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Learning from Nature: Feminism, Allegory and Ostriches in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883)

Pratique allégorique et pensée féministe: la place de l’autruche dans The Story of an African Farm (1883) d’Olive Schreiner
Nathalie Saudo-Welby


This essay explores the interconnections between the discourses on animals, the Empire and women, three domains in which the confidence of the late-Victorian male was being tested at the end of the nineteenth century. It focuses on the South African novelist and essayist Olive Schreiner, whose allegorical turn of mind and intimate knowledge of the Veld predisposed her to look towards animals as conveyors of argumentative meaning. It contextualizes her first novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883), within the ostrich boom and the feather trade of the 1880s and 1890s. It examines how the ostrich participates in an aesthetic of relations, which ranges from Schreiner’s allegorical practice to the reader’s method of interpreting the novel.

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  • 1 In The Animal Estate, Harriet Ritvo writes: ‘in adults as well as children, the treatment of animal (...)

1The connections between the commitment for Women’s Rights and the protection of animals are well known, through figures such as Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904). A member of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage and the founder of two anti-vivisection societies, she denounced the domestic violence against married women before becoming a fervent opponent of vivisection. Her involvement in these two causes was based on her alertness to the abuse of animals and women. In feminist fiction, sympathy for animals and their rights was often expressed concurrently with sympathy for women and their rights. Violence against animals was taken as a symptom of man’s lack of consideration for nature and as evidence of his imperfect domination over his brutish nature.1 As husbands and as the main representatives of the scientific and medical professions, men were identified collectively as the source of women’s and animals’ oppression. Since nineteenth-century feminists insisted on women’s privileged relationship to nature, the abuse of animals and women was interpreted as a symptom of men’s confidence in their unbounded dominion over nature. In Victorian feminist fiction, animal cruelty is often offered as an equivalent of female psychological suffering. For instance, in The Beth Booth (1897) by the essayist and novelist Sarah Grand, Beth’s brutish husband is the keeper of a lock hospital, where prostitutes were detained under the Contagious Diseases Acts, and a vivisectionist. His maltreatment of animals and his unrepresented but implicit control over his female patients echo his ruthless treatment of his wife. After she has put down a suffering dog in her husband’s home laboratory, Beth explains to him that abhorrence of vivisection is the feminine attitude to have: ‘I cannot understand any but unsexed women associating with vivisectors’, she argues (Grand 441). In Victorian feminist fiction, human behaviour towards animals is strongly gendered and takes on a strong argumentative value.

2Conversely, in late nineteenth-century ‘male romance’, brutal behaviour to animals participated in the construction of masculinity. Travel narratives and boys’ adventure novels map out the wilderness as a male preserve where young men can test their manhood and develop qualities of industry, resilience and courage. ‘Killing animals’, John Miller writes, ‘appeared as a necessary element of most forms of exploration in the nineteenth century, whatever their central motivation’ (Miller 7-8). Miller’s reading of imperial romance demonstrates that animal slaughter was the standard reading fare of young boys, for the excitement, but also for the ennobling sense of daring which it was supposed to generate. Hunting provided explorers and colonizers with food and with glorious trophies, but it also answered their commercial and scientific purposes. John Miller also shows that this fight against otherness could be tinted with darker overtones when it was prolonged into the extermination of natives.

3However, within the context of the Victorian fashion for taxidermy and animal couture, women were not excluded from blame for their responsibility in the destruction of wild animal life (Daly, Doughty). ‘Although many women were active in the anti-feather movement, one of the most striking things about the campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic was their targeting of the female consumer more than the hunters, suppliers and milliners,’ Daly notes (175). The antifeminist novelist Ouida belittled the New Woman’s political aspirations by being ironic about the limited use Victorian women made of their private influence in important public domains, including the maltreatment of animals:

Her precept and example in the treatment of the animal creation might be of infinite use in mitigating the hideous tyranny of humanity over them, but she does little or nothing to this effect; she wears dead birds and the skins of dead creatures; she hunts the hare and shoots the pheasant, she drives and rides with more brutal recklessness than men; she watches with delight the struggles of the dying salmon, of the gralloched deer; she keeps her horses standing in snow and fog for hours with the muscles of their heads and necks tied up in the torture of the bearing rein; when asked to do anything for a stray dog, a lame horse, a poor man’s donkey, she is very sorry, but she has so many claims on her already; she never attempts by orders to her household, to her fournisseurs, to her dependents, to obtain some degree of mercy in the treatment of sentient creatures and in the methods of their slaughter. (Ouida 613-14)

  • 2 Nicholas Daly has suggested that the association of women with fur and feathers was loaded with sex (...)

