A coming of age novel, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm highlights the fates of three children, each holding differing positions toward the gender roles that confine their society.. The character of Lyndall, orphan and cousin to Em, strongly contrasts both Em and her caretaker, Tant Sannie, who easily conform to male authority and female domesticity. Motivated by a strong desire to be self-sufficient, Lyndall educates herself, rebelling against the ignorance of traditional gender roles instilled in school. Lyndall articulates complex feminist arguments in relation to education, love, marriage, and motherhood, challenging “The Woman Question” and representing a new woman in the colonial setting. “The Future Supremacy of Women” by Eliza Lynn Linton counters these feminist argument, believing that challenging the sufficient roles that society has imparted on women would fare the world badly, and in pursuing equal rights and equal knowledge, they lose the virtues of womanhood. Although differing in ideals, both Schreiner and Linton centralize on the struggle for women’s gender equality, personal freedom and sexual liberation, with Linton’s article serving as a testament to Lyndal’s plight for freedom and ultimate failure.
Despite the traditional stereotypes of gender roles that are instilled in Victorian finishing schools, Lyndall places precedence on education as a means for liberation from the ignorance that confines her gender. Upon returning home from an all-girls boarding school, she describes it to Waldo as one of the most “cursed places under the sun, where the hungriest soul can hardly pick up a few grains of knowledge,” (Chapter 2. IV). Lyndall believes that finishing schools are created to enforce conformity, “finish everything but imbecility and weakness… are nicely adapted machines for experimenting on the question, “into how little space a human soul can be crushed?” (Chapter 2. IV). Despite the education system that educates and cultures girls by women “without knowledge of life, without love of the beautiful, without strength,” Lyndall returns with a strong knowledge of radical feminist theories (Chapter 2. IV).
Comparing as a loveless marriage to a form of prostitution for its convenience and necessity, Lyndall illustrates the reality that young women are shaped by society to disregard their own aspirations and and solely suit the needs of men. Considering marriage as something easily attainable through youth and good looks, Lyndall regards “marriage for love s the beautifullest external symbol of the union of souls… marriage without it s the uncleanliest traffic that defiles the world,” (Chapter 2. IV). Lyndal continues to share her views on love and marriage with friend and fellow farm companion, Waldo, highlighting the different ideals and experiences of love for men and women. Lyndall draws comparison between the shallowness and conditionality of a man’s love to the enduring and constant love of woman, saying “a woman’s ‘cool’, ‘long’ love cannot be properly reciprocated by the ‘short’ and ‘hot’ love of a man – they are, in fact, as oppositional as fire and ice,” (Chapter 2.IV). Lyndall critiques male chivalry, relating an instance in which she was a passenger on a train, and while surrounded by men, she was the only one to offer her seat to an elderly lady.
Lyndall compares the love and attention of men to the behavior of bees; just as “the bees are very attentive to the flowers till their honey is done, and then they fly over them,” men’s affections for women are also seasonal, their attention passed on to the next woman, their purpose short-lived (Chapter 2.IV). Lyndall’s criticism extends toward women for appreciating the brief love and affection that was given to them, saying, I don’t know if the flowers feel grateful to the bees; they are great fools if they do,” (Chapter 2.IV). Further along in the novel, Lyndall writes a letter to her “stranger,” the father of her child born out of wedlock. She writes: “you love me because you cannot bear to be resisted, and you want to master me. You liked me first because I treated you and all men with indifference. That is all your love means,” (Chapter 2.IX). This reference to mastery foregrounds the inequality Lyndall perceives at the core of all relationships between men and women. Lyndall recognizes that her stranger sees her only as a challenge, an enigma for him to ‘master’ and tame, never as an equal.
