the book over, as I would certainly do if she was a modern author, but I also think it should be acknowledged.

The fact is, The Story of an African Farm isn’t a perfect book; sometimes, Schreiner gets swept up in her philosophies to the detriment of the story. Much of the book is told through monologues, or flashbacks, or other techniques that modern readers would see as ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing.’ And the racism, of course, leads to some bad moments. However, this is a book pulsing with power and passion; I was swept along by the sheer urgency of Schreiner’s writing, and I truly cared about Lyndall, Em, Waldo, and their fates. She transported me to the South African countryside, and while I was there I completely believed in the world she depicts. When I finished reading, I was bubbling over with wanting to talk about the book’s many themes and arguments. This is an unjustly neglected classic, and I would love to see it become more widely read. In the meantime, I’ve loaded her other stuff on to Athie, although writing this post makes me tempted to run back and reread this one immediately instead. I’ve also requested a biography of her from the library, since her life sounds fascinating! So perhaps I’ll start there.

Have you read this one? What did you make of it? If not, what are you waiting for? ;)

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011 10:36 am

    Fantastic review. I read this one years ago and was very impressed by it for all the reasons you mention. It does feel like a first novel, doesn’t it. I wish we had more from this author, but I think this is her only novel, yes.

    It’s very much a for runner to My Brilliant Career even to Nervous Conditions which are both excellent books about young women coming of age.

  2. April 14, 2011 11:01 am

    Sounds so interesting, Eva! Will have to see if my library has a copy so I can check it out for myself. Sorry your arm, hand, and wrist are giving you such a problem lately!

  3. April 14, 2011 11:06 am

    This is one of those books that I really MUST read. Especially as it’s been published as a Virago Modern Classic, so I have to read it for my Virago challenge!

  4. April 14, 2011 11:27 am

    This has been on my TBR list for a while now but as one of those hazzy, I’ll read it one day in the distant future reads. Now, after reading your review, I’m eager to dash down to the library and grab it off the shelf immediately!

  5. April 14, 2011 3:01 pm

    I’ve never read or heard of this but your review has made me want to pick it up instantly! I’ll have to stick this one on the Kindle now. It helps that I’ve been fascinated about Africa since working with a variety of travel companies at my work – this definitely sounds perfect for what I’m craving right now!

  6. April 14, 2011 4:21 pm

    I read this one back in college (same prof who had us read Edgeworth actually) and LOVED it. I still have my copy, complete with all my scribbles and post-it notes inside. It was such a glorious read and I keep meaning to reread it sometime….you know how that goes.

    But I am glad you enjoyed it! I squeed a bit when I saw you were reading it!

  7. April 14, 2011 6:10 pm

    Enjoyed your review. I love reading about Africa from different persepectives of the 20th C. I’ve enjoyed Out of Africa, The Poisonwood Bible and The Flame Trees of Thikka so I think I need to add this to my list.

  8. April 14, 2011 6:36 pm

    Feminism and genderbending from the 1880s? Sold!

  9. April 14, 2011 6:59 pm

    Ooh, I like the name of your Nook. I hadn’t considered naming my new Kindle, but now I think I shall call it Sir Gawain as it is wrapped in the snug embrace of a happy green Kindle binder cover (not a *giant* green binder, but close enough).

    I have never heard of this story before. I think what excites me most about my new Kindle is that I can download a lot of old stories I’d never heard of before and read them for free from Project Gutenburg! Very exciting!

  10. April 14, 2011 8:05 pm

    This book sounds rather interesting. I love that she was such a feminist for her time, but the racism is indeed sad.

  11. April 15, 2011 8:57 am

    I did read this, and I’ll bet I was just about your age. I do recall the themes being strongly presented, but I seem to remember thinking that it wasn’t awfully well-written.

  12. April 15, 2011 12:11 pm

    I have not read this one, but remember browsing through her Women and Labour during my studies. It would be intereasting to read this one and Out of Africa by Karen Blixen one after the other.

  13. April 15, 2011 1:10 pm

    I have never heard of this one. Speaking of beautiful depictions of South Africa, though, have you read Alan Paton, particularly Cry the Beloved Country? Sounds like this is one I should find. Sounds good.

  14. April 15, 2011 9:11 pm

    I was under the impression that this was a memoir. Your discussion and the quotes you cited have sent it onto my wishlist.

  15. April 16, 2011 2:54 pm

    This is one of the reasons that I want an ereader as well. So that I am able to read those books that aren’t readily available for me at the library. This sounds like an interesting read…thanks for sharing about it!

  16. April 18, 2011 7:39 am

    Yow! Right after you wrote about this book, I found it at What The Book? . The price was right (about 3 bucks) and your review was fresh in my mind’s ears and eyes. I grabbed it. Thanks!

  17. April 19, 2011 6:27 am

    Sounds fantastic! Definatly adding this to my ipad!

    Lindy xxx

  18. April 20, 2011 9:27 am

    I like the feminist angle, but the book would have to go far to deal honestly with being written in Africa by a non-African.

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