A critical study of Olive Schreiner's fiction in a historical and biographical context.
Wilhelm, Cherry Ann.
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Olive Schreiner's fiction is best understood in the context of her colonial situation : she experienced central Victorian spiritual dilemmas and social constrictions, but refracted through a rural colonial culture. A complex position of power and powerlessness, superiority and inferiority, individual assertiveness and self- abnegation, is the crux of her fictional world. Her formative years were spent within a culturally deprived rural environment in a dependent position as servant/governess, yet her reading gave her access to leading Victorian intellectuals who were trying to create a new synthesis out of the conflict between Darwin's revolutionary theory and faith in a God-given and unquestionable order, between science and faith, between a new spirit of 'realistic' enquiry and Christian dogma. The problem for the colonial novelist is similar to that of the provincial novelist : the writer seeking intellectual stimulus and cultural enrichment at the metropolitan centre often has to forego a sense of community, and a youthful emotional bond with a nourishing, indigenous landscape, frequently the original source of a sense of spiritual harmony and an underlying order in the universe itself. The colonial novelist thus expresses a tragic breach between individual and community, and a sense of irreconcilable needs. This process is best exemplified in the careers of women, because the difficulty in finding a suitable partner, and a fulfilling marriage, exemplifies the radical problem of reconciling nature and nurture, instinct and social convention. Solitariness, and death, can become the conditions of integrity. Nevertheless, Schreiner's analysis of social problems becomes more detailed and incisive as she develops, and social reform offers a way out of a doomed conflict. Schreiner's childhood reading of the Bible and her evangelical inheritance were crucial to her life and fiction. In both a spirit of charity and self-sacrifice was central, and contended with a popular Victorian view of Darwinism which saw nature as a struggle for survival, a competition between the 'fittest' in which power would be decisive. Schreiner's visionary optimism about moral and social progress was checked by a sense of natural cruelty, historical repetition and decadence, and the early influence of the doctrine of 'original sin'. Schreiner saw her fiction as having a social mission, but the mission could only be accomplished by a novelist true to her individual vision, and expressing her 'self' by aesthetic means. A novel should grow 'organically' from the artist's individual vision, and thus be analogous to a living and unfolding natural world, developing according to its awn inherent laws. Schreiner understood Art and Nature as complementary orders. Her theory of art is thorough and internally consistent : writing should be simple, sensuous, and passionate, and should reconcile social function and artistic design. The power and directness of colonial art reunited her with the Victorian metropolitan centre, though she experienced Victorian social issues in a particular, intensified form in South Africa. Nevertheless, her reponse to South African landscapes, her sense of its 'will to live' at the same time stimulated her own power of creativity, which would counter the stultifying effects of rural isolation and the social restraints on, and exploitation of uneducated women. Schreiner's spirit of militancy and a reliance on the individual conscience stemmed from her evangelical forebears, though she translated their religious non-conformism into social protest in the South African context. Her family was part of the missionary wing of Imperialism and at the same time part of the current of liberalism and enlightenment which clashed with a conservative slave-owning society in South Africa. Her own fiction expresses the plight of the 'slave' in a sequence of metaphorical transformations. The figures of the child, the young women, the servant, the convict, the slave, the prostitute, the black man and the black women interrelate and modify a simple portrait of victimization. Her fiction also draws on the homiletic tradition of evangelical literature,which used deathbed scenes as the carriers of a moral message. Schreiner's writing displays a characteristically Victorian range of non-fiction and fiction, pamphlets, letters, diaries satires, dream-visions, autobiographical fragments, and ambitious full-Iength novels. Her writing displays the Victorian concern with autobiographical and confessional literature as well as direct political and social intervention in a corrupt society. She shaped her life more and more consciously into a variety of narrative forms, from erotic fantasies and escapist to more outwardly-directed satirical and reformist fiction. Her early experience of homelessness economic and social dependence on strangers, as well as sexual vulnerability to men, was crucial in her formative experience. But here, too, she overcame a tendency toward masochism and narcissistic self-reflection to portray a women whose survival and growth expressed the strong side of Schreiner's vigorous and mature feminism. Schreiner's fictions, from the fragment "Diamond Fields" and the youthful Undine, to the early 'masterpiece' The Story of an African Farm, to the political satire Trooper Peter Halket and the encyclopedic though unfinished From Man to Man, display great narrative fertility, and an ability to modify and develop her own characteristic themes, images, and characters. An early multiplication of female victims gave way to the rich oppositions and multiple different-sex protagonists of African Farm, and the concentration yet divergence of the double-female protagonist situation of From Man to Man. All of her fictions move along a spectrum from protest to vision, realism to dream/allegory, and she inverts - and adapts the proportions in accordance with the aims of each particular work. Her fiction shows variety, creative richness, yet a growing economy of means and artistic control of genre. Her development as a novelist was away from a narcissitic focus on the self as victim towards a commitment to suffering forms of life outside the self. She also displayed a growing commitment to the social analysis of human suffering, and to South Africa as the crucible in which she had been formed, as a landscape which offered her an image of harmony to set against social malfunction, and as the strongest source of her own creativity.