First, I want to state clearly that I really did like this book. It was one of my classic "can't put it down till it's finished" novels. It held my interest and
I cared about what happened to the characters. The 233 pages of the Dover edition went by mighty fast.
Having said that, there are lots of negatives, too. Olive Schreiner was a white South African, born of an English mother and German missionary father. She lived through the Boer Wars and the horrors that South Africa experienced with its colonization by white people.
This book was first published in 1883, and it reflects Olive's pain and suffering. She and her husband became political activists, and Olive is remembered today as a suffragist and one who fought for racial equality. She is, however, considered a failure as a novelist. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, I would by no means say it is a fine work. I think if she had had an excellent editor (and a good thesaurus!!) the book would have been greatly improved because she obviously was capable of deep thought and I am in agreement with many of her philosophies. However, certain aspects of her style absolutely drove me up a wall in the course of my reading. One was her use of the word "little." I would love to do a computer analysis to see just how many times that word was used. Every time she speaks of Lyndall, it is "little face," "little hands," "little feet" ad nauseum. She also applies it to Em, even after stating that she had become "ridiculously fat." Bad English aside, it seem to me that if her goal was to promote equality between men and women, she defeated her purpose by constantly using weak words to describe the female characters. Another annoying grammatical habit she had was to repeat the same word three times.
There were other stylistic elements that grated on my nerves after a while. There was way too much weeping and crying out to God, and her constant anthropomorphism became ineffective from over use.
The main story centers around three children: Em is the daughter who will inherit the farm when she comes of age. She is now being ruled by her rather vulgar and cruel step-mother Tant' Sannie, because her father has died. Her cousin Lyndall, an orphan, lives with them. Waldo is the son of the German who works the farm. The family is fairly well-off.
The story begins as we get acquainted with the main characters. Em is rather emotionally weak, and goes along with whatever she is told. Lyndall is a rebel and swears she will leave someday and have her freedom. Waldo's dad, Otto, is an extremely devout Christian, filled with love for everyone, but he is gullible and people use him as a fool. Waldo loves being with the land, but his soul is tortured to know God. He weeps and cries out and mutters to himself. People think he is a little strange, but he is deep and solitary. He has a dog named Doss. The three children are very close.
Soon the farm is invaded by a liar and a thief named Bonaparte Blenkins. Tant' Sannie sends him off, but Otto takes him in and believes every word of nonsense he says. But then he plays up to Tant' Sannie who is extremely fat. He, of course is after the farm, and eventually smooth talks her, then brainwashes her. He double-crosses Otto, and Tant' Sannie throws him out after years of service. He dies the night before he is to leave. Then he beats up Waldo. It happens that Tant' Sannie's niece, Trana, comes to visit, and she is also fat and dull, but rich, and in this society, the main reason people marry is for money and property. Tant' Sannie brags about her upcoming marriage. Bonaparte start to flirt with Trana, and she is repulsed. He claims to be in his forties, but is probably more like sixties. One day while Tant' Sannie is above in the loft, Bonaparte thinks he has Trana alone and takes the advantage, not knowing that the trap door is open to the loft and Tant' Sannie sees it all. She dumps a barrel of pickle juice on him, and good riddance to the trouble-maker.
Em stays home, but Lyndall convinces Tant' Sannie to send her to school. Meanwhile, Gregory arrives and falls in love with Em. They become engaged. Waldo makes plans to leave. Lyndall comes home, and treats Gregory with indifference, but he falls in love with her. Em breaks off the engagement. And so the story continues and is very sad and tragic.
But it is not the story line that is important, it is the philosophy, especially the discussions between Lyndall and Waldo. I guess another aspect that perhaps makes this novel less effective than Schreiner had hoped is that the points she was trying to make don't necessarily go along with the storyline, or at least it seems contrived. Critics saw Schreiner's works as a venting of her own frustrations. The note in the Dover edition says:
The Story of an African Farm has been reduced by some critics to the expression of Schreiner's specific emotional pain and conflicts, rooted in her personal history of familial and sexual relationships. Indeed, it seems that aspects of the young Olive's physical and emotional experience are represented in the personalities and fates of Waldo, Lyndall, and even Em."
Actually, philosophically, there is quite a bit here that struck a chord of agreement with my own beliefs, so to end this review, I will leave you with a few quotes from Lyndall:
"They say, 'God sends the little babies.' Of all the dastardly revolting lies men tell to suit themselves, I hate that most. I suppose my father said so when he knew he was dying of consumption, and my mother when she knew she had nothing to support me on, and they created me to feed like a dog from stranger hands."
"It must be very nice to believe in the Devil," she said; "I wish I did. If it would be any use I would pray three hours night and morning on my bare knees, 'God let me believe in Satan.' He is so useful to those people who do. They may be as selfish and as sensual as they please, and, between God's will and the Devil's actions, always have someone to throw their sin on. But we, wretched unbelievers, we bears our own burdens; we must say, “I myself did it, I. Not God, nor Satan; I myself!' That is the sting that strikes deep."
"If, when I had got your letter a month ago, hinting at your willingness to marry me, I had written, imploring you to come, you would have read the letter. 'Poor little devil!' you would have said, and tore it up. The next week you would have sailed for Europe, and have sent me a check for a hundred and fifty pounds (which I would have thrown in the fire), and I would have heard no more of you." The stranger smiled. "But because I declined your proposal, and wrote that in three weeks I should be married to another, then what you call love woke up. Your man's love is a child's love for butterflies. You follow until you have the thing, and break it If you have broken one wing, and the thing flies still, then you love it more than ever, and follow until you break both; then you are satisfied when it lies still on the ground."
In spite of all my criticisms, I still do recommend reading this interesting and thought-provoking book.
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