Olive Schreiner’s religious feminism

story of african farm cover

At BWWC this year I was moderating a panel that contained three papers on Olive Schreiner, especially focusing on her novel, Story of An African Farm. Before writing my thoughts about this year’s Schreiner papers, I thought I’d remind myself of the paper I gave on Schreiner last year. For those who haven’t read The Story of an African Farm, it is available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1441/1441-h/1441-h.htm, as is her collection of allegories: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1439/1439-h/1439-h.htm (though I would really recommend Elisabeth Jay’s edition, available from Amazon).

‘Sitting Apart in Silent Contemplation’: The importance of religious reflection in the New-Woman writing of Sarah Grand and Olive Schreiner

Last year’s BWWC theme was ‘Reflections’, and my paper compared Sarah Grand’s New Woman writing and religious beliefs with those of Olive Schreiner. Both Grand and Schreiner were involved in campaigning for better conditions for women. Grand left her husband and took up work as a writer and journalist, and Schreiner engaged in social work with prostitutes as well as philosophically exploring the relations between the sexes with Havelock Ellis and others at the radical Men and Women’s Club. While Grand’s work suggests that she retained a relatively conventional Christian faith (which supported her linked faith in the better future to be brought about by the New Woman) Olive Schreiner famously lost her faith in Christianity.

Because of this, faith in a better future was more difficult for Schreiner than it was for Grand. While Schreiner did not wholly embrace agnosticism, she certainly lost any secure faith in an afterlife. Her only comfort lay in the ‘unknowable’ nature of the world, which was not enough to base any belief in heaven. For her, any happy future would only be experienced by those women who came after. Her book of allegories, Dreams, was dedicated

‘To a small girl-child, who may live to grasp somewhat of that which for us is yet sight, not touch’.

Schreiner’s reflections on religion then, made her work as a campaigner for women even more difficult – for her there would be no reward, only the struggle.

My paper therefore argued that for Schreiner, being an agnostic feminist in the 1880s required a form of heroism, and that this was emphasized in her novel The Story of an African Farm.

Religious references in Schreiner

Despite her loss of faith, Schreiner’s work still contains a great number of references to Christian religion and the Bible. One thing I noticed was that both Grand and Schreiner make references to the story of Elijah. In Grand’s Heavenly Twins the church bells of Morningquest, where her story is set, chime the first phrase

‘He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.’

Both writers also seem to make use of the fact that Elijah discovers God not in a storm or the fire, but in a ‘still small voice’, with which they associate their New Woman prophets.

In the first part of African Farm the child Lyndall is a promising New Woman and is the very personification of the ‘still small voice’. When Lyndall and her cousin, Em, are being unjustly punished by Tant Sannie and Bonaparte, she quietly, almost passively, exerts her will over their tormentors. She stops Tant Sannie beating Em through simply laying ‘her small fingers on the Boer-woman’s arm’; and her simple commands, in their quiet deliberateness, have the power to give her temporary authority over her elders.

Sadly, though, by the end of the novel, Lyndall is a failed New Woman; and her death makes difficult reading.

Then the white face on the pillow looked into the white face in the glass. They had looked at each other often so before. It had been a child’s face once, looking out above its blue pinafore; it had been a woman’s face, with a dim shadow in the eyes, and a something which had said, “We are not afraid, you and I; we are together; we will fight, you and I.” Now tonight it had come to this.

The dying eyes on the pillow looked into the dying eyes in the glass; they knew that their hour had come. She raised one hand and pressed the stiff fingers against the glass. They were growing very stiff. She tried to speak to it, but she would never speak again. Only the wonderful yearning light was in the eyes still. The body was dead now, but the soul, clear and unclouded, looked forth.

Then slowly, without a sound, the beautiful eyes closed. The dead face that the glass reflected was a thing of marvelous beauty and tranquillity. The Grey Dawn crept in over it and saw it lying there.

Had she found what she sought for—something to worship? Had she ceased from being? Who shall tell us? There is a veil of terrible mist over the face of the Hereafter.’

As Schreiner portrays the dying Lyndall looking into her own eyes in the mirror she telescopes the life of her heroine: reminding the reader of her childhood power and potential as well as her still strong sense of self. Lyndall’s awareness of her failure and impending death, and her continuing lack of faith in any afterlife, shows what it really means to sacrifice the comforting promises of Christian faith. The veil that obscures our knowledge of the hereafter is ‘terrible’ to Schreiner at this time.

Schreiner’s allegories

Far easier to bear are the struggling women in Schreiner’s later allegories, published in Dreams.

In ‘Three Dreams in a Desert’, a woman has to give up love of man to become a pathfinder to the Land of Freedom for the human race. Her suffering is plain as she cries of her loneliness. However, what remains with the reader is the woman’s fortitude as she ‘grasped her staff’ and set off to dedicate herself in the very slow process of making a track to the edge of the river – so that one day the bodies of women like her might form a bridge over which future women will cross.

The allegory makes clear the woman’s pain and sacrifice, but makes it bearable through the religious form of the allegory – the woman’s emotion is contained within this bigger narrative: the service of a better future.

A potential comfort in Story of an African Farm is another allegory, placed directly before Lyndall’s return to the farm as an adult. The allegory of ‘the Hunter’ is told in this novel by a stranger, but was also printed as a stand-alone allegory in Dreams. Although this story appears to be non-Christian, it actually contains many religious aspects.

The story takes place in a primitive world, where characters such as Wisdom and Knowledge direct the Hunter’s quest for the elusive silver bird, Truth. His quest demands the Christian virtues of patience, hard work, suffering and self-sacrifice, as he engages in a life’s work building a stairway up the mountains to where Truth will be found.

Like Lyndall and the heroines of Dreams, the Hunter is required to renounce any belief in ‘Reward after Death’. But he nevertheless heroically commits himself to his mission to enable future generations to reach Truth. And in death, his last words communicate his certainty in his mission:

‘Where I lie down worn out other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I have cut they will climb […] My soul hears their glad step coming,’ he said ‘and they shall mount! They shall mount!’

Schreiner allows the Hunter’s soul to outlive his worn out body: his soul is enabled to ‘hear’ as he experiences a supernatural aural ‘vision’ of the success to come. This metaphysical comfort is held out to Schreiner’s New Woman workers in their sacrifices. Rather than Elijah’s triumphant rising to heaven in a fiery chariot, Schreiner more often references Moses, who died before he could reach the Promised Land, but could similarly be consoled by the promise that his people would reach it because of his work.

Illustrated by E. M. Synge (On the shores of Great Seas) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A tentative conclusion

For Schreiner, in the midst of agnosticism, religious reflection was hugely important. Though she could not provide readers with hopes of rewards in heaven, her use of religious tropes and forms had the power to foster a faith in a better future. This brought comfort to what would otherwise be starkly painful tales of sacrifice for a future that her New Woman heroines would never see.

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