2001 MMLA
Globalization and the Image

Kristine Kelly
Case Western Reserve University


Parodies of Empire: Colonial Fictions and the Politics of Self-Representation


Do not cite without permission of the author.

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 Writing 66).

At the novel's opening, Waldo in a state of religious fervor attempts a sacrifice to God. He sets his dinner on a crudely made altar and desires the meat to burst into flame as a sign of God's recognition of his existence in this desert. The only response is silence and the first troopers of an army of ants who come to feast on his sacrifice. Waldo's initial response to this unresponsiveness on God's part is to see himself as beyond the grace of God. Two years later, however, Waldo sits at the summit of the "kopje" and confesses to the unresponsive landscape and to an absent God his secret that "[he] hate[s] God" (9). He has been, he believes, abandoned. While the narrator initially defends this irreligious declaration as the result of "intense loneliness," the narrative proceeds to show that Waldo's alienation from religious faith is perhaps justified by the mental and physical abuse inflicted on him in this wilderness. The lawless and desolate colonial world, not Waldo, is presented as godless, as a mockery of Christian goodwill.

In the novel's intermediary chapter, "Times and Seasons" the narrator chronicles the desire for faith in the desert and the eventual loss of faith: the child at seven likes "best of all . . . the story of Elijah in his cave at Horeb, and the still, small voice" (African Farm 103) but despite yearning for such reassurance, the voice of God is never heard. In this chapter chronicling the progress of faith, there comes an inevitable awakening because "the imagination cannot always triumph over reality, the desire over truth" (113) and the narrator claims that "now we have no God" (113). The "we" in this chronicle seems not to refer to humanity in general but to persons whose have been influenced by a sense of geographical dislocation where one "sees no relation between cause and effect, no order, but a blind chance sporting"(115). The value of existence becomes questionable in what the narrator at least initially calls "this dirty little world full of confusion, and the blue rag, stretched overhead for a sky, is so low we could touch it with our hand"( 115). Schreiner's characters find that the land they inhabit does not, in any sense but a twisted reflection, resemble the Eden-like possibilities promised by metropolitan philanthropic discourses.

Carried away by his religious fervor, Waldo, himself, seems to be a caricature of the faithful pilgrim, but any ridicule associated with him pales as his alienation is wrought ultimately by the horrific exploits of emigrant, Bonaparte Blenkins. Like his father, Otto, who through a sense of Christian generosity gives his food, his money and even the clothes off his back to anyone in need, even the trickster, Bonaparte Blenkins, only to be driven from his home and sniggered at, Waldo receives little in return for his goodwill. The 'gentleman' stranger who stops to speak with Waldo asks him if he is happy to be "here with the karroo-bushes and red sand." (135). While Waldo wonders if he is being ridiculed, the stranger justifies his query by positioning Waldo as an intermediary between the old world and the new:

To all who have been born in the old faith there comes a time of danger, when the old slips from us, and we have not yet planted our feet on the new. We hear the voice from Sinai thundering no more, and the still small voice of reason in not yet heard. (135)

As the stranger, himself, leaves the desert for the town, he answers his own question and decides that Waldo is indeed "happy to be here" (137) in the desert. He leaves Waldo with a book that "may give [him] a centre round which to hang [his] ideas, instead of letting them lie about in a confusion that makes the head ache." Ultimately, the stranger does not mock Waldo but he does in his final judgment render him a sacrifice to the desert: one who cannot realize the promise of imperial expansion into the wastelands but also one whose story, if properly centered, might one day be of value.

In its presentation of natural desolation, African Farm offers a responsive variation to writings by early colonial settler and poet, Thomas Pringle. Among the 1820 settlers to South Africa, Pringle never achieved the status of major poet in England; however, his African Sketches were well received in England and he has had serious consideration in South Africa.x His most popular poem "Afar in the Desert" received the praise of S. T. Coleridge as "among the two or three most perfect lyric Poems in our language" (quoted in Periera and Chapman 80). This poem depicts a settler who rides far into the lonely Karroo desert "with the silent Bush-boy alone by [his] side" (Pringle, l. 2) to escape in solitude the sorrows and the pettiness of life in the colonial town. The speaker carries only his "death-fraught firelock" (l. 39) and his dissatisfaction with life to the desert, "A region of emptiness, howling and drear,/ Which Man hath abandoned from famine and fear (ll. 73-4). The poem culminates with the speaker sitting "by the desert stone,/ Like Elijah at Horeb's cave alone" (ll.91-2), and he hears the voice of God through the desolation:

'A still small voice' comes through the wild
(Like a Father consoling his fretful Child),
Which banishes bitterness, wrath, and fear,--
Saying-Man IS DISTANT, BUT GOD IS NEAR! (ll. 93-96)

