Olive Schreiner at BWWC 2015

Story of an African farm

Probably because of my paper’s focus at the 2014 British Women Writers Conference (see previous blog post), I was asked to moderate the Olive Schreiner panel at this year’s conference: Stories of an African Farm. I decided to review the panel, based on my notes, so here are my observations and thoughts.

Anita Turlington (University of North Georgia) was first to present. Her paper ‘New Woman Novels and the Ethical Moment’ focused on the ethics of the New Woman writers and also explored the importance of time and space in African Farm. Like me, Turlington sees Schreiner looking to the future for a solution, but also identifies her in African Farm as looking back to a connected, mythic past. In fact, Turlington suggested that African Farm is set in an eternal present – rejecting linear time – and that Lyndall imaginatively transcends the limits of time through her visions and prophesies.   

Turlington described the New Women writers’ ethics as a commitment to considering new ways to interact: they stressed connections between people rather than limits, and allowed the complexity and unknowability of the Other. In the same way as I see the young Lyndall as a perfect New Woman and the older Lyndall as a failed New Woman, Turlington sees her as the ideal ethical subject – an advocate of justice for the vulnerable – until she grows up and realises that the historical reality of her position as a woman in the late nineteenth century renders her unable to feel and advocate for others.

In terms of space, Turlington suggested that Schreiner’s allegorical interludes open up generic, ethical spaces. For example, the location in which Lyndall dies corresponds to the generic chronotype of The Road, an anonymous space in which people can meet and social differences can be overcome. There is also a threshold here between life and death, self and Other, which Gregory Rose attempts to overcome as he nurses the dying Lyndall – he lies across the door, yet can’t bridge the space between this time and the New World yet to come. Turlington’s reading of Rose was very helpful, pointing out that his altruism and commitment to his unknowable Other (Lyndall) transforms him into the ethical subject. His abject self-sacrifice leads to him moving from the position of absurd fool to dignified, transfigured Mother.

Benjamin Hudson (University of Georgia) also focused on Gregory Rose in his paper ‘Curious Bedfellows: The New Woman and the Invert in Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm’. (His thesis title also has a great title, including a quote that was fun to read out at a conference: ‘“Dilettante Faggots” on nineteenth-century queer amateurism and the formation of the literary canon.’) Hudson interpreted any optimism in Rose’s story as coming from his ability to throw off his heterosexuality. Reading African Farm within the late nineteenth-century debate about sexuality, Hudson identified a contradiction. While he sees Schreiner’s Woman and Labour as promoting heterosexuality, unthinkingly, as the norm – he noted her scathing writing about the effeminate nature of men and the fate of the Greeks – he suggests that her personal correspondence and novels are more complex. He also mentioned that Edward Carpenter used to give his young male protégés copies of African Farm to test the waters for potential romance, suggesting that this novel was seen as tolerant of homosexuality.

I wonder, though, if this contradiction stems rather from a misunderstanding of Schreiner and an attempt to apply modern sexual categories onto her philosophy. From reading her allegories, I would suggest that Schreiner looked to a future where both sexes would move beyond their separate genders to both embody the principles of the ethical subject. As Hudson explained, Rose is transformed when he throws off effeminacy and histrionic masculinity and embraces transvestism: he moves toward an identity beyond or between gender. I agree that Rose’s adaptability leads to a glimpse of the dawn of a new life without the restricting concepts of romance based on gendered identities. However, until Lyndall can also achieve an identity beyond the heavily gendered one allowed her in the nineteenth century, there can be no future for them.

The final paper, ‘Lady Philosophy and Beatrice Revised: Olive Schreiner’s Feminist Re-working of Traditional Spiritual Guides in Story of an African Farm’ was a fascinating reading of Waldo and Lyndall’s ‘Strangers’ as re-worked Dantean spiritual guides. Catherine Welter (University of New Hampshire) argued that the guides in this novel are male because Schreiner did not believe that women would be able to instruct until they themselves were delivered from their social position. Welter interestingly noted that Schreiner’s desire for realism led her to disapprove of Dante’s fantastical, heavenly instructor, Beatrice. Schreiner’s guides are more human, flawed, and focus on how to live in this life, embodying a far more secular philosophy.

I was very pleased that Welter included some discussion of Schreiner’s allegories in her argument. As Welter argued, the role of women in the allegories as martyrs and saviours of woman and mankind suggests that Schreiner changed her mind about women’s ability to help other women.

Not that many of the audience for this panel had read African Farm, so the Q&A session was quite wide-ranging. One questioner found similarities between Schreiner’s description of womanly, self-sacrificial love and Wollstonecraft’s theories of love; in her critique of economic man, women appear to love more sincerely and authentically. There was also an interesting discussion of the importance of childhood in the text; Turlington suggested that Schreiner does not let Waldo and Lyndall really grow up, partly because of their ethical and spiritual identities, but also as a result of the colonial setting. An interesting point was made about the difference of sympathy in African Farm; because the characters are so stunted, nuanced and unknowable, sympathy as described by George Eliot is more difficult. I would suggest that this is one of the aspects of this text that illustrates its break from the Victorian and its anticipation of Modernism.

Overall this was a fantastic panel to moderate, with three excellent, scholarly papers, and I hope we inspired a few more people to read Olive Schreiner’s work, especially The Story of an African Farm.

For other blog posts on the British Women Writers Conferences see: BWWC 2015 Day One and Olive Schreiner: religious feminism

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