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The Story of an African Farm by Olive…

The Story of an African Farm (1883)

by Olive Schreiner

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Imagine growing up in isolation: no school, no radio or television let alone electronic devices, few neighbours and those few distant. If you were lucky, there would be books, but none selected with you in mind. Hard as it is to picture such an existence now, it was not an uncommon situation for children whose parents had colonized the vast prairies of Canada, Australia and South Africa one hundred and fifty years ago. What is unusual, is that there was so little contemporary writing about it.

Olive Schreiner grew up in such a world in the Cape Colony, part of what is now South Africa. While she had no great affection for her fellow white South Africans, calling them "... a whole nation of lower middle class philistines, without... intellect or muscular labourers to save them", she did have sympathy for the children who had to grow up in such an environment.

The Story of an African Farm has three such children, brought together by circumstance. Lyndall was an orphan sent to live with her uncle. She had been provided for financially and would be able to go away to school when the time came. Em was also an orphan, daughter of the uncle to whom Lyndall had been sent, a man who had since died. This left the care of these two little English girls to Tant' Sannie, a Boer woman. As Lyndall explained it to Em: Tant' Sannie is a miserable old woman... Your father married her when he was dying, because he thought she would take better care of the farm, and us, than an Englishwoman. He said we should be taught and sent to school. Now she saves every farthing for herself, buys us not even one old book. She does not ill-use us. Why? Because she is afraid of your father's ghost.... three nights ago she heard a rustling and a grunting behind the pantry door, and knew it was your father coming to 'spook' her. The third child was Waldo, son of the German overseer, Waldo was a tormented child, obsessed by the idea that everything must die, terrified of God and the hereafter.

In the summer of 1862, the year of the great drought, a stranger entered their world. Bonaparte Blenkins was an Irishman who quickly insinuated himself into their lives, soon overthrowing the established order of their world. By the time Blenkins had finished with the farm, the whole structure of the children's lives was destroyed. Older now, it was time for them to embark on the next stage of their lives.

Lyndall, determined to find wealth and fame, went off to finishing school, a place she later scathingly described. "They finish everything but imbecility and weakness, and that they cultivate." Em stayed on the farm, learning all the domestic duties entailed in its proper running, along with its actual management. Waldo wandered, simultaneously fleeing and seeking his God.

Lyndall's return to the farm three years later turned life upside down once more. Schreiner has taken a wilful child and turned her into a strong determined woman, albeit a tragic one. Her forward looking feminist views were considered radical by the Victorian reading public. At the same time, the book was an instant success, perhaps because it was published under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. Had Lyndall's views been acknowledged as written by a woman, it is likely they would have been rejected outright.

Schreiner introduced a new character in this second part of her book. Gregory Rose quickly became engaged to Em. Upon Lyndall's return however, Em realized he was smitten with Lyndall and broke the engagement. Lyndall did not share his feelings. She described him as ...a true woman - one born for the sphere that some women have to fill without being born for it. How happy he would be sewing frills into his little girls' frocks, and how pretty he would look sitting in a parlour, with a rough man making love to him! Toward the end of the book, there will be a role reversal, as Lyndall will dominate Greg, now disguised as a woman, a person she does not recognize.

While many see Lyndall as the primary protagonist of the novel, this does Em a disservice. While she could be dismissed as a mere pretend housewife, lacking only a husband, she is far more than this. She is the foil to Lyndall and in many ways has more inner strength than her cousin, allowing the two girls to break out of the conventional stereotypes of their time.

