Posted by: zhiv | December 1, 2008

“A Diamond Marred by a Flaw”: Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf

I wrote this back at the end of February and never finished it.  It’s a holdover from my essays, which predated and crossed over into blogging.  Lately I’ve been getting a daily hit or two on my “Olive Schreiner and Virginia Woolf” post, perhaps because of a link to the biography of Olive Schreiner, except… well, I don’t know why.  So I might as well put this up on the blog now and see what happens.   I wanted to write more about Leslie Stephen meeting with OS in Switzerland at the time of his first breakdown, but it will take a bit to recover the missing pieces.  And there are some ?dates in here as well, and it lacks a conclusion–and I’d like to read over Woolf’s review essay on Schreiner again, which concludes with the line in the title.  But here it is.


1.  “One afternoon on the square”


“… the odd hurried unexpected way in which these things suddenly create themselves—one thing on top of another in about an hour… so I made up To the Lighthouse in one afternoon on the square there”   VW D 14Mar 1927 III p 131-2


At the end of 1924 and in early 1925 Virginia Woolf was finishing Mrs. Dalloway and simultaneously putting together the essays that would make up The Common Reader.  As she typed out MD and made her final revisions, she was already beginning to think about her next work of fiction.  On October 17, 1924 she wrote in her diary “I already see The Old Man,” beginning to form a fictional character based on her father.


Woolf’s reading notes from this period are contained in one of her notebooks in the Berg Library, XLVII.  The notes pertain to Woolf’s reading August 1924 to April 1925, most of them for a series of review articles published in the Nation and Athenaeum between 27 September 1924 and 25 April 1925.  The articles were “Restoration Comedy,” “Richard Hakluyt” and “Smoke Rings and Roundelays.”  On 18 March 1925, Woolf published a review in The New Republic titled “Olive Schreiner.”  A month later, on 23 April, The Common Reader was published, and three weeks after that, on 14 May, Mrs. Dalloway appeared. 


We have to assume that, just as she finished these two books, Virginia Woolf read Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.  She was reviewing Schreiner’s “Letters 1876-1920,” edited by her husband S.C. Cronwright-Schreiner.  On her single page entry, she wrote two lines of general notes on African Farm:  “probably has the quality of an autobiography—vivid—the odd exaggerated humour.”


I.  Backgrounds


1.  Olive Schreiner, Colonial South Africa, and The Story of an African Farm


Olive Schreiner was born in Wittenbergen Station, South Africa on 24 March 1855.  Her father Gottlob was born in Germany and became a committed missionary, a product of the Evangelical movement of the early 19th century.  He received his training in England, where he met Rebecca Lyndall and married her in 1837.  They went to South Africa in 1857, and lived a difficult, impoverished, and isolated life.  Olive was Rebecca’s 9th child, the sixth to survive, and her full name Olive Emilie Albertina honored three male infants who had died. Gottlob Schreiner’s struggles to support his family and survive became progressively worse, as he was transferred and eventually became bankrupt when Olive was 12 years old.  She was sent to live with her older brother and sister.


Growing up in a deeply religious household, Schreiner was deeply affected by the death of her baby sister Ettie.  She became skeptical about religion at an early age, and she became restless and energetic, reading widely and educating herself.  The post-Darwinian socialist philosophical work of Herbert Spencer gave her some spiritual consolation as a precocious teenager.  She dreamed of independence and self-sufficiency, and began to write fiction when she lived with her brother and his wife at the newly discovered diamond fields in the tent city of New Rush, soon after renamed Kimberly.


From the time she was 19 until she was 26, Schreiner worked as a governess and labored over the manuscripts of three different novels.  At times she had a strong, defiant presence, and she was a freethinker and a progressive, with a decided influence on her small social world.  But she also developed asthma and other psychosomatic illnesses and complaints, partially as a result of guilt and confusion about relationships, love affairs, and her sexual nature.  Her dream for some time was to save enough money to move to England, and she arrived in London in 1881.


