My target for this year’s reading was to finish 100 books – and earlier this week I finished my hundredth book, so anything further will simply be a bonus! Some of those books were rather short, some rather longer, and it all more or less balances out. Only one has been by someone called Olive… actually, if I were reading the original edition, it would be by Ralph Iron.
Not much point in my being cryptic, since the title of the novel is also the title of this post – The Story of an African Farm. Published in 1883, Olive Schreiner had herself travelled from an African Farm in South Africa, though how much of the book is true I shouldn’t like to guess. The Story of an African Farm is also the first book I finished for my first Masters module (which shows that I should really get a move on).
Though not a long novel, it rather sprawls throughout quite a few years and quite a few characters on the farm – the boy Waldo is the first we meet properly, and he is pondering the nature of God and existence. Gosh. This is a substantial theme throughout the novel – especially at the beginning of Part Two, which treats the exploration of divinity as though it were a path we all take identically. The theme is dealt with in a sophisticated manner emotionally and even intellectually, though perhaps the years of similar novelistic musings have soured the readership – much more satisfying than DH Lawrence, however. With a similar tightrope walk between approachable thought and didacticism, Schreiner’s character Lyndall is concerned with the plight of women. It is one of the most emotive, but least melodramatic, expositions I have read:
‘I once heard a man say, that he never saw intellect help a woman so much as a pretty ankle; and it was the truth. They begin to shape us to our cursed end… when we are tiny things in shoes and socks. We sit with our little feet drawn up under us in the window, and look out at the boys in their happy play. We want to go. Then a loving hand is laid on us: “Little one, you cannot go,” they say; “your little face will burn, and your nice white dress be spoiled.” We feel it must be for our good, it is so lovingly said; but we cannot understand; and we kneel still with one little cheek wistfully pressed against the pane. Afterwards we go and thread blue beads, and make a string for our neck; and we go and stand before the glass. We see the complexion we were not to spoil, and the white frock, and we look into our own great eyes. Then the curse begins to act on us. It finishes its work when we are grown women, who no more look out wistfully at a more healthy life; we are contented.’
Lest this sound too earnest, I shall hasten to add that The Story of an African Farm is often wryly amusing, with the comedy of characters – the large aunt who has a string of suitors come to propose marriage, and the weedy, bullied man who succeeds. The self-satisfied Englishman who is finally vanquished. Gentle misunderstandings and competing personalities amongst those on the farm. Both well written and thought-provoking, The Story of an African Farm isn’t your average Victorian three-volume novel, but it is authentic and purposeful, and I look forward to studying it more closely in the future.