It's only because we're not accustomed to such noses in this country.
In his country he says all people have such noses, and the redder
your nose is the higher you are. He's of the family of Queen Victoria,
you know. (Olive Schreiner, The Story of An African Farm 85)
Discourse lives, as it were, beyond itself, in a living impulse toward the object; if we detach ourselves completely from this impulse all we have left is the naked corpse of the word, from which we can learn nothing at all about the social situation or the fate of a given word in life. (M.M. Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel" 292)
In the nineteenth century, British political and popular terminology regularly referred to the colonies as "wastelands." By definition, this term referred to unappropriated and uncultivated land; however, in common usage, it described colonial lands as empty spaces where impoverished and unproductive British people might be well disposed (of).i As it was used in parliamentary and popular writings, the discourse of waste, of excess, and of the "draining" of a redundant population through colonial emigration and settlement pervaded perceptions of the world beyond Britain's boundaries and also becomes a commonplace figure for that world in various nineteenth-century British fictions.ii Figuratively speaking, the lines that connected the metropolitan center with the colonial periphery constituted a plumb line through which excess British bodies were with state assistance transported to the far reaches of the empire. Concurrently, discourses of waste were accompanied by a rhetoric that extolled the promise of colonial lands as paradises where the impoverished and degraded population in England might be converted to productive and independent laborers. iii
Colonial literary responses to this metropolitan conflation of the colonies with the discourse of waste and the contradictory promises of paradise are particularly evident in the fictional narratives of late nineteenth-century colonial writers, such as Olive Schreiner in South Africa, whose fictions demonstrate a recognition of their marginal positions in the colonial "wastelands."iv From a position of geographical and experiential distance, Schreiner attempts in her fiction to redress the discursive lines that link the colony with the metropolis. Curiously, coming from the reaches of the empire, her novel, The Story of an African Farm makes productive use of ideas of waste rather than refuting them; that is, Schreiner represents the colonial world as a social and cultural wasteland, but her representation parodies metropolitan conceptions of colonial reality rather than mirroring them. Through this parodic frame, she embraces the idea of waste as a figure potentially in the service of independence.
In this paper, I explore how by its setting in the desert, Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm responds to the mandates, the assumptions and the fantasies that accompanied the century-long project of settlement in the British colonies. In the preface to The Story of An African Farm, the narrator claims that this narrative will present a real picture of colonial life in South Africa in distinction to the wild and fanciful stories about the empire that are produced in London. This real picture presents an intellectual and creative wasteland underlaid by a parodic narrative voice that illustrates how colonial reality has been forged by metropolitan visions of waste, degeneracy and excess. Through a double-edged, parodic discourse, this narrative endeavors to produce a colonial consciousness that makes use of its own condition of excess and eccentricity from mainstream British literature for purposes of creative production. As a colonial parody, Schreiner's novel offers, I argue, a form that is peculiarly geopolitical in nature. Her colonial parody is predicated on the geographical distance and on the ideological connections between imperial metropolis and colonial periphery, and it makes discursive use of this double space to represent colonial conditions.
Published in London in 1883, Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm is marked by its parodic response to metropolitan British colonial conceptions about South African settlement. The novel is, in the sense given by M.M. Bakhtin, double-voiced. Its pretensions towards an authentic portrayal of "everyday" colonial life require not only an effort at representing experienced reality but also an awareness of literary images about colonial life that are less rigorously realistic.v Schreiner's allegiances are apparently colonial, but this loyalty is fraught by a sense of accountability to British conventions, both social and literary.vi It offers a fairly consistent use of what Bakhtin calls "parodic stylization" where
the speech of another is introduced into the author's discourse (the story) in concealed form, that is without any of the formal markers usually accompanying such speech, whether direct or indirect. But this is not just another's speech in the same 'language' -it is another's utterance in a language that is itself 'other' to the author as well. ("Discourse in the Novel" 303)
Indeed, the novel's central female character, Lyndall, defines her own relationship to language similarly when she speaks to Waldo on the position of women: "Do not look at me as though I were talking nonsense. Everything has two sides-the outside that is ridiculous, and the inside that is solemn"(African Farm 154). Lyndall warns Waldo not to be blinded by the ridiculous but to pay heed also to that which is ridiculed. This "two-sided" language becomes characteristic of The Story of an African Farm as it presents colonial conditions (including those relating to the position of women) and responds to perceptions of the imperialist mission in Africa. From the novel's beginning, Schreiner marks a difference between an inside and an outside perspective, between fantasies of colonial space guided by distant metropolitan realities and the harsh realities of everyday life on a farm in South Africa. Hence she makes a distinction between colonial language and the language associated with imperial expansion. In the colony, the writer of integrity is obliged to "squeeze the colour from his brush, and dip it into the grey pigments around him" (Schreiner, xl).