4Ouida’s attack is directed at women’s lack of sympathy and excessive self-interest in general, but a few lines later, she insidiously blurs the distinction between the sophisticated fashion victim and the New Woman of the title: ‘Public life is already overcrowded, verbose, incompetent, fussy, and foolish enough without the addition of her in her sealskin coat with the dead humming bird on her hat.’ (Ouida 614) The caricature of the middle-aged, plain woman orator wearing ‘an inverted plate on her head tied on with strings under her double-chin’ (613) in the same article has very little in common with this proud wearer of urban animal fashion, but Ouida’s agenda is taking her beyond the lines of fairness and accuracy. The amalgamation of the Woman’s Rights Woman and the violator of animals’ rights into a single specimen of ‘volcanic womanhood’ (611) proves that even antifeminists could use animal discourse for their own purposes, and that lack of sympathy for animals is invariably utilized as a damning feature which bends itself to diverse sensational uses in fiction and the press.2

  • 3 These include R. M. Ballantyne, Rider Haggard, G. A. Henty, John Buchan and Paul Du Chaillu.

5Besides the rhetorical uses to which animal comparisons and references could be bent, the lot of the ‘dead humming bird’ on the Lady’s hat should also be considered. The Victorian craze for animal couture and taxidermy has been finely documented (Daly, Doughty). Recently, some scholars have emphasized the need for feminist and post-colonial literary criticism to look into the way fiction addresses environmental issues and questions of animal rights. The texts examined by John Miller were all authored and narrated by men,3 and there seems to remain some untilled ground for research into women’s accounts of colonial life, since such texts might subvert or question the male discourse of control and exploitation, as well as provide different insights into the political and gender implications of the discourse on animals.

6My purpose in this essay is to explore the interconnections between the discourses on animals, the Empire and women, three domains in which the confidence of late-Victorian men was being tested at the end of the nineteenth century. In order to do so, I am going to turn my attention to the South African novelist and essayist Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), whose allegorical turn of mind and intimate knowledge of the Veld predisposed her to look towards animals as conveyors of argumentative meaning. Schreiner was a committed writer who made her anti-colonial stance extremely clear in her non-fiction, and whose fiction often contains a subversive subtext which questions gender assumptions. Schreiner’s first and most successful novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883), made her famous as early as 1883 at the age of 28. Set in an ostrich and sheep farm on the South African Veld, the novel openly handles gender and colonial issues, and devotes some space to the largely disregarded literary subject of ostriches, to the point of creating an ostrich character named Hans. The ostrich mingles gender, colonial and animal rights issues, in a way which begs for a closer analysis of its literary representation. As Rob Nixon, another South African with an intimate knowledge of the Veld, notes: ‘the ostrich has feathered our dreams more luxuriantly than any other bird . . . . For millennia, we’ve borrowed ostrich glamour and used it to signal sexual and imperial power, seductive spectacle, escape.’ (Nixon 12)

The Early Days of the South African Ostrich Farming Industry

  • 4 ‘In all, three editions appeared in 1883, and over the next forty years there were twelve more.’ (F (...)

7At the period when Schreiner’s book was being published, and successfully reedited,4 South Africa was developing a thriving feather industry to meet the demands of a feather-craze which brought the weight-price of ostrich feathers close to that of gold. As early as 1877, Julius de Rosenthal and James Harting described the phenomenon as a ‘second-diamond discovery, or rather gold-discovery’ (Rosenthal and Harting 206). Lithuanian Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms sought refuge into South Africa to become feather-buyers while the Boer and British settlers turned to ostrich farming in the hope of making quick fortunes. The trend peaked in the early twentieth century when the feather-barons built their extravagant feather palaces, before collapsing in the wake of World War I, with the decline of the luxury industry and changing habits, such as car-travel, which made feathered hats unpractical.

8Ostrich farming must have appeared a promising venture to Olive Schreiner when she wrote her novel. The feather trade was one of South Africa’s great financial hopes. Besides, ostrich feathers started being plucked from live farmed birds, rather than taken from dead hunted birds. This was a significant progress from the time when natives, disguised as ostriches, hunted for them in the Veld (Nixon 47), or when European hunters shot them dead, and it must have made the trade less controversial than that of fur, leather or dead animals. An Act for the preservation of wild ostriches in the Cape Colony had been passed in May 1870, stipulating that ‘[n]o person shall kill, catch, capture, hunt, or wound any ostrich, not being domesticated, without having first obtained a licence to kill ostriches, under a penalty of any sum not less than thirty pounds sterling, and not exceeding fifty pounds sterling’ (Rosenthal and Harting 329). The Act also established a ‘fence season’ or close time during which ostrich-hunting was forbidden, and raised the possibility of protecting wild ostriches from any kind of human intervention for a period of time not exceeding three years, if necessary (241).

