The Story of an African Farm (published 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron) was South African author Olive Schreiner's first novel. It was an immediate success and has become recognised as one of the first feminist novels.
The novel details the lives of three characters, first as children and then as adults - Waldo, Em and Lyndall - who live on a farm in the Karoo region of South Africa. The story is set in the middle- to late Nineteenth century - the First Boer War is alluded to (pg. 25), but not mentioned by name. The book is semi-autobiographical: in particular, the two principal protagonists (Waldo and Lyndall) display strong similarities to Schreiner's life and philosophy.
The book was first published in 1883 in London, under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. It quickly became a best-seller, despite causing some controversy over its frank portrayal of freethought, feminism, premarital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock and transvestitism.
As there is only minimal narrative in the novel (and what there is only serves to supports the book's many themes), it is a difficult book to summarize. In addition, much of the story is revealed as a series of vignettes - often devoid of context, or (deliberately) out of sequence. The author also frequently interjects into the narrative to address the reader directly. In general, the book may roughly be divided into three sections:
The first section of the book deals with the lives of protagonists as children and teenagers. It reveals some of the events that proved formative in the life of the children.
The book opens with a terrified Waldo - unable to sleep as he listens to the ticking of the Hunting watch. In his young mind, every tick represents another soul sent to Hell, without hope of Salvation. Deeply disturbed, Waldo kneels to pray, begging God to save some of the doomed.
The following day, Waldo is out herding sheep when comes to a decision. He builds a small alter of twelve stones, and places upon the stones a lamb-chop. He prays aloud:
"Oh God, my Father, I have made Thee a sacrifice...Please, my Father, send fire down from heaven to burn it. Thou hast said, Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou cast into the sea, nothing doubting, it shall be done." (pg. 9)Unsurprisingly, Waldo's request goes unfulfilled. Finally, he discards the sacrifice and heads for home, filled with self-doubt, fearing that God has forsaken him for his apparent lack of faith. (pg. 10)
He is met on the way by Em and Lyndall, who encourage him into a game of coop (i.e. hide-and-seek). Waldo elects to hide first. He climbs a little way up the kopje (a small hill), and hides between two rocks. Once there, he begins to pray again. Eventually he is found. Em expresses the opinion that he has been sleeping. "No," says Lyndall, "he has been crying." (pg. 11)
The narrative then jumps ahead two years. Waldo is again on the top of the kopje, alone. He is weary - weary from countless nights of prayer and countless unanswered supplications. Finally he speaks to the wind the painful secret he has been carrying, but dared not express.
"I hate God", he says. "I love Jesus Christ, but I hate God." (pg. 12)Certain that he is now doomed, Waldo returns to the farm.
Here the author interjects:
"There are some of us who in after years say to Fate: 'Now deal us your hardest blow, give us what you will; but let us never again suffer as we suffered when we were children.' The barb in the arrow of childhood's suffering is this - its intense loneliness, its intense ignorance." (pg. 13)
The story then picks up in the year 1862 (one of the few times that a specific date is referenced in the book). Em and Lyndall are talking at the foot of the kopje. We are told that they are now 12 years old (pg. 15), and that several years have passed since the events of the previous chapter. The subject of their conversation is their future. Lyndal expresses her desire to leave the farm and her intense dislike of Tant Sannie.
Waldo then appears and informs the girls that an Englishman has arrived at the farm - on foot, and going by the name of Bonaparte Blenkins. At this point, Lyndall launches into a history of Napoleon the Great. She ends her brief lesson with a telling comment:
"He was only one man, only one...yet all the people in the world feared him. He was not born great, he was as common as we are; yet he was master of the world at last." (pg. 19)The subject then turns to the origin of the kopje itself. It is clear that Waldo has been doing some reading - he tells the girls how the kopje came to be there, and muses upon the motivations of the Bushman who once painted the strange figures on the rocks in the distant past. (pg. 21)
A short exchange between Waldo and Em here indicates that Waldo is moving into a skeptical phase:
"'Oh, Waldo, God put the little kopje here,' said Em with Solemnity. 'But how did He put it here?' 'By wanting.' 'But how did the wanting bring it here?' 'Because it did.' The last words were uttered with the air of one who produces a clinching argument. What effect it had on the questioner is not evident, for he made no reply, and turned away from her."
Upon returning to the farm, the children encounter an unusual scene. A heated exchange is taking place between Tant Sannie and the newly-arrived Bonaparte Blenkins. Otto is acting as translator (Tant Sannie speaks no English; Bonaparte speaks no Dutch - Otto is bilingual). Tant Sannie makes clear her dislike of Englishman in general, and of those who travel on foot in particular. She suspects that Blenkins may be a hobo, seeking to defraud her. Otto manages to calm the situation, and Tant Sannie reluctantly allows the Englishman to stay, provided that he sleeps in Otto's shed, and that Otto assumes all responsibility for any crime committed.