The title of the book suggests not a story of children though, but the story of the farm itself. It is always there, changing with the seasons, but never changing in its essence. Schreiner's connections to such a world are obvious in the love Lyndall, Em and Waldo have for their home, the constant in their lives, and in their links to each other. Schreiner would go on to write other books, but she never recreated the success of this one, perhaps because she herself was uprooted from her veld.
1 vote SassyLassy | Nov 24, 2016 |
Worth slogging through for the greatest parable of all time (near the end). ( )
  apomonis | Jun 2, 2016 |
I was a bit surprised at this novel: it's published in 1883, so the same year Wilkie Collins finished Heart and Science, and the year after Thomas Hardy wrote Two on a Tower. Yet its much more prescient of modernism than either of those late Victorian works, reminding me more of early James Joyce or E. M. Forster than Schreiner's actual contemporaries. It has a fragmented, difficult style, but one appropriate to its subject matters, about the difficulties of coping with massive complex systems like religion and patriarchy while living on the fringe of the massive complex system that is empire-- though Schreiner is seemingly way less interested in interrogating its complications than she is those of gender and religion. I liked it, but I wanted to love it; I frequently enjoyed the detached narrative voice, but sometimes found it more difficult than I felt was necessary. There was some engrossing stuff (the horrific victimization of children by Bonaparte Blenkins), some funny stuff (Bonaparte's more comedic escapades) some great stuff (Bonaparte's final comeuppance), some intriguing stuff (young Waldo's adventures in the world), some startling stuff ("'Waldo,' she said, 'Lyndall is dead'" is such a powerful sentence), and some weird and offputting stuff (most of the last couple chapters). Probably worth another read someday, and I would certainly teach it; I don't think I've read another book quite like it.
1 vote Stevil2001 | Apr 30, 2016 |
I bought this book on a trip to Africa and was led to believe, by the title and blurb, that it was a conventional Victorian novel set in Africa. Wrong. The title is a total misdirection. While the beauty of the bleak desert landscape is a regular backdrop in the book, this is most definitely not the story of an African farm. It is hardly a story. It is a wonderful book of ideas, seemingly 100 years too modern for its era. The book starts reasonably conventionally, introducing the main characters and the farm as backdrop. There is some beautiful writing here and I was immediately hooked. But the characters are not standard Victorian era characters, and the issues that concern them - atheism, feminism, mental development, are not the standard Victorian era issues.
The mid-section of the book heads off in a totally different style with an analysis of the development of a personal philosophy, starting from received religious dogma, and ending with a free-thinking atheism. This is followed by the narrative (or as close to narrative as Schriener gets) of the tragic ends for the key characters.
This is one of the most memorable books I have read in years. I can't believe that it is not better known.
Read July 2015. ( )
1 vote mbmackay | Jul 11, 2015 |
Olive Schreiner’s The Story Of An African Farm is an early classic of 19th century white South African literature. Born in 1855 to missionary parents, Schreiner had no formal education and spent her adolescence and early adult years working as a housekeeper and governess on farms in the Karoo region. Schreiner, who is known for her rejection of traditional Christian thinking and her strong feminism, ironically published in London under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. I was led to this first of Schreiner’s novels by a talk on South African women writers. It is a strange but somehow compelling book, addressing then controversial themes that resonated with its late-Victorian British readers.

Focusing on three young people living on a sheep farm in the Karoo region of South Africa, the storyline progresses in a somewhat fractured manner, interrupted by lengthy philosophical discourse, and moving forward in great leaps of time. Em is the cheerful, compliant stepdaughter of Tant (Aunt) Sannie, a twice widowed Boer-woman and owner of the farm. Her orphaned cousin, Lyndall, is her opposite – precocious, rebellious and independent. Waldo, son of the farm’s German overseer, has a probing intellectual curiosity, yet is introverted and socially reticent. Tant Sannie is raising Em and Lyndall, not from any true sense of devotion, but out of fear of being haunted by Em’s father. An obese woman, her primary interest in life is marriage. The overseer, Otto, is a kind and extremely religious man, generous to a fault and devoted to the three children. He changes the course of their lives when he welcomes a destitute traveler, Bonaparte Blenkins - a deceitful, greedy, cruel man who attempts to obtain the farm by winning Tant Sannie’s affections and repays Otto’s generosity by having him fired. Bonaparte’s true nature is eventually revealed and Tant Sannie happily marries a 19-year-old albino widower, leaving the farm to Em’s care.

The heart of the story emerges as Em, Lyndall and Waldo mature into adolescence, and become absorbed with finding the meaning of life. Lyndall leaves the farm for boarding-school, believing that “There is nothing helps in this world…but to be very wise and to know everything—to be clever.” Waldo adopts a rationalist perspective, embracing the natural world, while thirsting for knowledge and wrestling with strong religious doubts. Em follows her stepmother’s advice that “If a woman’s old enough to marry, and doesn’t, she’s sinning against the Lord…”, and accepts a marriage proposal from Gregory Rose, the new farm overseer. However, he proves to be a fickle suitor and falls in love with the disinterested Lyndall, who has had an affair and become pregnant. Although adamantly opposed to marriage as an institution that entraps women, Lyndall agrees to marry Gregory for his name. Before this can occur, she is visited by her lover and agrees to leave with him, on the condition that they remain unmarried and part when they no longer love. But Lyndall’s deepest affections will always be for Waldo.