Olive’s brother Fred was securely established in England, and he was able to provide security and support for her.  She considered different ways to earn a living, including nursing and medical training, but her health always failed her.  Eventually, about a year after her arrival, she began to submit her second manuscript, The Story of an African Farm, to publishers.  After a few rejections, it was read at Chapman and Hall by the novelist George Meredith.  The novel was published in 1883.  It was immediately recognized as an original, extraordinary work, presenting a new voice, a new view of women, and a new way of writing about and considering a far-flung landscape.  As a celebrated progressive young author, Schreiner was introduced to literary, freethinking, and socialist circles in London.



II..  Virginia Woolf and Olive Schreiner


The first section of The Story of an African Farm uses the perspective of a pair of children to describe life in the wide open, isolated Karoo of South Africa during an earlier time, one which corresponds with Olive Schreiner’s childhood.  In the first section of her modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf uses a similar perspective to write an impressionistic version of her own childhood and her family.  Interestingly, Woolf chooses as her setting the summer home of her family, at a remote village at the western edge of England.  By placing a child’s perspective in an isolated landscape, Woolf manages to create a spare world of simple, highly meaningful actions and images within a tightly knit family group, developing a strong sense of the innocence and vulnerability of childhood, the growth of personality, and a magnified sense of the dangerous, damaging, arbitrary power of adults.


1.  Virginia Woolf’s Family and Education:  the Daughter of an Agnostic Literary Critic


Woolf’s child characters and she herself were at two removes from Schreiner’s childhood and life.  Woolf’s grandfather, James Stephen, had grown up as a precocious student and reformer, the son of one of the leaders of the Evangelical Clapham sect, led by William Wilberforce and dedicated to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.  James Stephen rose swiftly in politics and became Colonial Undersecretary, where he eventually wrote the actual order banning slavery, the culmination of not only his life, but that of his family and their intimate circle.  (James Stephen’s work on non-slavery African topics and South Africa might be interesting in this context.) 


James Stephen’s third son was Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf.  One older son died at 26, and the second son, James Fitzjames, became a barrister and judge.  As an aging, successful, and deeply religious man, James Stephen wanted one of his sons to join the clergy, and Leslie seemed to be the likely candidate.  Leslie Stephen was frail and nervous as a child, but when he went up to Cambridge he quickly became one of the first physical culture enthusiasts, rowing, running, and eventually mountaineering after he received a fellowship and became a don.  Accepting the fellowship necessitated taking on religious orders, but it was just a few years later that Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published, and religious controversy erupted just as James Stephen died in 185?.  Leslie Stephen was a careful student of philosophy, and after intense deliberation in 1861 he renounced his religious orders, gave up his fellowship, and left Cambridge. 


Stephen moved to London and practiced “higher journalism,” publishing critical essays.  He became an early practitioner of intellectual history, as he traced the history of rationalist philosophy in his “English Thought in the 18th Century.”  His goal was in part to wed post-Darwinian agnosticism and “freethinking” to philosophy.  Having grown up in an establishment household that was dedicated to institutional reform, and with an eminent conservative judge for a brother, Leslie Stephen was a progressive in politics, ethics, and philosophy, but he was always in the mainsteam, and never developed any socialist or radical opinions.  His second wife Julia Prinsep Stephen, the mother of Virginia Woolf, was a semi-professional Nightengale nurse, devoted to charity and aiding the ill and the poor.  This shows something of the family attitude towards poverty and social injustice.  On the subject of slavery and race relations, Stephen of course grew up in a virulently anti-slavery home, and one must presume that the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1832 played a significant role in race relations in South Africa.  It should also be noted that while the majority of England supported the South in the US Civil War, Leslie Stephen was a notable proponent of the North and the abolitionist cause.  Early in his London career he wrote a small book supporting the North, was later a London correspondent for the Nation magazine, traveled to the US a number of times and developed close friendships with leading American literary figures like James Russell Lowell and Charles Eliot Norton.


The young Virginia Stephen, born in 1882, was educated at home by her mother, along with her older sister Vanessa.  Vanessa became an artist, while Virginia’s interest in literature and writing was later encouraged and guided by her father.  Much like Olive Schreiner, Virginia became a voracious reader, but she was under her father’s tutelege  and had free access to his substantial library.   While Schreiner was the daughter of a fervent, ill-fated, kindly missionary, Woolf’s father was a biographer, literary critic, philosopher, and agnostic.


