Reviewing Olive Schreiner's 'The Story of an African Farm'
The Story of an African Farm is a complex novel that intertwines themes of religion, gender, marriage and colonialism to create a beautiful piece of literature.
Published in 1883 amidst the era of first-wave feminism, the novel is recognised for its revolutionary feminist politics and is seen as one of the first feminist novels. Schreiner published the novel under a pseudonym, alluding to the sexist ideology of the time and reflecting the novel's key themes.
The story tells of the lives of three characters – Waldo, Em and Lyndall – who live on a farm in the Karoo region of South Africa. It portrays the life of the late-Victorian era, which was often characterised by a patriarchal divide and imperialist politics.
The depiction of the Victorian woman is something I am deeply interested in as a literature student, which this novel undoubtedly offered me. In the 19th century, it was expected that a girl would marry well and thus have no need for a formal education - 'We see the complexion we are not to spoil' (Schreiner, 155). Women were not allowed to 'feel much', perceived by Lyndall as women being 'cursed' by the 'shrouds' that are put over them (Schreiner, 154). As Mary Wollstonecraft remarks in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, a work likely to have informed that of Schreiner's, women were confined to ‘their needle, and [shut] out from all political and civil employment...thus narrowing their minds’ and rendering them ‘unfit to fulfil the peculiar duties which nature has assigned them.’ (Wollstonecraft, 211). Education was another aspect of female life that was controlled by the sexist ideology of the time. Whilst education was seen as being able to provide social and economic advancement for men, to allow women a part in such advancement was to present a severe threat to the leadership of society. Therefore, female education in the Victorian Era was non-existent. This is captured by Lyndall when she asks 'What would knowledge help me?', as even if '[They] want to go' outside with the boys, they are forced to 'sit with their [little] feet drawn up under us' (Schreiner, 156). Em is arguably the embodiment of the ideal female, as she prizes marriage above all and is ruled by domestic chores.
The character of Lyndall transgresses the typical Victorian woman. Lyndall draws parallels with the likes of Maggie Tulliver (George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss), as both characters defy the social restrictions placed on their sex to become Victorian heroines. Lyndall's perception of gender is particularly interesting - she feels to be born a woman in the future is not 'to be born branded', alluding to Schreiner's prediction of the equality of the sexes in later years. If education was to play any role in a woman's life, it would be to instil traditional stereotypes of gender roles. However, Lyndall defies the role of education when she comes home full of radical feminist rhetoric. She claims a loveless marriage is a form of prostitution, criticising the way young women are forced by their husbands to suit their needs without regard to their own desires or aspirations. Thus, Lyndall, as well as Schreiner herself, foreshadows the New Woman.
However, the finale of The Story of an African Farm is hardly optimistic in its portrayal of the future of the New Woman. Lyndall fails to achieve the education she desires and sexual freedom, the latter shown through her constant denial of marrying the father of her child. Although refusing to conform to the idealist traditional marriage, her death highlights how she fails to transgress the oppressive patriarchal community that suffocates her. This distinctly reminds us of Eliot's The Mill on the Floss; Maggie’s drowning and Lyndall's death works on a metaphorical level, conveying the difficulty of overcoming the natural barriers that society placed in between women and their social rights. Maggie and Lyndall not only die a physical death, but an intellectual death, representing the death of brilliant female minds and the tragedy of the situation for women in a society that denies them what they so desperately desire.
I also found the character of Waldo intriguing, who journeys from Christian fanaticism to atheism over the course of the novel when he fails to find God's presence in the world. The novel's unorthodox views provoked widespread controversy at the time of publication, which can perhaps be attributed to Waldo's loss of faith and hope in religion within the novel.
Although I loved the portrayal of Victorian life, I found the book rather taxing at times. Whilst I appreciate the beauty of the writing and the complexity of the storylines, I wouldn't recommend the novel for enjoyment purposes; analytically, the novel is fantastic, but I wouldn't suggest reading it on a sun bed.
Overall, the novel is testament to a great writer's work. Schreiner conveys the difficulty of womanhood brilliantly. As a student studying literature, I found the novel analytically inspiring, but as a reader, I found the novel slightly challenging.