Posted by: zhiv | February 24, 2008

Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf

I’m in the middle of trying to understand and write about a vague connection between Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf.  Now that I’ve explained “Africa?” in previous posts, I could steadily work my way up to this, but it’s pretty much the main thing that I’ve been looking at over the past ten days or so, so I thought I’d put it up here.  Why not?  In trying to trace the connection, I don’t write about how I got to it in the first place, and this seems like a good spot to do that.

I think I mentioned in one of the earlier posts about how the GD took AP English last year, and there was a tricky decision about the topic for her research project.  It ended up being To the Lighthouse.  This was both great and weird for me, because (as I also mentioned elsewhere) my never-written dissertation was going to be about Leslie Stephen, Woolf’s father and the model for Mr. Ramsay.   I wrote a little essay called “Mr. Ramsay was Young Once,” borrowing the title from an essay by one of the deans of Stephen studies, John Bicknell (the other dean was Noel Annan), which talked about how I became interested in Stephen and who he was, ending on the fact that I couldn’t wait to read what the GD came up with on TtL.  And her paper was great, really interesting and really good.  So that all worked out.

And then Africa? hit.  One of the things I like to do is gather books, going around to the local bookstores and then the library to get a sense of the playing field.  That was what was so great about this “discovery” about South African literature:  so much of it was new and interesting.  But that’s the lead up, the long version.  The short version is that I became aware of the importance of African Farm as a seminal text in SA lit, and I was intrigued by it.  If you’re going to study South African lit, Schreiner is the place to start.  Or you can go through all kinds of different books and authors, but it starts with her.  Something like that.

The GD, who had read Disgrace a couple of years back, was starting with Coetzee I think.  The first SAlit book I read was Dry White Season, which was quick and interesting.  I knew the GD was going to stay more contemporary, so I decided to try African Farm, to see if it worked, if it was readable and interesting.

I’ll stop for just a moment and give a little more background.  I started out as a reader with Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  When I began studying in earnest everything blended together and I loved it all, and I had no real preference between Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Boswell and Johnson, the Brontes, Woolf, Thackeray and Trollope, Richardson, you name it.  I worked on George Eliot as a willful undergrad, then started grad school and traded my valuable GE stock for undervalued Thackeray shares.  And then as I tired of reading novels I discovered that Thackeray’s daughter had married Virginia Woolf’s father, who had been an important mountain climber, and I was set.  So I’ve always had an affinity for women writers and novelists, but I never really took a class that got outside of the old canon.  And then the GD went to a girls school, and I was interested in the way that women are educated and women’s studies.  I found myself looking at a lot of books and writers that I hadn’t read, like Edith Wharton and Willa Cather–and I had done mostly BritLit, not American.  Last year when the GD and I went on a New England college tour I read Country of the Pointed Firs.

So I had a sense, as I started gazing about, that African Farm and Schreiner were in this ballpark somehow.  I’d had a great, fairly recent experience with Cather, Wharton, and Jewett, and I was eager to see what this feminist, colonial text from 1883 was all about.

In my last post, about Coetzee, I talked about the excitement of literary discovery, of reading the manuscript of 1000 Acres with no preconceived notions or the faintest idea of what it might be about.  Finding out that there’s a brand new book by Coetzee is a mild version of this pleasure; the Smiley situation was genuine excitement (wow–this is a pretty neat book), and I’ll add the “oh really? interesting…” of discovering the Thackeray-Stephen-Woolf connection to the mix, since I already brought it up.  Reading and literature are wonderful enough in the day-to-day version of storytelling and character, but there are also these heightened moments, moments of recognition or discovery. 

Okay, so that covers all of it I think, and I’m reading African Farm.  Two kids are growing up in the middle of nowhere, the “Karoo,” which is kind of like the prairie (Cather) I guess, and there are some tyrannical and allegorical/representative adult characters, and we see how the world of childhood contains vulnerable innocence and dreams.  I’m not doing a good job of summarizing, but it’s about childhood and how it evolves through small moments of crisis.  The novel gets somewhat philosophical towards the end of this first part.  There’s a headstrong female, Lindall, who has the makings of a genuine feminist heroine, and the other main character is Waldo (from Emerson and transcendentalism, with a slight German twist from Schreiner’s German father Gottlob), a seeker.  At the conclusion of the first part Waldo encounters “the Stranger,” who tells him an allegorical tale that gives him some spiritual solace.  In the midst of her wildly precocious and lonely adolescence Schreiner met just such a character, Willie Bartram, who introduced her to Herbert Spencer and helped her with her own crisis.  Within days of finishing the manuscript of African Farm years later, Schreiner found out that Barton had just committed suicide.

And then comes a chapter called “Time and Seasons.”  It might just as well be called “Time Passes,” because that’s what happens.  The novel very clearly is “two blocks joined by a corridor,” to use Woolf’s phrase for To the Lighthouse.  When we come out of this chapter Lindall and Waldo are young adults, trying to figure out how to live.  Lindall fails to pull it off.  African Farm ends in the same manner as Mill on the Floss or The Voyage Out, with no adult role for its strong, self-aware heroine who wants and deserves something more than a suitable marriage. 

I don’t really remember The Voyage Out–Rachel Vinrace?  in the Amazon somewhere?–but a reference somewhere reminds me in a vague way of this ending, death rather than marriage or romantic satisfaction, which must be commonplace for early feminist novels.  But I’d have to review all this stuff, since I don’t know what I’m talking about.  The question is, what are the endings for heroines who don’t find love and get married, especially in novels written by women?  All of this must be fairly obvious, but like I say I just don’t know much about it.

African Farm was a great read.  I was impressed with the book and can’t recommend it too highly, especially as a companion text to the aforementioned Jewett, Cather, etc., or as a crucial background and introduction to Gordimer and Coetzee.  Schreiner is all over a great deal of their work and the rest of SA lit, and they both have genius things to say about her in essays.  As always, I know nothing, I don’t know anything about feminist lit or South African lit, and I’m just reading this stuff and enjoying it.  And I read AF before the Sedgwick book, A New England Tale, that I wrote about a month ago, and I think AF whetted my appetite and somehow made that a more enjoyable read. 

But one thing I do know is that the structure of African Farm is exactly the same as that of To the Lighthouse.  And I don’t think that this is an especially common way to have written a novel, between 1883 and 1927, or just before or just after.  I don’t know that I would have noticed any similarity, when I read African Farm in November, if To the Lighthouse hadn’t been in the back of my thoughts from the spring, as well as a generally crucial text for me for many years.   I badly need to read it again.  And now that I’ve been looking at this for a few days, and trying to connect some of the dots between Schreiner and Woolf, I know a lot more.  But there are professionals who do this sort of thing, and know all these books and spend lots of time comparing them and considering them.  I’m happy to go along for awhile like this, and it may be that there’s an essay all about Woolf and Schreiner, or Schreiner’s specific influence is spelled out in a book about a bunch of different writers.  I haven’t seen anything like that yet, and I don’t even really know how to look for it.  But right now it feels like a little bit of recognition, and I’m having fun with it.     



  1. […] but I’ve just gone back to read my earlier post, and I might as well link to it:  Can’t say that I’m very happy with that post, which does more than its share of […]

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