Olive Schreiner’s book The Story of an African Farm is one of those books that are more important and interesting for its cultural and historical significance, or for the always fascinating relationship between writer and what is written, than for their own literary merits. An African Farm is one of the earliest feminist novels, and one of the earliest South African novels, and perhaps the earliest example of the “South African farm novel”, which I gather is considered something of a sub-genre. I was startled by some of its content, which must have forced some of its Victorian readers to recourse to their sal volatile. One does not expect to find a transvestite in a Victorian novel. But for all An African Farm’s remarkable qualities, it’s not an artistic success. There is good material in it, but it’s something of a mess.
The Story of an African Farm narrates episodes from the lives of three children as they grow up on a farm in South Africa: Em, the English stepdaughter of Tant’ Sannie, the farm’s Boer owner; Lyndall, Em’s cousin; and Waldo, the son of the farm’s kind and deeply pious German overseer, Otto. The two chapters of the book sets up the characters and conflicts of the three children nicely. We learn of Waldo’s spiritual unrest, Lyndall’s fierce and far-reaching ambitions, and of Em, who is sweet and stolid but no fool, and we are immersed in an evocative description of a different time and place and a unique culture.
Then a man named Bonaparte Blenkins walks onto the farm. We don’t know his back story, but my best guess is that he’s a discarded Charles Dickens’ character who wandered into the wrong novel by accident and stayed because the pickings were good. He’s an ignorant, sadistic, devious, sociopathic, opportunistic man, and a bizarrely out-of-place caricature among the delicately realized children and even the less well-drawn Tant’ Sannie and Otto. He remains on the farm for some years, first as an incompetent teacher of the children and then as overseer and Tant’ Sannie’s accepted suitor, until Tant’ Sannie finally proves herself able to recognize Bonparte’s real nature, and equally able with a barrel of pickle brine when the occasion calls for it.
The whole eleven chapters concerning the impossibly evil Bonaparte Blenkins are basically one long derail from the narrative of the novel, and despite the fact that he was almost its only comic relief, I gratefully watched him walk off the farm for good. Then there was one more digression before the novel got back on track — an entire chapter dealing in the most abstract, meandering terms with Waldo’s transformation from tortured Christian to despairing atheist, which feels more Schreiner’s own spiritual biography than like an integrated part of the novel. Finally Schreiner pulls the novel back on track, and progresses in fine style through Em’s engagement to Gregory Rose, Lyndall’s return to the farm after years away at boarding school, Gregory Rose’s and Waldo’s respective passions for Lyndall, Tant’ Sannie’s wedding to a young Boer, and the appearance of Lyndall’s mysterious correspondent.
I’m not sure what I think of the novel’s denouement. I can’t call it improbable or contrived exactly (though are we really to believe that Lyndall, who is never, ever hoodwinked at any other point in the book, didn’t recognize a disguised Gregory Rose?), but I do have a sense that Schreiner copped out somehow. Lyndall, with her incredible ambition and shattering insight, is a woman ahead of her time whom no social conventions will ever hold — and who, like a rocket explosion in a horse-and-buggy world, leaves others stunned and damaged in her wake. Her character has such sheer force the book can barely contain her, and maybe Schreiner chose to destroy Lyndall rather than try to make the world of the novel a fitting environment for Lyndall.
But it’s entirely possible Schreiner really couldn’t envision a happy ending for Lyndall. Schreiner had finished writing An African Farm by 1880. Born in 1855, she was then only 25. At 21, while working as a governess, she had had a sexual relationship with a young businessman named Julius Gau. The nature of their relationship was known in the village where she then lived, and the village condemned and rejected her socially. Schreiner and Gau became engaged, and Schreiner may have become pregnant, but if so, she miscarried, and Gau broke the engagement. Schreiner then suffered a bout of depression and developed asthma. Over the course of the next four years as she returned to work as a governess and wrote An African Farm, she perhaps didn’t foresee that she would win out, remain her free-thinking, rebellious, corset-rejecting self, and live a successful, meaningful, happy life, and so couldn’t give Lyndall the same gift.
The Story of an African Farm, Schreiner's first published book, appeared in 1883. It was an immediate best seller and attracted much attention. Not all of this attention was favourable, of course, but she had her admirers, among them William Gladstone, who was at that time Prime Minister of Great Britain. Schreiner traveled Europe and participated in various social and political movements (she was way ahead of her time in her views on race, class, colonialism, pacifism and politics as well as in her feminism). At age 39 she married a progressive-minded South African farmer. She published four books in all as well as many pamphlets and essays, some of which she co-wrote with her husband. And so when I look at Schreiner’s life and at her remarkable accomplishments, I can’t be too harsh with An African Farm. The novel is a mess; its author’s life was not. Even though I wish both the book and the life could have been successful, I can’t help being glad that at least the success and failure weren’t reversed.