Book review week: The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

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In 1883, somewhere in South Africa, a young white woman named Olive Schreiner writes her first novel.  She calls it The Story of an African Farm and invents the pseudonym, Ralph Iron, under which it is published to great acclaim and controversy in London.

It is one of the first feminist novels ever published and contains devastating passages on the situation of women in relation to men.

It is delightful to be a woman; but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn’t one.

It is not what is done to us, but what is made of us, that wrongs us. No man can be really injured but by what modifies himself. We all enter the world little plastic beings, with so much natural force, perhaps, but for the rest — blank, and the world tells us what we are to be, and shapes us by the ends it sets before us. To you it says — Work ! and to us it says — Seem ! To you it says — As you approximate to man’s highest ideal of God, as your arm is strong and your knowledge great, and the power to labour is with you, so you shall gain all that human heart desires. To us it says — Strength shall not help you, nor knowledge, nor labour. You shall gain what men gain, but by other means. And so the world makes men and women.

Not only does the novel deal with the situation of women, it deals with racism, religion, atheism, “freethinking”, sex outside marriage, illegitimate children and transvestitism.

It breaks every kind of literary and cultural convention.  One scholar calls it a “literary platypus” whose “ungainly combination of parts and functions seem to flummox both classification and periodization.”

The female protagonist chooses to marry a man she thinks a fool, she eschews marriage to her lover to preserve her autonomy, she goes on a quest and a man follows (rather than vice versa), a man validates his existence through service to a woman, a good and devout man is abused, the two protagonists die incidentally, justice and redemption do not arrive.

The dog [Doss] jumped on to his back and snapped at [his] black curls, till, finding that no notice was taken, he walked off to play with a black beetle.  The beetle was hard at work trying to roll home a great ball of dung it had been collecting all the morning; but Doss broke the ball, and ate the beetle’s hind legs, and then bit off its head.  And it was all play, and no one could tell what it had lived and worked for.  A striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing.

The whole is shocking, dreamy, discordant and strangely relaxing to read.

The book becomes a best-seller, and the young woman, famous for the rest of her life.

She marries her husband in 1894 and he takes her surname.  She lives out one of the key scenes of the novel when she gives birth to a stillborn child in 1895.  She becomes one of the leading figures in the female suffrage movement in South Africa and a champion of equal rights for all, black and white.  When she dies in Cape Town in 1920 at the age of 65 thousands line the railway along which her body is transported to its burial place.

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