I like you so much, I love you. She rested her cheek softly against his shoulder. When I am with you I never know that I am a woman and you are a man; I only know that we are both things that think. Other men when I am with them, whether I love them or not, they are mere bodies to me; but you are a spirit; I like you.

The novel’s plot is simple in comparison to its less straightforward structure and philosophical ramblings. Part I introduces the main characters and takes us through their childhood. Part II begins with a lengthy section devoted to Waldo’s spiritual struggles and memories, before returning to the closing of the storyline. Schreiner lacks any shred of subtlety in sharing the thoughts and feelings of her protagonists, which often seem far too sophisticated for their young ages. Her writing is full of philosophical statements and she makes extensive use of allegory, most notably the Hunter’s story as told to Waldo by a mysterious stranger, asserting ‘And no man liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself.’

The tone throughout this novel is one of heaviness and emotional suffering. I found it difficult to stay with the book through the lengthiest of Waldo’s musings on religion, but was drawn to the richness of the characters and the expressiveness of Schreiner’s language. The author’s anti-racism is notably absent from this early work, where the farm’s black workers are only infrequently referenced, and then while almost affectionately, with the commonly used offensive terms of the period. And despite Schreiner’s unmistakably feminist views, it is only Tant Sannie who emerges unscathed, fulfilled once more by marriage and pregnancy. Otto dies of a heart attack. Em settles for marrying Gregory Rose, who returns remorsefully to her after pursuing Lyndall, who has lost her child within hours of its birth, falls ill and dies while trying to return to the farm. Learning of Lyndall’s fate, Waldo suddenly succumbs to an unexplained, premature, but seemingly peaceful death.

For all of Waldo and Lyndall’s idealistic searching, the best summary of their lives seems found in a simple description of a dog playing with a black beetle.

The beetle was hard at work trying to roll home a great ball of dung that 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.
8 vote Linda92007 | Jan 4, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Olive Schreinerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bristow, JosephIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cronwright-Schreiner… S. C.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dinesen, IsakIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hogarth, PaulIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jacobson, DanIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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We must see the first images which the external world casts upon the dark mirror of his mind; or must hear the first words which awaken the sleeping powers of thought, and stand by his earliest efforts, if we would understand the prejudices, the habits, and the passions that will rule his life. The entire man is, so to speak, to be found in the cradle of the child. - Alexis de Tocqueville
To my friend MRS JOHN BROWN of Burnley This little firstling of my pen is lovingly inscribed
South Kensington, London
June, 1883
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The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain.
I have to thank cordially the public and my critics for the reception they have given this little book. (Preface)
From a remotely-placed farm near Cradock in the southern part of South Africa, which was the only kind of environment she had known, Olive Schreiner began writing The Story of an African Farm when she was barely twenty years old. (Afterword)
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Book description
In the 1860s, two cousins grow up on a sun-blenched Karoo farm under the slipshod guardianship of 'Tant' Sannie. Em is quiet and obedient, Lyndall is restless and idealistic. The arrival of the brutal Bonaparte, who inveigles his way into Tant' Sannie's affections, underlines an isolation relieved only by the comfort and understanding offered them by the German overseer and his son Waldo. Whilst Em acquiesces with the constraints of their social backwater, Lyndall rails against them, determined to break free from the fetters by which women are bound. Their chosen paths are different and the unfolding of their stories reveals not only an impassioned pleas for women's emancipation, but also a poignant and unforgettable story of the human soul.    

This book is in public domain in the USA and the e-book is available free online.  
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140431845, Paperback)

Two cousins grow up in the 1860s on a lonely farm in the thirsty mountain veld. Em is fat, sweet and contented, a born housewife; Lyndall, clever, restless, beautiful...and doomed. Their childhood is disrupted by a bombastic Irishman, Bonaparte Blenkins, who gains uncanny influence over the girls' gross, stupid stepmother...This novel is one of the most astonishing, least-expected fiction masterpieces of its time and one that has had an enduring influence.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:42 -0400)

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