Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The Story of an African Farm
The Story of an African Farm, by Olive Schreiner
The story concerns three children growing up together. Em and Lyndall are orphaned cousins. Lyndall is intelligent, beautiful, and troubled, while Em is plain and ordinary, but very kind. They are cared for by Em's stepmother, a thoughtless Boer woman. Then there is Waldo, the son of a German herder who works on the farm. Waldo and his father are by far the nicest people (other than Em) in the book, and I think the father was my favorite. Waldo is something of an odd genius, very mechanical and a deep thinker--although inarticulate about it. All of them go through quite a lot of hardships of very different kinds.
Lyndall is ambitious and determined, and gets herself to school, but she is oppressed by society's limits on women (and she has a lot to say about that). Waldo loses his faith in God and searches for truth, and Em gets the short end of the stick every time. It's really a very sad novel.
There's plenty to discuss here. Schreiner argues against Christianity and for women's freedom, and always talks about the beauty of the South African land. She has often been criticized for worrying more about women's rights than about apartheid, but apparently she was also for the abolition of the color bar too, though it's not an issue that is covered in this novel. Anyway she seems to have thought that black women deserved rights too. My Dover copy calls this "the first great South African novel," and I'm not qualified to make a judgement on that point, but it was published in 1883 and was probably one of the first serious novels to be published about South Africa at all.
I'm counting this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge as "a classic set in a country that you (realistically speaking) will not visit during your lifetime." Since Schreiner lived in colonial South Africa, in the part that is now Lesotho, I think this counts. I'd love to go to Africa someday, but my chances of landing in Lesotho are pretty slim. It's also part of the Mount TBR Challenge--I bought this book years ago (and thought it was a memoir, not a novel) and never got around to reading it before.