Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Story of an African Farm

I had never heard of Oliver Schreiner, let alone read any of her work before setting off to read The Story of an African Farm (363 pages) so I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to get out of it. As I sit here after finishing the last page I am not even sure what I did end up getting out of it.

To give some background to the work; this novel was wrote back in 1883; when women writers were anything but the norm (Schreiner originally published the novel under the male pseudonym Ralph Iron), the Slavery Abolition Act was still in its infancy (back in 1833), and the question of religion was very much debated and ‘up in the air’ so to speak in the minds of many English writers, philosophers, speakers, and everyday people. This puts African Farm in a very interesting place due to the fact that it; a) was penned by a woman, b) centered around slave-like labour (in South Africa) with racist undertones, and c) dives head-first into questions about belief. To make the novel even more interesting is that it doesn’t just hint at non-traditional ideas of the time but actively puts a male character in the forefront of controversy by having him not only experiment with women’s clothing but disguise himself as a woman (and not in a comedic, ‘acceptable’ Shakespearean way).

It is hard to have a strong reaction to a book like this when reading it in 2011 because the views expressed aren’t really the most controversial. However, it is easy to imagine the type of feelings it sparked in an audience of the late 1800s.

Sadly this book didn’t set me up to expect anything amazing; before getting into the narrative I had to submit myself to a 40 plus page introduction that drained any interest I had initially. Luckily, after starting the book, I found it to be quite interesting unlike the brain-sucking, interest-murdering introduction.

The book isn’t the most exciting, nor does it contain any thrilling action but it is a stimulating to read. Mostly, this is due to the growth of the two main characters; Lyndall, who tries to find her place in a male orientated world as a strong-willed woman, and Waldo, who tries to find his own place in the same world as he questions his understanding of religion and the world around him. The growth of these characters is quite compelling; for example, seeing Waldo go from a strict religious youth to an atheist adult and his inner struggle due to this change is very interesting to try and follow and appreciate. African Farm is mostly a commentary, by Schriener, on slavery, women’s rights, and religion. I cannot say I fully invested myself into this commentary due to the fact that every other footnote (and this is no understatement) direct me to a biblical passage and I’ve already mentioned, in a previous post, my dislike of going to the back of a book for references- so I definitely wasn’t busting out a bible to read this one!

There was a couple of passages however that did interest me a little bit more than the rest of this book.

The first, was a comment by Waldo after his mistreatment, for being of a lower-class, by the adults around him and then finding himself treated normally by a young girl, “If the world was all children I could like it; but men and women draw me so strangely, and then press me away, till I am in agony” (Schreiner 248). This sentence really summed up a huge element of the book for me; the fact that it is only in our most innocent, as young human beings newly in the world, that we are ‘good’. In a landscape filled by prejudice, rich against poor, Dutch against English, English against Dutch, and both the Dutch and English against the Native South Africans, this young girl is able to just enjoy the company of an ‘other’ by the fact that they are both human.

The second, is a comment made my Em (another character that grew up with Lyndall and Waldo) to Waldo regarding, what she views as, human nature, “Why is it always so, Waldo, always so?... we long for things, and long for them, and pray for them; we would give all we have to come near them, but we never reach them. Then at last, too late, just when we don’t want them any more, when all the sweetness is taken out of them, then, they come. We don’t want them then” (Schreiner 280). Before you bust out the sad violins for me this isn’t a view that I hold. However, the pessimistic view held in these two sentences make me feel sorry for those around that do believe they will never get what they want from life.

Also, on a happier note, I found a very funny little term in this book that I have never heard before. Apparently it was a somewhat racist expression when the book was written (it may even be now- but as an Englishman I don’t find it offensive so I’ll be repeating it here) but the description of it in the footnotes was what I found quite amusing. The word was uttered by Dutch man in this book about a English man; “Salt-reim”. I had never heard of this before but, luckily for me, the footnotes gave me this description, “Salt-reim is a variation on the derogatory term “soutpiel,” meaning an Englishman with one foot in South Africa and another in England so that his cock dangled in the salt waters of the Mediterranean” (Schreiner 252). Does anyone else get a inappropriate image of a giant in their head? No, just me I guess.

On a final note, I have technically finished the novel (at page 283) but as you can see in very first paragraph of this post the book finishes at page 363. You may be wondering what fills the rest of these nearly 100 pages; 5 Appendices containing a number of very tedious essays regarding historical, social, literary, and philosophical contexts, and reviews fill the final quarter of the book. Don’t worry I will be reading these eventually because I do believe they may add to my appreciation of African Farm (if it doesn’t kill it first that is) but I will wait to read them (as I have to read a few of them for a summer class in the coming weeks and I want to have them fresh in my head for some gripping discussions!). Who knows, they may give me some amazing insight I can share on here but, with the lack of enjoyment I held for the introduction, I very much doubt it.

The edition I read was ISBN: 1-55111-286-8

Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2003. Print.

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