Later that same night, Lyndall appears at Otto's shed with his daily rations. Blenkins is asleep. Lyndall examines his boots, and then asks how long he said he had been walking. When Otto replies that Bonaparte related how his horse had died that very morning, and he had been forced to walk for much of the day, Lyndall again peers at his boots. It is evident that he has been walking for far longer than just one day. She delivers her opinion:
"'I think he is a liar. Good-night, Uncle Otto,' she said slowly, turning to the door." (pg. 30)
The following day Bonaparte, much rested, proceeds to relate ever more improbable tales to Otto. Lyndall is present. When Bonaparte decides to go for a walk, the following exchange occurs between Lyndall and Otto:
"'And how do we know that story is true, Uncle Otto?' The German's ire was roused. 'That is what I do hate!' he cried. 'Know that it is true! How do you know that anything is true? Because you are told so. If we begin to question everything - proof, proof, proof, what will we have to believe left? How do you know the angel opened the prison door for Peter, except that Peter said so? How do you know that God talked to Moses, except that Moses wrote it? That is what I hate!' The girl knit her brows. Perhaps her thoughts made a longer journey than the German dreamed of; for, mark you, the old dream little how their words and lives are texts and studies to the generation that shall succeed them. Not what we are taught, but what we see, makes us, and the child gathers the food on which the adult feeds to the end."
The conversation is interrupted, much to the satisfaction of Lyndall, by Bonaparte's shrieks of terror. It is evident that he is deathly afraid of Ostriches, and a juvenile bird has taken an inquisitive interest in him. Lyndall takes her leave, while the recuperating Bonaparte and Otto discuss the Sunday. Otto mentions that he usually delivers the Sunday Sermon. Bonaparte remarks that he, too, has on occasion officiated at such a Ceremony. Otto insists (with some misgiving) that Bonaparte deliver the sermon on the following day, and supplies him with new clothes to fit the occasion.
Two Sunday Services are recorded on the following day. The first is a solitary ceremony involving Waldo, alone on the kopje. He is reading from the Bible - the leaves of which had "...dropped blood for him once; they had taken the brightness out of his childhood; from between them had sprung the visions that had clung about him and made the night horrible..." (pg. 43). Waldo is no longer troubled by thoughts of Hell - he has now reached the Universalist phase of his spiritual journey. (Waldo's path is laid out in far more detail in the middle section of the book - 'Times and Seasons').
The second sermon is delivered by Bonaparte - the theme of which is Hell, Fire and (literally) Brimstone. Bonaparte relates a story involving a suicide in a volcano. It is clear to the reader that Bonaparte is (again) lying. For example, he places the Volcano Etna in Rome (pg. 48). Mount Etna is, in fact, in Sicily - Bonaparte had evidently confused the volcano with Mount Vesuvius. Tant Sannie and Otto are much impressed by the sermon. Tant Sannie begins to regret the harsh words she had first uttered to him, while Bonaparte, for his part, begins the lay the groundwork for his seduction of the Boer-woman. Later, back in Otto's shed, the German mentions that Lyndall and Em are in need of a tutor, and asks Bonaparte if he would be interested in the position. Bonaparte, of course, agrees. (pg. 53)
Some time later, Waldo comes across a weeping Em. She informs him that Bonaparte has given her the fourteenth chapter of John to memorize as punishment for Lyndall's behavior. She goes on to relate how, during classes that morning, Lyndall had asked Bonaparte who Copernicus was.
"...he said he was one of the Emperors of Rome, who burned Christians alive in a golden pig...Upon hearing his answer, Lyndall had gathered up her books and left the classroom, vowing never to return. By way of consolation, Waldo lets Em in on his secret - he has been designing a machine - a machine (the reader is later informed) for shearing sheep.
That evening, Otto and Waldo's supper is interrupted by a messenger from Tant Sannie, who asks Otto to come to the farm-house. Upon arriving there, Otto finds Bonaparte in much distress - he has received a letter, he claims, informing him that his wife has died. Tant Sannie eventually calms the grief-stricken Bonaparte with a bowl of porridge laced with Brandy. Once his audience has left, Bonaparte reveals his true intentions:
"When the door was safely shut...he got off the bed and washed away the soap he had rubbed on his eyelids. 'Bon,' he said, slapping his leg, 'you're the 'cutest lad I ever came across. If you don't turn out the old Hymns-and-prayers, and pummel the Ragged coat, and get your arms around the fat one's waist and a wedding-ring on her finger, then you are not Bonaparte." (pg. 60)