Initially, the novel situates itself between colonial exotic and British domestic literature to offer a position that responds to both while not affiliating itself with either. The preface that heads the second edition of the novel responds to the reception of her book particularly by a "kind critic" who "would better have liked the little book if it had been a history of wild adventure; of cattle driven into inaccessible 'kranzes' by bushmen; 'of encounters with ravening lions, and hair-breadth escapes'" (xl). In response to these suggestions (presumably made by Schreiner's acquaintance, adventure writer H. Rider Haggard), the narrator claims that such accounts "are best written in Piccadilly or in the Strand: there the gifts of the creative imagination, untrammelled by contact with any fact, may spread their wings" (xl).vii In Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire, Martin Green marks a distinction between British domestic fiction and adventure fiction as writing that is "serious versus nonserious" (57). In Green's terms, the domestic novel (serious fiction) dealt with subjects such as courtship, marriage and family life and was inclined towards moral rigor and imaginative artistic expression. "Domestic" fiction refers to narratives originating in and about Britain; colonial writers, it seems, were literally outside the parameters for such expression. Adventure fiction, in "polar opposition," dealt not with the moral implications of everyday life, but instead depicted a series of extraordinary exploits and conquests that underlined the colonial enterprise and its relationship to commerce, the market and global domination (M. Green 58). Green claims that "clearly, English literature had organized itself into a system, of which the central seriousness was hostile to the material of adventure and therewith of empire and frontier" (65). Green further suggests that "serious writers facing the colonial theme felt an inhibition or a prohibition, from which they turned away to the courtship theme" (63). While the accuracy of Green's classification is debatable, it nevertheless provides a rudimentary scheme to situate Schreiner's colonial fiction between the British domestic courtship novel and the colonial adventure narrative, and it encourages a recognition of how her fiction participates in and also rejects metropolitan literary conventions.viii
African Farm takes the empire seriously; her characters, colonial subjects, undergo excessive ideological and physical struggles concerning their placement in the world and these struggles are depicted in light of a discursive split between colonial experience and metropolitan conceptions of that experience. In the colonial setting, the narrative plays with social and literary inhibitions, and it makes show of moral and ideological prohibitions associated with gender, class, race and geographical place. The novel situates itself between the polarities of adventure and domesticity while parodying the conventions and the pretensions of both: while it does present a picture of exotic colonial lands, it presents those lands as hostile and barren; while it is not a colonial adventure, African Farm portrays an adventurer whose talent for wild, untrammeled storytelling renders him dangerous; while it is not a novel about courtship in the conventional sense, unconventional marriage, love and desire are at issue.
In the preface, the narrator suggests that this narrative may disturb readers as it deals "with a subject that is far removed from the round of English daily life" (xil). This distance is, in the most literal sense, geographical - between South Africa and England was a journey of several months and the journey between was long and arduous. Topographically, the colonies of the southern hemisphere were considered to be the underside of the globe; they were perceived as the world turned upside-down or as Edward Gibbon Wakefield's speaker claimed of Australia in his fictional A Letter From Sidney (1829): "Remember where I am. I am standing, with my head downwards, as it were, almost under your feet" (30). Geographical distance inspired a conceptual metonymy that rendered the colony as an "underside" of English life, a location where moral and social conventions were disrupted by a dizzy dislocation.ix In No Man's Land, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue that Schreiner's position outside the metropolis or her "inside" perspective of South African farm life empowered the author to challenge British moral and social attitudes. They place her book and the colonial life it represents as "situated on the margins of patriarchal culture in a space where history might be reconstituted so as to let women rebel against the power of Him-who-had-been-obeyed in the past" (52). This argument, based on Lyndall's subversive feminism and her nontraditional stance towards marriage, implies that the colonial world was a realm outside the center of metropolitan power and therefore disposed towards ideological and social independence from British rule.