9In his guidebook to ostrich-farming, written in 1881, the year when the ostrich boom started, Arthur Douglass, a farmer of English origin, remarked that, even making allowance for the short time that had elapsed since the domestication of the ostrich in 1867, he found it ‘unaccountable that such a “mine of wealth” should have lain at the doors of the British settlers and they never thought of breeding the birds, instead of shooting them’ (Douglass 2). He further condemned the misguided tendency of colonizers to destroy what they exploited without a mind to the environment they left behind, warning future colonists that ‘money spent on guns, revolvers, etc., would have been much better laid out on a thoroughly good tool-chest; and the parent, in giving him the guns, has been rather encouraging him in the idea that life is going to be made up of shooting and sport, instead of—as he will find it—mostly hard work’ (Douglass 245). The shift from killing animals in blood sports to the act of farming and breeding is a decisive step in the evolution from exploration to settlement, for true settlers must think about the long term need to make their exploitation of the land more sustainable. Douglass’s book is designed not only as a treatise on ostrich farming but as a guide to improve the colonizer’s relationship to the land, for ‘[n]o greater mistake is ever made than that made by the man who emigrates to a colony simply with the idea of grubbing money together to enable him to return to England and spend it in his old age’ (Douglass 247). The ‘successful colonist’ is advised to develop the gift of observation (242), as well as qualities of patience and intellectual receptiveness. For it is the latter, rather than impulsiveness and violence, which yield the kind of non-intrusive knowledge leading to constructive intervention on the native soil and population.

10From an environmental perspective, ostrich farming must have encouraged a more sustainable treatment of the birds, as well as the settler’s long-term dedication to the prosperity of the land, but the feather trade also generated increased appropriation of the land. Early observers noted that ostrich farming resulted in habitat loss for wild animals:

Many years ago, the ostrich and other kinds of large game, such as the giraffe, koodoo, gnu, blesbok, hartebeest, etc. were indigenous to that part of the country, but the influx of settlers, and the consequent erection of numerous villages and towns, caused the game to emigrate across the Great Orange River, where they still continue to recede as the white man advances. (Rosenthal 194)

11Successful ostrich breeding required vast open spaces, but these had to be fenced: ‘It may be considered a settled law of ostrich farming that free space and good fences are essential to success’ (Rosenthal and Harting 192). Alfred Douglass waxes eloquent on the art of skilfully and effectively raising such fences. Oddly enough, under the provisions of the 1870 Act, once a farmer occupied or owned a piece of land, he could consider himself the owner of any young wild ostrich which happened to stray into his land (240). The farming and protection of ostriches were thus intricately mixed with issues of ownership and land-occupation, in a way which raised complex environmental issues involving other animals.

  • 5 The book was finished in 1870, and the manuscript finally fell under the notice of the novelist Mer (...)
  • 6 Schreiner’s positions as a governess were near Cradock in the Cape Colony, east to the districts of (...)
  • 7 There are several references to gold and diamonds, and two mentions of the ‘Diamond fields’ (225, 2 (...)

12In the very years when aspiring colonials were following the recommendations given by Douglass in his handbook, the young Olive Schreiner was trying to find a publisher for her first novel, which she had started in 1876 when working as a governess.5 The novel is set in a sheep and ostrich farm, but Schreiner did not put this context in the foreground of her novel.6 She does include some of the technical vocabulary associated with ostrich farming (the ‘mealies’ they were given, and the distinction between chicks and young birds), but she falls short of giving any detail about the farmers’ task of plucking and the Kaffir women’s task of washing feathers. She does not even mention the feather trade or what the ostriches in the farm are bred for.7 The birds’ participation in the novel’s low-key realism is limited and Schreiner clearly dissociates herself from the exploitative side of ostrich breeding. However, the birds and their feathers are not only atmospheric or poetical elements, and I now want to inquire into the narrative, argumentative and allegorical uses to which ostriches are put. While the immediate context of the ostrich craze is circumvented, it must have given resonance and meaning to some of Schreiner’s allegorical images. It is my contention that taking this context into account can lend new meaning to the symbolism of the feather, the birds and the hunter used in the book.

