Olive Schreiner published The Story of an African Farm in 1883 in two volumes, under the masculine pseudonym Ralph Iron. It is considered to be one of the earliest and best “new women” narratives written.

Schreiner was born and raised in South Africa to two stern parents: her father, Gottlob Schreiner was of German origin and moved to the Cape as a Methodist missionary. Her mother, Rebecca was English and from a respectable working class family. Although raised under the stern religion of her parents, Olive became a secular free-thinker, which eventually caused her to become estranged from her family. Her childhood was unstable due to financial issues, causing the family to move following bankruptcy in 1869. In 1872, she suffered a broken engagement (as well as a possible seduction) at the same time as she was diagnosed with a weakness of the chest that would continue to trouble her throughout the rest of her life. She wanted to become a nurse, but was not physically able to keep up with the vocation, so she instead worked as a governess, painstakingly saving money for her passage to England. After writing and publishing The Story of an African Farm in 1883, she enjoyed success as a writer and lived in England, where she met and mingled with many literary celebrities.  During the rest of her life she moved a few times back and forth between South Africa and England. She married a politician and ostrich farmer in 1894, but this marriage eventually became troubled. She died alone in South Africa in 1920. 1


Portrait of Olive Schreiner

Plot Summary

The novel takes place on a farm in South Africa and is divided into three sections: the first takes place during the childhood of three major characters: Lyndall, Waldo, and Em; the second part is not chronologically specific, but instead chronicles Waldo’s changing religious and philosophical beliefs; the final section of the novel occurs during the three main characters’ adulthoods.

“An English settler marries Tant’ Sannie, a Boer woman, just before he dies in order to provide for his motherless daughter, Em (who will inherit the farm), and Em’s orphan cousin Lyndall. Tyndall is brought up in narrow Calvinist strictness. For company she has only Em and Waldo, the mystical and spiritually tormented son of the German farm-overseer, old Otto. When Lyndall is twelve, an Irish adventurer, Bonaparte Blenkins, comes to the farm and ingratiates himself with the trusting Waldo. But treacherously, he conspires with Tant’ Sannie to have Otto dismissed and himself installed as foreman. Otto dies, and for a short period Blenkins tyrannies Waldo who is discovered in possession of a volume of the heretic John Stuart Mill. But Blenkins overreaches himself and is discovered by a furious Tant’ Sannie making love to a rival. His jaunty departure (assisted by his long-suffering victim Waldo) marks the end of the novel’s first section. Tyndall meanwhile grows up and goes away to school; Em grows fat and stolid on the farm; Waldo has a strange encounter with a ‘Stranger’ who communicates the meaning of life in the form of an allegory. An Englishman, Gregory Rose, arrives at the farm and proposes to Em. She breaks the engagement when a transformed Lyndall returns after four years’ absence. Lyndall talks at length about the condition of woman and sec in this section of the narrative. And she passively allows Gregory to offer her marriage. But, as he later discovers, this is probably a tactic to bring pressure on the man she really loves and to whom she returns. Tyndall leaves and Gregory pursues her and her lover all over the Free State. Eventually she is discovered deserted in a small country hotel. She has had a child who died immediately after birth and is herself clearly dying. Disguised as a female nurse, Rose tends Lyndall, achieving for the first time a spiritual intimacy, and when she dies he brings her body back to the farm. In a conclusion which is usually read as overpoweringly pessimistic, Em and Gregory finally plan marriage; Tant’ Sannie marries, grows enormously fat and has a child. The dreamer Waldo, who has also been wandering, returns to the farm where he devotes himself to the memory of Lyndall and eventually himself probably dies (as elsewhere, the text is enigmatic on this point).” 2

Notes & Quotes

  • Throughout the novel, marriage and other partnerships are constantly portrayed as ridiculous and odd. For example, Tant’ Sannie marries her 19 year-old albino nephew, Em eventually marries Gregory despite her past rejection, and Lyndall and Waldo recognize their own incongruity despite their shared refusal to adhere to any set rules or institutions (such as Christianity).
  • According to the introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition by Joseph Bristow, many members of the growing feminist and Marxist movements in England championed Schriener’s novel (vii-viii). For Bristow, this makes sense because of the stark and brutal reality that is portrayed in the novel, as well as because of the various polemical moments, including Lyndall’s speech claiming the rights of independent womanhood in Part II. I am very interested in Schriener’s competing representations of the real and the fictional. Each character in the novel finds support in literature of some sort: Tant’ Sannie loves the Bible and views all other texts as the work of the devil, Otto Farber loves romances, Em loves “nice stories,” Waldo desires to read John Stuart Mill’s Political Economies in his childhood and, as an adult, is offered “shilling shockers” like the “Black-eyed Creole”, and Lyndall deeply admires the historical tale of Napoleon Bonaparte, despite her awareness that all true stories end sadly (x). When Bonaparte Blenkins arrives on the farm, Lyndall is the only one who questions the veracity of the yarns he spins. Bristow notes, “Distrusting the enchantments of romance, Lyndall is the only one who understands how fiction can manipulate illusions to make the world seem a much more comfortable place” (ibid.). This novel then speaks to socialist and feminist readers because it refuses to be predictable or to present the world as one in which the morally good characters are rewarded. Instead, Schriener provides her readers with a story in which the good lose, while the bad win. Tant’ Sannie, who openly marries for money, ends the novel happily with a family and successful farm. Lyndall, the ardent and impassioned feminist dies young after loosing her recently born infant; Waldo also appears to die young and never to make anything of himself; Em lives a lonely life until she sadly accepts to enter a loveless marriage to Gregory. In this world, the moral not only are not rewarded, but those who worship at the alter of money as opposed to love, truth, or sentimentality, are capable of living a truly happy life.
  • This novel is also worth exploring for its moments of cross-dressing and (maybe) transvestitism. In the chapter “Gregory’s Womanhood,” Gregory not only disguises himself as a nurse in order to be with and serve Lyndall before she dies, but Gregory also performs the (feminine) roles of nursing and care-giving. Because of his love for Lyndall, he is able to abandon his more masculine notions of mastery and offers to be completely subservient to Lyndall even before her illness. When Lyndall first sees Gregory, she notes to Waldo that Gregory would’ve fared better and happily as a woman than she, who would far better have been born a man so that she could’ve labored for her sustenance rather than “seem” as women must in order to secure a marriage and comfortable life.
  1. Most of this information comes from John Sutherland’s The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. 
  2. John Sutherland, The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction, 607

The Story of an African Farm (1883) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.