[This essay is adapted and expanded from a shorter one originally published in The Explicator of Fall 1989, pp. 43-45.]
n Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883), Bonaparte Blenkins is an impostor who has established himself on a South African farmstead. He has already been largely to blame for the death of the good-natured elderly German overseer, Otto Farber. Now he turns his hand against the overseer’s orphaned adolescent son, Waldo. After itching to do it for some time, he at last finds a pretext to whip the boy within an inch of his life:
"'Chasten thy son while there is hope,'" said Bonaparte, "'and let not thy soul spare for his crying.' Those are God's words. I shall act as a father to you, Waldo. I think we had better have your naked back."
He took out his penknife, and slit the shirt down from the shoulder to the waist.
"Now," said Bonaparte, "I hope the Lord will bless and sanctify to you what I am going to do to you."
The first cut ran from the shoulder across the middle of the back; the second fell exactly in the same place. A shudder passed through the boy's frame.
"Nice, eh?" said Bonaparte, peeping round into his face, speaking with a lisp, as though to a very little child. "Nith, eh?" (124-25)
Once he has inflicted this punishment, Bonaparte locks Waldo up in an outhouse for the night. The whole episode is one of curious intensity, yet its significance to Schreiner’s art has not been fully explored. Specifically, it shows that the line of descent from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is not as direct as critics routinely assume, and that Schreiner was articulating conflicts that lay deep inside her own personality
This savage punishment does remind us, of course, of Mr Lockwood’s brutality toward the ghost-child at his window in Wuthering Heights. Lockwood is also two-faced. Tricking the waif into letting go of his hand, he too draws blood pitilessly, and self-righteously justifies his actions: "If the little fiend had got in at the window, she probably would have strangled me!" (38), he tells Heathcliff. But other details of the incident recall the cruel treatment and subsequent confinement of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, by her aunt Mrs Reed: "Take her away to the red-room, and lock her in there," Mrs Reed tells Bessie and Miss Abbot, who, having thrust her in with threats, leave her inside, "shutting the door and locking it behind them" with a horrible finality (13, 15). And there are still closer parallels with the whipping that Dickens’s David Copperfield receives from his stepfather Mr Murdstone. Schreiner’s chapter heading here, “He Bites,” refers to Bonaparte, but still takes us back to David’s retaliation then, and the placard that the boy later has to wear at Salem House. The early sufferings of Maggie Tulliver in that other famous Bildungsroman of the period, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, are echoed in this episode as well, though in the earlier novel the battering is psychological rather than physical. In fact, we do know that Schreiner reread The Mill on the Floss before finalising her manuscript (see O'Neill 13).
None of these similarities are in the least surprising, since all reflect the stern evangelicalism of the age, with its emphasis on original sin and the consequent need for spiritual regeneration. The adults involved all claim that religion sanctions their cruelty, whatever form it may take. Like Mr. Murdstone, Bonaparte appropriates to himself the role of the father who is obliged to wield the whip — something that evokes a keener distaste here, in view of the man's responsibility for Otto Farber's death. Moreover, he reveals not only his ignorance, but also a greater sadism than Mr. Murdstone’s through his spurious biblical quotation, which seriously distorts Proverbs 19:18. This enjoins the father not to discipline his son too harshly: far from ignoring his tears, he is not to “set [his] heart on [the boy’s] destruction.” The blessing that Bonaparte subsequently calls down on his assault is little short of blasphemy.
For the child in such cases, there is the daunting awareness of being an outcast, and one who is at best unnatural, at worst wicked. “Alone in the darkness” of the outhouse, Waldo, like Jane Eyre and David Copperfield before him, cannot tell how it will all “end at last” (125). Several specific motifs here have appeared in previous accounts of childhood crises. Most notably, the episode is signalled by Waldo’s involvement with books: like Jane Eyre, he has one hurled at him. “Books have been thrown at other heads before and since that summer afternoon, by hands more white and delicate than those of the Boerwoman” (114), says Schreiner, in an aside that clearly harks back to that earlier account. But there certainly is not, in Waldo’s case, a window to see through, let alone a looking-glass to reflect the newly self-conscious self, as there in Jane Eyre. There is only a round hole high over the door, adding to the sense of confinement. The intensity of the childhood crisis is as keenly felt as any in The Mill on the Floss, where Eliot makes a point of asking us not to "pooh-pooh the griefs of our children" (71).
Olive Schreiner, in the frontispiece to Dreams (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co, 1915), in the Internet Archive.