Domestic duty in the form of marriage was considered to be one of the primary responsibilities of women in the late 1800’s, greatly established in Victorian modes of patriarchy. Schreiner positions Lyndall’s character opposed to this concept, rejecting the notion of marriage that exists in her time period, yet hopeful for the possibility of a different kind of romantic union emerging between men and women. Despite her pointed critique of the capacity of male love and chivalry, Lyndall does not reject the notion of love altogether, instead coming to the realization that mutual love and respect between men and women cannot exist within the confines of the Victorian gender ideologies. Despite never being romantically linked in the novel, Lyndall does however experience the kind of mutual love and respect she so longs for with Waldo, made apparent when she says, “I like you so much, I love you . . . When I am with you I never know that I am a woman and you are a man; I only know that we are both things that think. Other men when I am with them, whether I love them or not…are mere bodies to me; but you are a spirit,” (Chapter 2.VI). Lyndall’s assertion of love for Waldo symbolizes the possibility for a union between the two sexes that ignores the implications of their genders. Lyndall never finds fulfillment in her relationship with her stranger or Waldo, this resulting in part as to why she never marries. Lyndall’s refusal to marry her stranger can be attributed to the notion that if she participated in this common practice of society, she would be relinquishing the freedom she had long worked for through her resistance. After the death of Lyndall’s child, her stranger makes a final attempt in persuading her to marry him, promising that through marriage, he can “put hand around from the world,” (Chapter 2.XII). Ultimately, Lyndall’s death as well as her refusal to wed are a result of the fact that she cannot have both love and freedom in Victorian society without compromising the other.
Interrelated to the notion of love and marriage is motherhood, as Lyndall reluctantly becomes pregnant out of wedlock with her stranger. Lyndall originally never had the desire to be a mother, apparent upon her return from school when she tells Em that she “d not so greatly admire the crying of babies,” (Chapter 2.IV). She later confesses to Waldo her fear of raising a child, saying, “I would not like to bring a soul into this world. When it sinned and when it suffered something like a dead hand would fall on me…it would always hang like a millstone round my neck, have the right to demand good from me, and curse me for its sorrow,” (Chapter 2.VI). Lyndall stresses the tremendous moral responsibility that is motherhood and childrearing, concluding that “it must be a terrible thing to bring a human being into world,” (Chapter 2.VI). Contradicting this assertion on the nature of motherhood, in an earlier passage Lyndall tells Waldo that motherhood is actually “the mightiest and noblest of human work’, and that ‘there never was a great man who had not a great mother’ (Chapter 2.IV). Lyndall’s uncertainty about motherhood is rooted in the fact that while she regards motherhood to be mighty and noble, motherhood is ultimately not meant for her as a woman. She loses her child three hours after its birth, this implying the fact that although she possesses the biological capacity to bear children as a woman, she lacks the moral and emotional capacity needed to raise that ‘soul’ into a functional human being.
While Schreiner presents motherhood as an opportunity to demonstrate concern and nurturing beyond the self, for Lyndall’s character, it becomes a mode of entrapment. Lyndall’s pregnancy leaves her physically impaired, her biological capacity as a woman and life giver crippling her aspirations for achieving intellectual and social equality. In conversation with her stranger she tells him that her pregnancy has made her “los the right to meet on equal terms,” (Chapter 2.IX). Denying responsibility in reproduction and parenthood is also presented within the novel, as Lyndall becomes enraged over the ignorance of the phrase “God sends the little babies,” (Chapter 2.VI). The negligence of such a phrase makes it “of all the dastardly revolting lies men tell to suit themselves, hate the most” by Lyndall (Chapter 2.VI). Lyndall refutes the notion that humans are not culpable for procreation, emphasizing the need for parents to be accountable. She supports this argument by sharing the story of her own parents with Waldo, both of which left her to fend for herself, feeling no sense of responsibility for her. As a product of child negligence, Lyndall highlights the effects on the children of these unaccountable parents, saying, “I suppose my father said when he knew he was dying of consumption, and my mother when she knew she had nothing to support me on, and they created me to feed like a dog from stranger hands,” (Chapter 2.VI). Though giving birth, Lyndall defies the confines and expectations of motherhood, having her child out of wedlock, unable to nurture it during its brief existence, and failing develop the nurturing heart of a mother.
Linton’s “The Future Supremacy of Women” lashes verbally at middle class progressive women who use their education as a means for access to a political platform. Allowing women a voice in politics is deemed by Linton as “one of the most fatal mistakes men and women can make, and equally suicidal to the best interests of both,” (Linton 6). Linton believes “women have the key of the position they ought to fill in the greater reticence, the more sensitive modesty, which… was once more universally regarded as part of their moral equipment than it is now. (3) Linton continues her feminist critique, saying, “for those who go in for equal rights and equal knowledge—whether they claim for themselves the freedom hitherto reserved for men only, or demand from men the same restricted purity as is essential to women—the reticence, which was once one of their sweetest charms and was so carefully respected by the average man, exists no longer,” (4). Linton references similar values that are noted by Lyndall to be instilled by Victorian finishing schools, pity and delicacy, saying, “when these two qualities…born of the power of individualization possessed by women…are lost by their own hardness and coarseness, or are suffered to be unduly predominant, the work of the world fares badly,” (2). Linton presents this notion that if women challenge the gender roles of Victorian society by educating themselves and pursuing political involvement, the world will suffer.
Linton reinforces the Victorian model of a woman as a wife, with subservience to men believed to be a woman’s greatest asset. As women become restless in their fight for equality, Linton proclaims “the very virtues, such as unselfishness, patience, devotion, without which the family cannot be preserved, are dying out with the love for family life characteristic of modern times,” (4). With women no longer wanting to be financially dependent on men, Linton believes “the excitement and struggle of a man’s career, seems to them infinitely higher, as well as more alluring, than the duties and pleasures of the home… they re discontented with all they have and are, desiring only that which they have not and ought not to be (4). Considering women’s fight for equal rights as a misstep to society, Linton trivializes their advancement, saying, “if they have only the ordinary domestic work to do, they complain of its monotony, and wish for anything rather than the ordering of the dinner, the arrangement of the supplies, the overlooking of the servants, the supervision of the children,” (4). Although Linton believes the work of a woman should only take place within the domestic sphere, she does advise that “women who undertake the work of men must by necessity have only the soft places and bear only the lighter burdens… they must do what they can, it being useless to attempt what they cannot (5). Similarly, Linton also believes “that it would be wiser for women to create new industries for themselves—like the art-needlework and china-painting of modern date…than to continue this humiliating struggle against nature itself” in trying to work beyond the bounds of the domestic setting (6).
The greatest loss that Linton believes “The Woman Question” and the feminist movement will register on a woman is the stripping away of the tender qualities that make them desirable in marriage. Being a politically educated and outspoken woman to Linton means “it will increase that disastrous desire to ape men which is as a canker in the women of to-day, and will make them less and less like the ideal which the world has agreed to respect and love,” (7). Holding precedence in subservience in marriage and believing that feminist theories “weaken the sentiments, the affections, the specialized virtues which go with womanhood,” Linton scolds women who “abandon their own delightful domain of sensitive perception, generous belief, kindly action, unselfish devotion, for the strife of politics and the egotistic ambition of the platform, are women who give up the substance for the shadow” (7). Linton would wholly disagree with Lyndall’s decision not to marry, whether it be to her stranger, or to Waldo, as she believes “women are not separated from men,… live with them on exactly the same social plane, and have abundant time and space to make their wants known,” (10). Linton would have insisted Lyndall express her desire for reciprocated love, respect, and power in a relationship instead of choosing to forgo this common societal practice of matrimony altogether. Linton closes with the notion that behind every great man is a great woman, and encourages women to embrace their roles as mothers and wives, supporting their husband instead of challenging them.
Through Lyndall’s character, Schreiner’s “The Story of the African Farm,” encapsulates the challenging of gendered ideologies of education, love, marriage and motherhood in Victorian society. Schreiner demonstrates the reality that gender roles are in fact socially determined and can be consciously changed or reversed. Unfortunately, Lyndall as representative of the “new woman,” fails to achieve any of her goals, including higher education, personal freedom and sexual liberation. Lyndall dies in childbirth, refusing to marry her anonymous lover because she does not want to conform to this societal convention with strictly determined gender roles. Her death can be considered an act of overcoming the oppressive patriarchal society she lives in. Linton would attribute Lyndall’s failures in life as well as her death to her unwillingness to be subservient in embracing the expectations of her gender as wife and mother.