Monday, December 9, 2019

The Story Of An African Farm by Olive Schreiner

Reading takes you there, sometimes even to places where you, the reader, may not want to go. Someone else, someone we have never met, did this, thought that, recorded it and related it. The reader, never unsuspecting, willingly takes the author's hand to be led partially blind along others' pathways, into foreign lands, or distant times in unfamiliar landscapes. If the experience proves rich, a reader has seen life, culture and time through another's eyes and is richer for it.

And sometimes the experience is utterly surprising, especially when the landscape and culture in question is one whose recent press, and therefore the reader's assumptions, are not wholly positive. It is then that the readers own assumptions may be questioned, even by apparently uncontroversial subjects. And it in this respect that the reading of The Story Of An African Farm by Olive Schreiner is thoroughly recommended.

It's a novel published in 1883, focusing on the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, from naïve encounter with nature to married expectancy of two orphaned girls, Em and Lyndall, growing up in a mixed, though predominantly Boer, determinedly white household. Now white South African culture of the nineteenth century has rarely commanded a sympathetic English language press. The twentieth century's policy of separate development, Apartheid, they called it, can be traced to the assumptions and notions of separateness that we learn to take for granted in the pages of Olive Schreiner's novel.

There is no attempt to explain or justify such ideas in the book. It is no bigot's apology for failing. What it does do, however, is portray life for this family, and especially the two young girls within it. We grow with them through childhood to the goal of becoming women in a small farm in the dry karoo scrublands of South Africa. Daily life, with its wholly obligatory chores, is almost dispassionately described. These people were farmers, but in fact peasants in modern parlance, since they approached the activity not as a business, but as a means of achieving sustenance. They observed that cattle did not breed with ostriches and that different species inhabited their own cycles and niches of life. It's what God decreed and, though there was always space for doubt and question, these were activities that could not publicly be expressed or acknowledged, since the bedrock of community might be undermined.

There was a perceived and assumed order to things, an order that had to be obeyed, the price for non-observance being non-survival. Outsiders, like guests at any formalised gathering where regular participants implicitly know the rules, were always seen as potential threats. And, when your nearest neighbour might be many miles away, separateness was part of the assumed and inhabited landscape. And so we see the concept applied even to the different people with whom these white farmers had to cultivate daily contact, contact without which none of them would have survived.

What happens to the two girls, Em and Lyndall, in their African farm is the very substance of the book, content that only should be revealed via the reading of the tale. Suffice it to say that this novel about lives lived within a system of apparently rigid rules eventually relates events that have all the characters questioning the very basis of the assumptions they live by. Life was hard, and often cruel. But that was the life they lived and, given their location in place and time, it was perhaps the only life that was possible. The Story Of An African Farm by Olive Schreiner is a book that certainly takes the reader into its own world. It presents a life and landscape that is both unfamiliar and little understood. By the end, we may be no more in sympathy with its reality, but we certainly do know more about it.

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