Influenced by the Romantic ideas of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, in this poem Pringle's speaker finds in sublime nature (the vast, godless desert) a means to overcome the emptiness of everyday life. He represents the natural world including the barren dessert of the colony as a force that can indeed be subdued and contained by European man. When the speaker looks for God, he, unlike Waldo, is not met with silence but with "a still small voice" that comforts him and defends his place in this wilderness. As far as this speaker is concerned, God can and does intervene into the wilderness. This responsiveness is not merely a question of faith, but in terms of colonial literary history, it becomes a question of the possibilities of narrative to delineate the reality of the colonial world. While Pringle writing in the 1820s leads the nineteenth century in his representations of colonial life in South Africa, Schreiner's African Farm might be seen as an after word, a parodic response to discourses that envisioned the colonial landscape only with a vision of the empire. Her work recasts what one might call the youthful optimism of Pringle's " Afar in the Desert." While the speaker in that poem strengthened by his communion with God, can ride out of the desert and back to "the world of men," Waldo, hovering between the old world and the new, cannot. He can only try to organize his thoughts for a coming day.

In its setting, Schreiner's African Farm provides a stylized representation of colonial life that has an inverse relationship with metropolitan discourses. With its "kopje," its outlying buildings and its vast monotonous horizon, the farm, itself, points towards prohibitions associated with colonial discourses: it presents and godless world where power, desire and sexuality are uninhibited. he wild and indomesticable setting of the farm offers a contextual frame in which the action that occurs, from the hoodwinking of Otto and Tant Sannie to the ruthless persecution of Waldo by Bonaparte Blenkins to Gregory Rose's courtship of Em and his fascination for Lyndall, becomes a charade of and commonplace conceptions of colonial life and also of what might be called "civilized" literary conventions. From this desert "wasteland" Schreiner's novel writes back to the empire and refuses to allow itself to be hoodwinked by the promises that have attended discourses of imperialist expansion.


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.

ii Here one might consider characters and conditions in, for instance, William Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford and Mary Barton.

iii See, for instance, Caroline Chisholm's The A. B. C. of Colonization in a Series of Letters and General William Booth's In Darkest England and the Way Out.

iv See Henry Lawson's collection of short stories While the Billy Boils first published in 1896.

v For a discussion o f Schreiner's literary relationship with the conventions of nineteenth-century realism and with colonial adventure fiction, see Louise Green "The Unhealed Wound: Olive Schreiner's expressive art," pp.22-27.

vi At the end of the century with the publication of a series of articles, "Some Thoughts on South Africa," that discussed and supported Boer lifestyles despite British propaganda against the Boers in light of the Anglo-Boer war, Schreiner's allegiances are brought to issue.

vii See Gilbert and Gubar, 51-52. While H. Rider Haggard, himself, did indeed live in South Africa, his many novels including Alan Quatermain and She do not aspire to present a picture of everyday life in the colony.

viii For responses that diverge from Greens classification, see Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism and also Richard Phillips, Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure.

ix For a discussion of humanist geography as it might apply to this point, see Gillian Rose, Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge, especially chapter 3: "No Place for Women?"

x. For discussions of Pringle and his relationship to the history of South African literature, see Dirk Klopper, "Politics of the Pastoral: The Poetry of Thomas Pringle" and Angus Calder "Thomas Pringle (1789-1834): A Scottish Poet in South Africa."

Works Cited

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.

Booth, General William. In Darkest England and The Way Out. London: International Headquarters of the Salvation Army, n.d.

Bristow, Joseph. "Introduction." The Story of an African Farm. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1998.

Calder, Angus. "Thomas Pringle (1789-1834): A Scottish Poet in South Africa." English in Africa. 9 (1). 1982: 1-14.

Chisholm, Caroline. The A. B. C. of Colonization in a Series of Letters. London: John Ollivier, 1850.

Coetzee, J.M. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. New Haven: Yale U P, 1988.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar Susan. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century; Volume 2: Sexchanges. New Haven: Yale U P, 1989.

Green, Louise. "The Unhealed Wound: Olive Schreiner's expressive art." Pretexts: studies in writing and culture. 6.1 (1997): 21-34.

Green, Martin. Deeds of Adventure, Dreams of Empire. New York: Basic Books, 1979

Haggard, H. Rider. Three Adventure Novels of H. Rider Haggard She, King Solomon's Mines and Alan Quatermain. New York: Dover Publications, 1951.

Hitchins, Fred H. The Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1931.

Klopper, Dirk. "Politics of the Pastoral: The Poetry of Thomas Pringle." English in Africa. (17)1. May 1990: 21-60.

MacDonagh, Oliver. Ed. Emigration in the Victorian Age: Debate on the issue from 19th century critical journals. Germany: Gregg International Publishers, 1973.

Phillips, Richard. Mapping Men and Empire: A Geography of Adventure. London: Routledge, 1997.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.

Pringle, Thomas. African Poems of Thomas Pringle. Eds. Ernest Pereira and Michael Chapman. Durban: U of Natal P, 1989.

Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1998.

Wakefield, Edward Gibbon. A Letter From Sidney and Other Writings. London: J.M. Dent, 1 929.