The Ostrich and its Literary Uses

13Schreiner’s fictional South African farm is a microcosm of family life and society, as well as a metaphor for colonized South Africa. It also becomes a crucible of gender relations. The farm is owned by an awesome Boer woman, Aunt Sannie, supervised by a German overseer and looked after by Kaffir servants. The power stakes become even more visible and crucial when the farm and its inhabitants are preyed upon by Bonaparte Blenkins, an Irish con man. The children on the farm, who have the innocence and lucidity missing in adults, witness their base power games for the farm’s possession. The farm’s daily routine is only interrupted by the visits of ‘strangers’, which punctuate the narrative. These intruders pass by, leaving more or less durable and painful marks on the farm’s inhabitants. They also force the children to come to terms with life and with themselves.

  • 8 Subsequent references to The Story of an African Farm are to the pagination in that volume and will (...)

14Bonaparte Blenkins, the dominating figure in the first section of the novel, is one such stranger. Bonaparte comically claims kinship with Napoleon I on his mother’s side as well as connections with the Duke of Wellington’s nephew. He introduces himself by telling a heroic tale of shooting ten bears in his Russian campaign (Schreiner 1998, 26-27).8 His manoeuvring for the possession of the farm’s resources and of its women makes him a parody of the French emperor. His animalization in the chapters’ titles places him on a level with the animals of the farm. The table of contents announces that ‘Bonaparte Blenkins makes his nest’ (Chapter VI) and that ‘He Makes Love’ (chapter XIII). Bonaparte’s behaviour is as predictable as that of a bird waging war against a rival species or strutting in a mating dance. In what some readers will see as a symptom of the novel’s imperfections, Bonaparte also, rather incoherently, ‘sets his trap’, ‘catches the old bird’, ‘shows his teeth’, ‘snaps’ and ‘bites’ (chapters VII, VIII, X, XI and XII). Bonaparte’s behaviour blends that of the conquering, nesting bird and that of a predatory animal. This animalization transforms him into the type of the aggressive colonialist.

15Bonaparte’s cunning and eloquence make it difficult for the characters to see through him. The farm’s supervisor, Otto, is blinded by his Christian commiseration and charity. The feminist heroine, Lyndall, who is yet only a child, lets her admiration for the real Napoleon influence her impressions of him, while Aunt Sannie falls for his powerful manliness. However, one ostrich is capable of seeing through him. Being similar to a territorial animal, Bonaparte logically arouses the wrath of a young ostrich called Hans. This dragon-like, half-grown ostrich, which ‘will take dislikes to certain people’, chases Bonaparte and makes him look at death in the face (SAF 29). ‘“When I looked round,” said Bonaparte, “the red and yawning cavity was above me, and the reprehensible paw raised to strike me”’ (29).The heroicomical scene is played a second time when Lyndall releases Hans so that it can follow and even kill Bonaparte who is trying to steal the heritage of the overseer’s son, Waldo (69).

He stuffed the papers into his pocket. As he did so, three slow and distinct taps were given on the crown of his head. Bonaparte’s jaw fell: each separate joint lost its power: he could not move; he dared not rise; his tongue lay loose in his mouth.
‘Take all, take all!’ he gurgled in his throat. ‘I –I do not want them. Take –’
Here a resolute tug at the grey curls at the back of his head caused him to leap up, yelling wildly. Was he to sit still paralyzed, to be dragged away bodily to the devil? With terrific shrieks he fled, casting no glance behind. (68).

16The ostrich is endowed with near-spiritual powers which allow it to perform acts of divine justice. In Aunt Sannie’s perception of the same scene, Bonaparte has his hair ‘spiritually pulled’ (82), in a scene which belittles his authority. Such episodes contribute to the novel’s variety of tones and discursive forms. They also lighten up the atmosphere of its first part. The novel contains letters, parables, speeches, dreams, and some comic relief is sometimes required to make up for the extreme gravity of the allegories and didactic moments. Later in the novel, the ostriches help bring a concrete and naturalistic anchoring to Schreiner’s metaphysical and political reflections.

  • 9 Lyndall was also Schreiner’s mother’s surname.

17The Story of an African Farm is indeed regarded as the earliest novel of the genre known, as early as the 1890s, as New Woman fiction. These novels with a purpose were written mainly by women and captured the energy and ambiguities of late nineteenth-century feminist protest. They denounced the inequalities of male and female education, advocated a reform of the marriage system and campaigned for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. In the second part of The Story of an African Farm, the chapter entitled ‘Lyndall’ is as didactic a piece of feminist writing as New Woman fiction ever produced. Lyndall,9 a dedicated feminist, lectures her friend Waldo on the restriction of women’s minds under the present states of education and marriage, and on the necessity for female emancipation. She is an exponent character and Schreiner’s mouthpiece. Her long speeches to a passive and docile male listener are structured by an opposition between a ‘we’ designating women and a ‘they’ designating men. Within this pattern of collective feminine enunciation, Lyndall utters a number of radical feminist statements: being a woman is called a curse (SAF 154, 155); ‘to be born a woman is to be born branded’ (154); women are said to carry ‘the mark of the beast’ (152). At first sight, sexual binaries seem to be reinforced rather than blurred. A vocal representative of her class, Lyndall addresses a specimen of the oppressive ‘they’ who is temporarily and conveniently silenced.

