NOT TO BE MISSED
"La Nuit africaine", a novel by Olive SCHREINER
Translated into French by Elisabeth Janvier. Original title: "The Story of an African Farm". 
Paris: Editions Phébus, 1989. (358p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
In 1875, at the age of twenty, Olive Schreiner found employment as a governess on a little South-African farm, four hours by cart from the nearest town and 200 miles from the nearest railway line. Accommodation was primitive, her mud-floored room sparsely furnished, and her dream to become a doctor still alive . Writing offered her an outlet for her lonely intellectual pursuits and love of books. Such are the humble origins of The Story of an African Farm, a novel that would be seen by many as one of the greatest of its time; a novel that explores the vicissitudes of the human condition and still resonates with twentyfirst century's preoccupation with human mortality and eternal life.
The short preface proposed by the author captures well the spirit of her piece: "It has been suggested by a kind critic that he would better have liked the little book if it had been a history of wild adventure: of cattle driven into inaccessible 'kranzes' by Bushmen; 'of encounters with ravening lions, and hair-breadth escapes'. This could not be. Such works are best written in Piccadilly or in the Strand: there the gifts of the creative imagination, untrammelled by contact with any fact, may spread their wings. But should one sit down to paint the scenes among which he has grown, he will find that the facts creep in upon him. Those brilliant phases and shapes which the imagination sees in far-off lands are not for him to portray. Sadly he must squeeze the colour from his brush, and dip it into the grey pigments around him. He must paint what lies before him" (p.8)
Dispensing with the artifices that stimulate the senses and fool the mind, the picture emerging under Schreiner's pen proposes, indeed, a fascinating and powerful portrayal of people blending with their surroundings and trying to make sense of their existence. Central to the main characters' concern are their feeling of abandonment, solitude and inability to establish a meaningful relationship with others. For Lyndall, a young women determined to escape the imposition of her gender from an early age, her dream is to go to school as "there is nothing that helps in this world [...] but to be very wise, and to know everything to be clever" (p.37). Independent and strong-willed, she soon reaches her goal, but in the meantime, she also learns that knowledge is no key to happiness in a world dominated by nonsense, religion's straightjacket, flighty behaviour and social mores inimical to women.
She is loved by all and courted by many. But her ascendency over others is of little value to her as she is unable to reciprocate the love others are showing her. Lyndall's reluctance to tie the knot with any of the men desperately in love with her is but one of the irreconcilable facts of life that mars her existence. To the Boer farmers around her, matrimony belongs to the realm of women's duty demanded by God. As Old Tant' Sanny who has already been married three times tells: "If the beloved Redeemer didn't mean men to have wives, what did He make women for?" (p.373). That of course, runs contrary to Lyndall's strong belief in women's right to freedom and independence. To her, a woman is not a mere appendage of man, an eternal second condemned to procreate and to hold the fort during her spouse's absence. As Olive Schreiner said in a book-length essay titled Woman and Labour (1911), "In love, there is no first nor last. What we request of life is that the tools should be given to his hand or hers who can best handle them; that the least efficient should not be forced into the place of the more efficient, and that an artificially drawn line should never repress the activities of the individual creature, which we, as women bring into the world" . But society was not prepared to challenge God's sacrosanct commandments and to change his rules, thus Lyndall's sorrow: "It is not what is done to us, but what is made of us that wrongs us" (p.229), she says.
What is made of a woman in a conventional marriage, she especially dislikes, thus her refusal to marry young men ensnared by the image of femme fatale she carries with her like a curse. Male companionship and children, she'd love to have, but not at the expense of her independence and freedom of thought. "One day, I will love [...] utterly" (p.303), she tells the image of herself she sees in the mirror, but she is not fooling herself for very long, and the eyes that look back at her are telling her otherwise : "We are all alone, you and I [... but] we shall always be together, as we were when we were little. [...] we are not afraid; we will help ourselves [...] We will never be quite alone till they part us" (p.303).
Her childhood friend Waldo could have become this liberated alter ego, free of gender pride and socio-religious hang-ups. But from a very early age Waldo had been preoccupied by the relationship between man and a silent God; his life-long attempt to give a rational answer to the mystery of life had pushed aside his need for social intercourse and left him bereft of worldly aspirations. His father's religious convictions and the Bible had been of little help in the face of increasingly difficult questions, and logic soon lead him to doubt and eventually to refute the existence of God. But far from reassuring him, this unnerving discovery left him distraught. What does it mean, he thought, to be alive when everything from the thought of the heart to the length of a drought depends on something "that moves immutable, at the heart of all things" rather than on "the changeable will of a changeable being, whom our prayers can alter" (p.177)? "And so, for [him], the human-like driver and guide being gone, all existence, as we look out at it with our chilled, wondering eyes, became an aimless rise and swell of shifting waters. In all that weltering chaos [he] could see no spot so large as a man's hand on which [he] may plant [his] foot" (p.177).