Just before Virginia’s birth Leslie Stephen had been the editor of the Cornhill Magazine, which published literary essays, stories, and serialized novels.  In this capacity he promoted the early careers of George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James.  When the magazine was struggling financially, publisher George Smith gave Stephen a new project, making him the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography.


Through George Meredith, the lives of Leslie Stephen and Olive Schreiner reach a gentle collision.  Meredith, never a mainstream author, published one of his most successful works, The Egoist, in 188?.  He based the secondary character of Vernon Whitford, the “fasting friar turned Phoebus Apollo,” on his friend and benefactor, Leslie Stephen.  While Meredith had achieved considerable critical respect over the course of a 20-year career, he was still working as a story analyst for Chapman and Hall in order to make money.  In his capacity as a publisher’s consultant Meredith is best know for championing the work of Thomas Hardy, and he must have been in league with Stephen in supporting Hardy.  Meredith read Olive Schreiner’s manuscript in date188?, and recommended it for publication, but not without some reservations.  In 1883, the novel was published to glowing reviews for the most part, and it became something of a sensation.



2.  Feminism, Literature, and Art:  Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Program


Virginia Woolf’s thorough immersion in the female masters of the 19th century novel led her to write her first published essays about the Brontes.  In writing about African Farm Woolf says that “the obvious comparison is to the Brontes…”  Schreiner presented an ambitious further advance, delving into feminism and philosophical issues, refusing a romantic resolution for her heroine, and perhaps most importantly, experimenting with the narrative form.  After serving her own literary apprenticeship not only as a critic, but also through a series of more traditional novels, many of which explored feminist themes and challenged a variety of earlier assumptions, Woolf eventually developed into a mature artist who mastered what we now call “modernist” narrative form.  Her successful experiment with modernism reached its advanced stages with Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925.  Just two years later she was able to tell a highly personal story of her family and childhood in the classic modernist novel, To the Lighthouse.  In To the Lighthouse she achieved a synthesis and “heroic” resolution for a contemporary feminist character through art, rather than marriage.  Although African Farm fails to offer a coherent resolution, and in some aspects it is an immature and rough-edged literary work, the structure and themes of the novel are remarkably similar to To the Lighthouse and it may be an important precursor and influence on Woolf’s masterpiece.  Research shows that Woolf was reading African Farm and considering Schreiner and her accomplishment just as she conceived the plot and structure of To The Lighthouse.


Olive Schreiner was a literary celebrity for 30 years after the publication of African Farm.  She published stories and journalism, and created a sensation by writing Trooper Peter Haklett at the height of the Boer War.  She had returned to South Africa in 1889, and tangled with Cecil Rhodes over policy and politics.  Unable to create new fiction or finish one of her earlier novels to her satisfaction, Schreiner became a political celebrity, a champion of feminism and socialism.  When she died, her husband Courtright publish a relatively conservative biography that neglected many of the more radical elements of her private life.  A volume of her letters was published the following year, and this book was reviewed by Virginia Woolf in the New Republic in April 1925.  This is the moment when Woolf made her brief note on African Farm in her reading notebook, just as Woolf was beginning to form her ideas for To the Lighthouse.




II. Comparing African Farm and To the Lighthouse:  Literary Form


1.  “Two blocks joined by a corridor.”


The above statement is Woolf’s description of the structure of To The Lighthouse.


The Story of an African Farm and To the Lighthouse share an identical three-part structure.  The first sections of both novels narrate childhood development, with a view of the crucible of family.  They both explore the arbitrary, petty tyranny that adults can exercise over children.  The second smaller section of both novels is a “corridor” that tries to capture the passage from childhood and adolescence to adulthood.  Schreiner’s version is titled “Times and Seasons,” while Woolf’s is called “Time Passes.”  Both are obviously concerned with the process of time, and they express philosophical ideas about character, utilizing the prism of lyrical language to send their narratives through a “corridor.”  In the third section, the children have become adults, and they are looking for ways to live in the world, trying to understand the meaning an purpose of their lives. 


The two novels and their accomplishments are very different.  African Farm has long been recognized as an important feminist novel, and its establishment of a white, colonial “voice” deeply tied to the South African landscape is a crucial literary milestone.  In looking backwards from the way Woolf perhaps adapted the form of African Farm to write her own singular, deeply personal modernist classic, it becomes possible to view African Farm as a prototype for literary modernism, to see that its seemingly minor experiment in fictional form would have a significant echo and effect.


III.  Olive Schreiner and Leslie Stephen


In 1882 Leslie Stephen began work on the Dictionary of National Biography.  That same year, Stephen’s daughter Virginia was born and Olive Schreiner arrived in London.  The Dictionary was a massive scholarly undertaking, to use an apt term, and it was beset with troubles of format, eccentric and willful contributors, and a significant plagiarism crisis in its early stages.  Fifty years old and an established writer, critic, and editor when he began work on the DNB, Stephen was a heroic late Victorian with a firm sense of his intellectual duty and an astonishing capacity for work.  The financial struggles of the Cornhill Magazine, which were the impetus for the idea of the DNB, may have been the first onslaught of significant professional stress and anxiety on Stephen, who was also in the midst of starting a new family at the time.  We’re familiar with the elderly Stephen’s tirades about money concerns when his daughter Vanessa took over the family accounts towards the end of his life.  This moment of professional transition, right at the time of Virginia’s birth, marks the beginning of that obsession.  In beginning work as the editor and flagship contributor to a comprehensive national biography, he jumped from the frying pan into the fire, and the project overwhelmed him, little by little, wave upon wave, just as his daughter Virginia was in her infancy.


Stephen was an intellectual historian and great lover of the 18th century, and it’s interesting to note that the DNB was both a professional and personal reponse to the accomplishments of his hero, Dr. Johnson.  Johnson had of course compiled the great English Dictionary, and thus it was no accident that Stephen called his comprehensive project a dictionary as well.  More importantly, Johnson’s great final literary work was his Lives of the Poets, in which he established the biographical record for the primary figures of English literature up to his day.  In the DNB, Stephen was revising and pursuing the same project, albeit in virtual anonymity within the broad confines of the massive compendium.  But the initials “LS” would appear after the biographical accounts of almost all of the most prominent characters in English Literature from Addison to Wordsworth.  Financial anxiety aside, this significant and determined effort was the literary cradle of Virginia Woolf, and in part it explains her accomplishment.


Although he had turned himself into the fastest miler and greatest walker in England and was an elite member of the handful of conquerors of the Alps in the golden age of mountaineering, Leslie Stephen had been subject to severe nervous disorders and anxiety as a thin, frail child.  Under the weight of his task on the DNB. Stephen became crippled by anxiety and began to break down.  Five years into the project, in December 1886 and early January 1887, he was possessed by horrors through the long nights, unable to rest and sleep and suffering nightmares about the great wave of history and biography he was attempting to manage.  His breakdowns have been analyzed fairly careful as a contributor to and within the context of Woolf’s own mental illness.  The timing of Woolf’s episodes of madness, one of which came shortly after her father’s death, has been exhaustively studied.  But there has been less attention paid to the details and timing of her father’s mental collapse, which occurred when she was five years old.  Leslie Stephen suffered a crackup, and it was this episode and the prolonged effort and struggle that led up to it, that turned him into the difficult and even slightly demented Victorian patriarch that we recognize in the character of Mr. Ramsay. 


Leslie Stephen was ordered by his doctor, wife, and publisher to travel to his beloved Alps in mid-January 1887.  He met old friends from his climbing days in Paris, and then took the train to Switzerland.  And so “Mr. Ramsay,” a broken man of 54, checked into a hotel as Calise in January 1887.  The next day, Olive Schreiner showed up.    


  1. hi daddy,
    thanks a lot for stealing all of my interests.
    Connection to me majoring in art history though: the Bloomsbury group was directly affected by the Nabi, who I just studied in 19th century French Painting. Especially in the creation of full domestic environments. My art history professor told me that Roger Fry wrote about them in depth.
    Just saying.

  2. YD–
    Pretty funny how back in February when I wrote this you were driving to school in the Volvo and weren’t even a movie actor yet. I think that I read African Farm first, remember, but I do have to say that I’ve never heard of the Nabi, and don’t know very much about Roger Fry either. Just saying. COL. Just saying.

  3. […] and choices for a female novelist in 1884. Esther, seen as such, is a valuable companion text to The Story of an African Farm, Country of the Pointed Firs, and The Awakening, the story of an independent woman, written by […]

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