18However, what is happening around them, as they feed the ostriches, teaches a more subtle lesson. Since the realism of the description of the South African grassland is limited to a bare minimum, the animals stand out even more, and almost all of them become integrated into Lyndall’s argument to strengthen her point: bees (157), a dog unearthing a mole, and a cat unwilling to wet its feet (160). The narrative context of this feminist expository chapter is that Waldo ‘start[ed] off before breakfast with a bag of mealies swung over his shoulder to feed the ostriches’ and that Lyndall offered to join him. Once they have reached the gate of the first camp, Waldo is said to ‘thr[o]w over a bag of mealies, and they walk . . . on over the dewy ground’ (151). At one point in Lyndall’s speech, the ostriches become integrated into her feminist address.

‘Let us wait at this camp and watch the birds,’ [Lyndall] said, as an ostrich hen came bounding toward them with velvety wings outstretched, while far away over the bushes the head of the cock was visible as he sat brooding on the eggs.
Lyndall folded her arms on the gate bar, and Waldo threw his empty bag on the wall and leaned beside her.
‘I like these birds,’ she said; ‘they share each other’s work, and are companions. Do you take an interest in the position of women, Waldo?’
‘I thought not. No one does, unless they are in need of a subject upon which to show their wit.’ (153)

19Like a few other kinds of birds, male and female ostriches take an equal share in hatching the eggs. Lyndall points to the ostriches in order to prove that gender roles are not clearly defined, and that they can overlap. She also makes a connection between the instability of sexual roles in the animal sphere and the human capacity to empathize with people of the other sex to get over the cultural limitations of gender roles. Dispelling the curse that weighs on women requires that men and women become aware of the fluidity of gender roles.

20In her essay Woman and Labour, which Schreiner worked on and revised for a period of over twenty years (from the early 1880s to 1911), many examples taken from the animal world helped prove her central point: that psychic sex differences are not inherent in man and woman, but rather ‘non-existent as sexual characteristics’ (Schreiner 1978, 184). ‘In the animal world’, Schreiner argued, ‘all forms of psychic variations are found allying themselves now with the male sex form, and then with the female.’ (185) Schreiner precisely went on to cite the case of ostriches: ‘The ostrich male form, though perhaps larger than the female, shares with her the labour of hatching the eggs, relieving the hen of her duty at a fixed hour daily: and his care for the young when hatched is as tender as hers’ (186). Another key point of Schreiner’s demonstration is indeed that, outside the actual phase of reproduction, men and women undergo similar sensations and experiences, and that, among some species, the males and females are equally involved in the care of the young. In Woman and Labour, the example of ostriches was one among many, and it was the accumulation of different examples which gave weight to the argument. In the novel, the reference stands out for its visual character and liveliness, and it relieves Lyndall’s speech of some of its didacticism by taking the reader back to the South African Veld.

21The ostrich provides further potential for the relativizing of gender norms, since the male’s ornamental use of its feathers during the mating dance subverts the supposedly feminine taste for ornamentation among humankind. The odd bird who blurs gender boundaries in The Story of an African Farm is Gregory Rose, the feminized man. A few pages after the extract quoted above, Gregory Rose walks past, strutting like an ostrich:

[She] was about to walk on, when Gregory Rose, with shining spurs, an ostrich feather in his hat, and a silver-headed whip, careered past. He bowed gallantly as he went by. They waited till the dust of the horse’s hoofs had laid itself.
‘There,’ said Lyndall, ‘goes a true woman—one born for the sphere that some women have to fill without being born for it. How happy he would be sewing frills into his little girl’s frocks, and how pretty he would look sitting in a parlour, with a rough man making love to him! Don’t you think so?’
‘I shall not stay here when he is master,’ Waldo answered, not able to connect any kind of beauty with Gregory Rose.
‘I should imagine not. The rule of a woman is tyranny; but the rule of a man-woman grinds fine.’ (SAF 164)

22Gregory is wearing horse-spurs and carrying a whip, so that his male identity is clearly established, but his other attributes confirm his description as ‘a true woman’ (164): his floral surname, his taste for personal adornment and his preference for homely activities. Later in the book, he goes to the attic to try on women’s dresses, and he is the one who will nurse Lyndall after the death of her newborn baby. Schreiner first destabilizes the binary gender system by calling Gregory Rose a ‘true woman’. This expression was often used to confirm the womanliness of the New Woman, who was satirized in the press as an unsexed virago or half-man. The expression ‘man-woman’ goes one step further than a mere inversion, by conveying the idea of a gender spectrum which transcends gender binaries. What is at stake is not so much Gregory’s feminization as the creation of an oscillation which culminates in Schreiner’s production of the noun-phrase ‘man-woman’.

23The reference to the single ostrich feather on Gregory’s hat opens a vast array of interpretative possibilities. It is the sole and discreet indicator of the vast feather trade. It indicates Gregory’s vanity, as well as his taste for adornment, which both connect him to the female sphere. The feather may also represent the male birds’ ‘gorgeous plumage’ (Darwin 74) which was their instrument of sexual selection. Lyndall even imagines Gregory ‘sewing frills into his little girl’s frock’ like an expert filling out meagre plumage (SAF 164). In Woman and Labour, Schreiner argued that no talent or function could be assigned solely to women: there was no point in restricting woman’s labour in the name of her true nature, since one woman in a million might not be gifted for the tasks generally attributed to women. Gregory is the one man in a million who has a taste for female roles (such as nursing and sewing), and the novel places him in a position to carry out these roles. This subversion is not an isolated case for, while Gregory serves to undermine the labelling of positive values as feminine, Bonaparte Blenkins, the archetype of conquering masculinity, serves to undermine the alleged femininity of such foibles as vanity and garrulity. He is shown making up his face in an attempt to seduce Aunt Sannie, and after he has managed to extract his old coat from the saintly supervisor of the farm, Otto, the latter reflects that ‘[i]t was wonderful what a difference feathers made in the bird’ (SAF 32).

24Taken separately, the single ostrich feather on Gregory’s hat carries very little argumentative weight. If it were not for the way it ties up with some other elements in the novel, its presence would be so discreet that it could easily remain unnoticed. Schreiner also played down the heaviness of the analogical technique by transposing some isolated signifiers from one domain to another without explicitly referring to the animals. This technique relies on the reader’s attention to isolated words, and requires a careful reading of the text. For example, the notion of ‘brooding’ is used successively to designate the hatching of the eggs and the pondering over an idea, as in ‘Like an old hen that sits on its eggs month after month and they never come out?’ (SAF 154) or ‘She talked more rapidly as she went on, as one talks of that over which they have brooded long, and which lies near their hearts.’ (159) By creating a cluster of words around the single image of brooding, Schreiner gives a fuller picture of creativeness, as gender nonspecific and as both intellectual and biological.

The Argumentative Weight of Feathers

25Animal metaphors were often integrated into feminist argumentation on sex relations and sex difference. In New Woman fiction, the caged bird was a frequent metaphor for women’s oppression and for their subdued desire for emancipation. When women were compared to domesticated and caged animals, the argument went either of two ways: it could denounce the tedium attached to the lives of middle-class women. More controversially, the metaphor could demonstrate to what extent woman had distanced herself from nature and surrendered her true instincts in favour of ‘cage-born instincts’ (Caird 353), which had conveniently been termed her ‘better nature’. Lyndall does not omit this hackneyed metaphor from her feminist purple patch:

‘If the bird does like its cage, and does like its sugar and will not leave it, why keep the door so very carefully shut? Why not open it, only a little? Do they know there is many a bird will not break its wings against the bars, but would fly if the doors were open?’ She knit her forehead and leaned further over the bars. (SAF 159)

  • 10 The verb ‘to peck’ is also used alternately for the birds and for the characters.

26The analogy is unoriginal: a woman is to Victorian society what a caged bird is to its cage. What is more unusual is the sentence that follows: ‘She knit her forehead and leaned further over the bars’ (SAF 159). Lyndall is sitting in the open Veld, freely expressing her unconventional ideas. There is no literal cage around her, although a careful reader may remember that Schreiner did mention the ‘gate-bar’ of the ostrich enclosure (153). The bars represent the social constraints weighing on women, as well as the ‘bars of the real’ which limit human aspirations (260); they also make up the numerous ostrich-pens which were built in the Veld. The bars enclosing the ostriches unobtrusively become Lyndall’s own cage. Lyndall is made to behave like a bird, and to confirm the truth of her analogy. The word ‘bars’ has leaked from the fictional world into Lyndall’s allegorical imagination back into the fictional world.10 The permeation of metaphorical and narrative discourse ensures that the reader pays maximum attention to the implications of the reference to animals, whether they be metaphorical or fictional.

27In the novel’s allegory of the hunter, animal imagery takes on an abstract meaning in a systematic and creative manner. The tale is born of the description of a wood carving. Waldo, Otto’s son, is a farming hand who manufactures a shearing-machine and creates a useless carving, which is submitted to an in-depth allegorical interpretation in the chapter entitled ‘Times and Seasons’. This wooden post represents ‘fantastic figures and mountains’ and is crowned with a bird ‘from whose wing dropped a feather’ (123). Responding to Waldo’s own explanations of his work, ‘Waldo’s stranger’ elaborates on the wooden post and tells a parable involving a hunter for wild fowl who starts on a quest for Truth. In the hope of catching this ‘vast white bird’ (124), which is gendered female, the Hunter sows the seeds of credulity, spreads a net and catches several birds, called ‘the brood of lies’, which he then locks in ‘a strong iron cage called a new creed’ (125). Wisdom tells him that only when men have collected enough feathers from the great wing of Truth will they be able to weave them into a cord, ‘and the cord into a net, that in that net Truth may be captured’ (127). The Hunter then breaks the bars of the cage and lets all the birds out, including his favourite, called Immortality. He starts climbing a huge wall of rocks, which teaches him the value of labour. As he prepares to die, now an old, wizened, but wiser man, ‘slowly from the white sky above, through the still air, came something falling, falling, falling. Softly it fluttered down, and dropped on to the breast of the dying man. He felt it with his hands. It was a feather. He died holding it.’ (133) In an essay which pays some attention to the bird Hans’s stealing of the ring, Gerald Monsman writes that the ‘Hunter’s plummeting plume’ is indeed ‘the centered image in the novel’ (Monsman 592). The plummeting feather, shed naturally, makes manifest the absence of plucked feathers from the novel in the context of late nineteenth-century South Africa.

28The context of the feather trade must nevertheless have changed people’s perceptions of feathers of negligible weight, allowing Schreiner to use the motif to give value to ideas and notions which carry no material weight at all, and which sometimes carry insufficient political impact, such as feminist ideas. The attention given to a plummeting feather implies a quiet, expectant and respectful attitude to nature. From a narrative perspective, the gathering of moulted feathers transforms the Hunter’s aggressive quest for birds, which he used to catch in a net and put behind bars, into an observant pilgrimage in search of weightless objects. By using feather collecting as a metaphor for the gathering of relative truths, Schreiner also attenuates her authorial stance by shifting the attribution of meaning from a single, capitalized source of authority to a collective and anonymous one. The allegory of the Hunter was inspired by Waldo’s wooden post, but it is finally told by the observer to its creator. It gives priority to the interpreter over the creator and to words over images. This interpreter is aware of the suggestive power of words:

‘Certainly,’ said the stranger, ‘the whole of the story is not written here, but it is suggested. And the attribute of all true art, the highest and the lowest, is this—that it says more than it says, and takes you away from itself. It is a little door that opens into an infinite hall where you may find what you please.’ (133)

29Schreiner’s use of gender-neutral collective enunciation in the allegorical chapter ‘Times and Seasons’, and her frequent addresses to her readers indicate that, as she wrote, the reader was a constant, inclusive presence at her side. The novel is written in a variety of tones and mixes different literary forms: it is best-known for Lyndall’s feminist purple-patches. By contrast with such didactic moments, the allegorical sections allow the suggestiveness and openness which the stranger praises. While the presence of feathers and ostriches is no surprise in a realist novel on South African life, their lack of connection with feminism underlines the unpredictability which characterizes works of aesthetic merit. At the time when Schreiner was writing, the ostrich was a favourite example among evolutionary theorists as well as among Victorian psychologists (the ostrich is also famous for being a flightless bird and for its capacity for camouflage). What makes its argumentative use unique in The Story of an African Farm is the way it emanates from the natural setting and invites us to read into nature for signs and modalities of the Truth by multiplying connections rather than narrowing them to a single purposeful argument. The reference to ostriches is part of an attempt to perceive the relationships between things so as to retrieve the connections which hold the cosmic world together. Schreiner’s art of relations helps construct a system of meaningful connections between the world’s elements, imitating the complexity and infinite traceries of natural organization.