However, as the long shadow of God recedes and ultimately disappears from the sky, Waldo begins to look at the world in a different way, to observe nature at close range, to discover life in its many forms and eventually realises that order welters from apparent chaos. The gander who just drowned in the farm's dam is no longer a mere carcass but becomes a fascinating testimony to life order: "below are the intestines artistically curved in a spiral form, and each tier covered by a delicate network of blood-vessels standing out red against the faint blue background. Each branch of the blood-vessels is comprised of a trunk, bifurcating and rebifurcating into the most delicate, hair-like threads, symmetrically arranged [...] And, moreover [...] this also we remark: of the same exact shape and outline is our thorn-tree seen against the sky in mid-winter: of that shape also is delicate tracery between our rocks; in that exact path does our water flow when without a furrow we lead it from the dam; so shaped are the antlers of the horned beetle. How are these things related that such union should exist between them all? Is it chance? Or, are they not all the fine branches of one trunk, whose sap flows through us all" (p.182).
To the twentyfirst century reader attuned to DNA molecules common to all living organisms, and to the fractal images popularised by Benoit Mandelbrot and others, it is fascinating to hear the voice of a nineteenth century African woman author evoking the same ideas, ahead of her time, and expounding, although intuitively, on the very features that unite us all and make sense of an otherwise chaotic and meaningless universe. She gives substance to Waldo's revelation that life, knowledge and the pursuit of wisdom have neither beginning nor end. "It is the organism that vanishes, the atoms are there. It is but the man that dies, the Universal Whole of which he is part reworks him into its inmost self [...] That abides we abide" (p.369).
The Story of an African Farm proposes a fascinating exploration of the human condition, but it is also an interesting account of life in the veldt, punctuated by droughts and floods, births and deaths, hope and despair. It tells of the importance of books in Waldo's pursuit of knowledge, of his excitement at discovering a box full of them in the attic. "He had had a dozen books in the course of his life; now here was a mine of them opened at his feet [...] Twas a chapter on property that he fell upon Communism, Fourierism, St Simonism in a work on Political Economy" (p.124). Some time later when a perfect stranger passing by gives him another volume by yet another famous scholar, he finds "a centre round which to hang [his] ideas instead of letting them lie about in a confusion that makes the head ache" (p.208). But to Tant' Sanny, anything printed but the Bible is evil and to her, Waldo's quest is threatening the very existence of the farm: "Didn't the minister tell me when I was confirmed not to read any book except my Bible and hymn-book, that the Devil was in all the rest?" (p.131), she says. Thus her committing the precious treatise to the flames, like many people, before and after her, convinced of doing the right thing to cleanse their conscience and their ignorance in the name of God.
The novel tells about books and ideas in the context of a fiction, but it also draws on "real" people whom Olive Schreiner met in the course of her childhood and teenage's years. An interesting introduction by her husband S. C. Cronwright-Schreiner, included in an early edition of the novel, details the people behind the characters. "Lyndall and Waldo are in large part two sides of Olive herself" (E p.18), it says; Otto, the old German overseer is "a true and beautiful delineation" of her father, while the stranger who gave a book to Waldo was inspired by the unexpected visitor who lent Olive his copy of Herbert Spencers' First Principles when she was sixteen. Other secondary characters are also "founded on an original" (p.19) even though they have been somewhat remodelled to fit the needs of the narration.
Like many women of her time, "Olive Schreiner never had schooling worth anything to her: all that she knew was from intercourse with her cultured mother and from her own insatiable thirst for knowledge and reading, worked upon by her precocious and penetrating intellect" (p.18). She never made it to Medical School and did not fulfil her childhood dream of becoming a Doctor, yet she achieved much, not only with the success of her penetrating Story of an African Farm, but also as an indefatigable pacifist in the face of the Boer war and campaigner for women's rights in London, where she spent many years, and around the world where her books were translated into many languages, before sinking into oblivion like so many women voices of the past. A must read.
1. The "London School of Medicine for Women" was established in 1874.
2. Olive Schreiner. "Women and Labour" . JMP Ediciones, 2010, p.106. Only a shortened version of this treatise remains as the full length manuscript was burned with other papers by looters during the Anglo-Boer war.
This review is based on the French translation of the novel but page numbers relate to the English original republished by T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1927.
Editor ([email protected])
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities