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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Olive Schreiner (1855–1920)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
IN the summer of 1883 a little unheralded book, by an unknown author, appeared in the rank and file of contemporary fiction. Its title, ‘The Story of an African Farm,’ arrested attention, for the ostrich farm of South Africa was then virgin soil; not only virgin in its solemn monotony of unbroken plain and fierce sunlight, but virgin in its traditions and its customs.  1
  The most cursory glance at the first chapter was enough to show the author of ‘The Story of an African Farm’ to be a virile and dramatic genius, independent of her choice of setting. Two facts, somewhat disguised (for the book was written under the penname of “Ralph Iron,” and incident and character were treated with masculine boldness), betrayed to the omniscient critic that the writer was a woman and young. Miss Schreiner has a remarkable intuition regarding the thoughts and feelings of men; but she reveals her sex by her profound preoccupation with the problem of its relation to the world. Moreover, only a girlish Amazon of the pen could have written a story so harsh and hopeless. Only to eyes of youthful intolerance could compromise and extenuation (qualities rich in the temperance which Hamlet loved) have been so immeasurably remote.  2
  The girl author, it is plain, was enamored with the bottom of things; she had made straight for the central mysteries of life and faith, and looked, unblinking, at naked truths that wrest the soul.  3
  So far and no farther, however, do age and sex affect the story. There is none of the negligent superiority to the received dictums of style, in which her literary kinswoman, Emily Brontë, expressed the conventionally impossible. In strong, brief words and telling phrase the tale is told. A few bold, masterly strokes—as though from very familiarity she had wearied of local color, or disdained to use it—indicate the hueless, treeless, monotonous landscape of the ostrich farm, the grotesque, terrible caricature of deity that broods over it, and the strange, vulgar, elementary people who live there. These she draws with bitter and cynical humor, sparing nothing of coarseness or repulsiveness in the broad, high-light portraits. The rose has scent and thorn, but she takes the thorn; and line by line sets down the mean, ugly life, its commonplaceness, its gross content. Walsingham wrote, “Her Majesty counts much on fortune, I wish she would trust more to the Almighty;” and as we read this young girl’s story, we feel her to be another Elizabeth. The horoscope of her characters once cast, they have no more power to divert it than to reverse the laws of gravitation.  4
  To three unhappy beings—unhappy because they are of finer mold, physically and mentally, than the rest—she commits the task of showing the relentlessness of fate. The boy Waldo worships the fetish he has been taught to call God, and pours out his whole innocent, ignorant soul into its deaf ear; the little English girl, Em, begs for love; the beautiful, proud child Lyndall asks only for freedom—to experience—to know. They beat their wings against the bars and fall back,—the one despairing, the other rebellious, the third exhausted; but all fall back on the dull animal existence, wounded unto death.  5
  Only at the last does a certain drowsy calm rest on their tired eyelids. In the author’s hopeless creed there is a single sweet narcotic for the soul’s unrest. “Come,” she says, “to Nature, the great healer, the celestial surgeon, who, before quenching forever conscious identity, will, if thou wilt, fold thee in her kind arms.”  6
  The dramatic power of ‘The Story of an African Farm’ takes hold of the reader from the first chapter—when the African moon pours its light from the blue sky to the wide lonely plain, and the boy Waldo cries out in agony, “O God, save thy people, save a few of thy people”—to the sculpturesque scene where the dying Lyndall fights her last fight, inch by inch, along the weary road. In her gospel, ardor and hope are put to shame, and all men are equal only in the pity of their limitations and the terror of their doom. The austere young dramatist fights a dark and sinister world with incalculable and unclassified energy.  7
  A period of characteristic silence followed the immense popular success of ‘The Story of an African Farm.’ In 1890 the curiously effective but unequal ‘Dreams’ appeared; and in 1893 ‘Dream Life and Real Life,’ a little African story, whose theme was the self-sacrifice, the martyrdom, the aspirations of woman. ‘Trooper Peter Halket’ was published in 1897. More than an exercise in polemics, it is a scornful presentment of the policy and methods of the Chartered Company in South Africa. The experiment of writing a modern gospel is ambitious work, even for so bold and original a writer as Olive Schreiner: but it must be conceded that she has blended the baldest realism and the ideal and the supernatural with such powerful dramatic handling, that the struggle between the forces of good and evil, between Christian obligation and the way of the world, becomes an absorbing, exciting conflict; while the tragedy of the end, the old hopelessness that bounded and pervaded ‘The Story of an African Farm,’ is its most pathetic episode. ‘An English South African’s View of the Situation’ (1899) refers to the Boer War, and ‘Woman and Labor’ (1911) also belongs rather to politics than to literature.  8
  Olive Schreiner was born in Cape Town, Africa. She was the daughter of a Lutheran minister. In 1890 she married Mr. Cronwright, an Anglo-African resident of her native colony.  9
 
 
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