In The Mill on the Floss, an autobiographical reading seems unavoidable. It is signalled by authorial reminiscence in Eliot's opening chapter ("I remember those large dipping willows ... I remember the stone bridge...," 9), and there is much to suggest that in the central relationship between Maggie and her brother Tom the novelist was drawing heavily on her early relationship with her brother Isaac. For Schreiner too, the autobiographical element is well documented. Born to strict missionary parents in what was then Basutoland in Africa, she could not have been more than six years old when she received a terrific beating for uttering the Afrikaaner exclamation “Ach”: “She was taken down the little passage into the bedroom where she was born, laid out on her mother’s knee, and given about fifty strokes with a bunch of quince rods tied together.” She later recalled the “bitter wild fierce agony in my heart. . . against God and man’ (qtd. in First and Scott 48), which seems so similar to that experienced by Waldo after his own beating.
Yet of all the reminders in nineteenth-century novels of morally sanctioned child abuse, this one has the most obviously sexual connotations. The “naked back,” the “shudder” that passes through Waldo's body, the precision and the satisfaction of the adult, and his leering and repeated taunts — these remind us less of the disciplinary measures used in Victorian homes and schools than of unsavoury practices in the Victorian underworld. Bonaparte’s “pendulous red nose” (51), a still more prominent feature than the one Charlotte Brontë gives to her Mr. Brocklehurst, had suggested his gross sexuality at his very first appearance. In the punishment episode, there are clear indications of the adult’s sadistic pleasure in flagellating a bound and helpless child.
In its intensity, the episode also calls to mind Freud’s essay “A Child is Being Beaten,” in which his patients’ disturbing fantasies of children being beaten by adults are analyzed. Freud suggests that such fantasies indicate “an incestuous attachment” (186). We remember here Schreiner’s problems with her severe and aloof English mother: “My mother has never been a mother to me,” she told her husband later (qtd. in First and Scott 204). She also told Havelock Ellis that her father was “infinitely tenderer to us as children and had a much greater heart than my mother” (qtd. in First and Scott 247). Remembering as well that Waldo is closely identified with Lyndall, whom Tant' Sannie, the owner of the farm, is bringing up with her own step-daughter Em, we may see both as representing aspects of Schreiner’s own development (see Colby 63). We hardly need Freud’s confirmation of the repressive mechanism at work here: in the case of a woman’s beating fantasy, he says, “She changes the figure and sex of the person being beaten, so that eventually a man is beating male children” (186)
We know that Schreiner read widely as a young governess when she was preparing this manuscript; but there is no question of her having read Freud at this point — this particular essay was only published in 1919. Later, as an intimate friend of Ellis, she was to base her ideas about sexuality on concepts quite different from Freud's. Nevertheless, it seems clear that this incident derives its strange power not only from a variety of literary sources, but also from her own early experience, transformed in the way that Freud suggests. As for its troublingly erotic undertones, of whose existence she would probably have been, at most, only dimly aware, these surface much more consciously later on, in her heroine's conflicted passional life. In a tragic ending, Lyndall's relationship with her lover founders on the issue of submission, and she dies after grieving for her dead infant, with the androgynous Englishman, Gregory Rose, in attendance. A bereft Waldo dies too, it seems, after returning to the farm from his wanderings. As even that deft summariser John Sutherland says, the ending is "enigmatic" (607). But it is clear is that, while the two main protagonists have not been not been vanquished spiritually, they have failed (like Maggie Tulliver) to find a footing or future in this world.
It is easy to see why fellow-novelist George Meredith, in his role as publisher's reader for Chapman & Hall, picked up this novel when others had rejected it. Not only would Schreiner's and her heroine's free-thinking and feminism have appealed to him, but, as the author of The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, he would have responded keenly to her recognition that: "If you wound the tree in its youth the bark will quickly cover the gash; but when the tree is very old, peeling the bark off, and looking carefully, you will see the scar there still. All that is buried is not dead" (130).
- "Olive Schreiner — A Biographical Introduction
- "Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm as an Early New Woman Novel"
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Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. Ed. A. S. Byatt. London: Penguin Classics, 1985. Print.
First, Ruth, and Ann Scott. Olive Schreiner: A Biography. London: Andre Deutsch, 1980. Print.
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O'Neill, Patricia. Introduction. The Story of an Afriican Farm. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2003. 9-30. Print.
Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. London: Penguin, 1939. Print.
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, 1988. Print.
Last modified 4 April 2012