From another perspective, in his introduction to the Oxford edition of African Farm, Joseph Bristow quotes a 1912 review by suffragist Rebecca West as commenting that while the novel had some merit, Schreiner "was less a woman than a geographical fact" (xxvi). West sees Schreiner's "outside" or colonial position as a handicap to the effectiveness of her voice to evoke real change within the metropolis. Bristow assigns this criticism to a perceived incompatibility between "politics and poetics" (xxvii) in British literary circles. West's sense of Schreiner as representing a place rather than a person or a political agenda rather than an artist offers insight how, in its reception in England, Schreiner's novel was accepted as geographical and social exotica while discounted for its humanistic literary value. As such, the novel (both in its reception and in the narrative itself) becomes suggestive of an incompatibility between globalization and insular stability. Considering her voyage to London to see her novel published and her several subsequent journeys between South Africa and England, I would suggest that African Farm is not quite so removed from "the round of English daily life" as the preface claims; rather it plays with geographical and conceptual distance between metropolis and colony to present a colonial vision that distinguishes itself from common British understandings of the empire. The novel encourages a global vision that does not radiate from the metropolis but which looks back towards the center from outside. African Farm brings a parodic vision of colonial life back to London not as an attempt at empowerment from beyond the borders of the imperial power but as an effort towards intervention in the prevalence of colonial fantasies and towards artistic ideological independence.
Diverging from the exotic, the narrative is set on a farm in the Karroo desert where the only topographical diversion is a "kopje," a small hill, amidst the flat and barren horizon:
alone it lay there, as over some giant's grave. Here and there a few tufts of grass or small succulent plants had sprung up among its stones, and on the very summit a clump of prickly-pears lifted their thorny arms, and reflected, as from mirrors, the moonlight on their broad fleshy leaves (Schreiner 1)
At the foot of the "kopje" stands the farmhouse, the surrounding buildings and the paddocks for the livestock and beyond extends the monotonous dessert. This setting follows the lines of the classic promontory scene in which the explorer or traveler stands at some height above the land and surveys the landscape below from a position associated with power. In Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, Mary Louise Pratt calls the convention of the promontory view in travel literature part of the "monarch-of-all-I-survey" genre (201) in which the travel writer produces a "verbal painting" of the scene for readers in Europe. Pratt argues that this convention entails an "interaction between esthetics and ideology" (205) where
the esthetic qualities of the landscape constitute the social and material value of the discovery to the explorers' home culture, at the same time as its esthetic deficiencies suggest a need for social and material intervention by the home culture. (205)
However, the kopje offers a parodic figure of this pedestal. In its opening to African Farm, the hill brings no view but expansiveness and emptiness; there are no exotic animals except sheep and domestic ostriches and the flora is sparse and desperate looking. From afar, the "little 'kopje' was not itself an object conspicuous enough to relieve the dreary monotony of the landscape" (Schreiner 139). Its value for the "home culture" is questionable, and as the narrative indicates, there is little potential for improvement of the landscape through the importation of European culture. J.M. Coetzee writes "we have seen nothing to distinguish Schreiner's farm from raw nature; it is undomesticated, and at the level I have been describing, indomesticable" (White Writing 64). "Civilization" as a way of life cannot penetrate the desert. The eyes that look out from the 'kopje' are those of the farm children, Lyndall, Waldo and Em, who in gazing at the landscape beyond, descry their own powerlessness, contemplate a godless world and desperately long for a more intellectually satisfying life.
In British public and philanthropic literature, the colonies were
reported to be a virtual Eden where England's disenfranchised classes
might find financial and moral redemption. In his In Darkest England
and the Way Out, Salvation Army Organizer General William Booth
claimed that the British colonies were "supposed to be the
paradise of the working-man" (145), and he set forth a three-fold
plan to transfer emigrants to the colonies while cultivating their
moral and religious salvation. Family Emigration Advocate, Caroline
Chisholm also supported emigration so that the impoverished and
degraded at home might discover financial independence and moral
redemption in the "vast and fair regions unoccupied by man,
nature alone being mistress thereof (The A.B.C. of Colonization
26). With the publication of African Farm in the latter part of
the century, Schreiner brings reports and stories of these emigrants
back to England, but the story she tells is a distorted version
of the one predicted by advocates like Booth and Chisholm. In Schreiner's
novel, there is no integration with nature; the desert is inhospitable
and the civilization promised in these outward-looking discourses
cannot flourish . Coetzee suggests that "Schreiner is anti-colonial
both in her assertion of the alienness of European culture in Africa
and in her attribution of unnaturalness to the life of the farm.
To accept the farm as home is to accept a living death" (White
i See for instance, Oliver MacDonagh, Ed., Emigration in the Victorian
Age: Debate on the issue from 19th century critical journals. Edward
Gibbon Wakefield, A Letter From Sidney and Other Writings. Caroline
Chisholm, The A. B. C. of Colonization in a Series of Letters.
Bakhtin, M.M. "Discourse in the Novel" The Dialogic Imagination.
Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist.
Austin: U of Austin P, 1981: 259-422.