30Schreiner once justified her taste for allegory by its economic nature. She argued that ‘throwing a thing into the form of an allegory’ allowed her to ‘condense five or six pages into one, with no loss, but a great gain to clearness’ (Schreiner 1987, 136). In ‘Times and Seasons’, dissecting a goose thus becomes a poetical act, which her writing seems to emulate:

A gander drowns itself in our dam. We take it out, and open it on the bank, and kneel, looking at it. Above are the organs divided by delicate tissues; below are the intestines artistically curved in a spiral form, and each tier covered by a delicate network of blood-vessels standing out red against the faint blue background. Each branch of the blood-vessels is comprised of a trunk, bifurcating and rebifurcating into the most delicate, hair-like threads, symmetrically arranged. We are struck with its singular beauty. And, moreover—and here we drop from our kneeling into a sitting posture—this also we remark: of that same exact shape and outline is our thorn-tree seen against the sky in mid-winter: of that shape also is delicate metallic tracery between our rocks; in that exact path does our water flow when without a furrow we lead it from the dam; so shaped are the antlers of the horned beetle. How are these things related that such deep union should exist between them all? (SAF 118)

31The last unanswered question reflects the holism of Schreiner’s worldview and the way meaning replaces divinity for her free-thinking mind. Her search for God’s presence was inseparable from the observation of the natural world and a quest for meaning within the material world. The expanding interconnectedness of her world could also be an effect of her literary imagination. The branching of body vessels, of tree-branches, of crystalline rocks, of waterways and of antlers mirror the hermeneutic paths followed by her readers as they retrace the complex workings of her allegorical enterprise. Schreiner’s allegorical style is akin to a creative process of proliferation in which words bridge the gap between domains, lending semantic and poetical resonance to each other.

32In his autobiographical account Dreambirds: The Natural History of a Fantasy (1999), Rob Nixon, who grew up in the Karoo and developed a subsequent interest in postcolonial issues and ‘the environmental humanities’ (LeMenager), furthered the task of investigating the links between ostriches and colonial and economic issues. Nixon mixed biological, historical and social facts about ostriches with his personal experiences to account for South Africa’s colonial past. He has also noted that part of the birds’ fascination and appeal comes from the way they constantly blur the lines between gender representations. At one point, Nixon visits one of Arizona’s newly converted cow-farms and has a serious talk about the future of the farm with the chicks’ ‘foster mom’ (Nixon 128), the manager of the ostrich ranch. His attention is directed from this powerful, long-enduring woman, to the queerness of her ostriches:

While Peggy and I talked about the prospects of the farm, a large strutty bird on stacked heels sashayed up to the fence. He was flushed with the ardent pink blush that tints neck and legs as the breeding impulse quickens. That coral lipstick smile, that black velvet cape, those terrific legs… I found myself fixed by the huge, deliquescent gaze of a Zsa Zsa Gabor, Queen of the Desert. His unblinking eyes peered at me from beneath the awnings of two-inch lashes, tartily lathered with green eyeshadow—the effect, Peggy told me, not of nature’s coquetry, but of burying his head in pulverized alfalfa.
Over by the colony pens, we noticed some hens nestling into the mesquite when another rooster thundered along the wire in a high freak of testosterone. His neck swelled like an enormous hiking sock. Without opening his beak, he emitted a gravely roar—Boo-oo-oo—the sort of sound I imagine wild men release on woods weekends with Iron John. I’d always loved that about ostriches. Real switchers: so butch, so femme. (Nixon 128)

33The accumulation of gender markers in these lines culminates with the hypersexual figures of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Iron Man. The two paragraphs are built on an opposition between the feminine and masculine streaks in the ostrich, but the very distinction is undermined through the use of the personal pronoun ‘he’ in both paragraphs and the final use of the word ‘switcher’. The continuity between humans and animals is at a far remove from Victorian evolutionary assumptions. Ironically, the ambivalent gendering of the ostrich in these lines results entirely from the perception of the masculine and the feminine as they are constructed among humans. In colonial narratives, wild animals were often symbols of the foreign Other who had to be eradicated; in this postcolonial narrative, the domesticated native animal takes on gendered attitudes which remind the observer of familiar human behaviours. While for Schreiner, the ostrich was the bearer of a relative truth concerning gender roles, it carries for Nixon postmodern connotations of gender trouble.

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1 In The Animal Estate, Harriet Ritvo writes: ‘in adults as well as children, the treatment of animals could be seen as an index of the extent to which an individual had managed to control his or her lower urges. If animal suffering was caused by people in need of moral uplift, then to work for the protection of the brute creation was simultaneously to promote the salvation of human soul and the maintenance of social order’ (Ritvo 132). When generalizing on the violence inflicted to Victorian animals, Harriet Ritvo is careful to use gender nonspecific or neutral forms (‘an individual’, ‘his or her’, ‘people’, ‘human’).

2 Nicholas Daly has suggested that the association of women with fur and feathers was loaded with sexual implications which may justify the association between the New Woman, who freely discusses the ‘sex problems’ of the time, and the feather fashion victim (Daly 187).

3 These include R. M. Ballantyne, Rider Haggard, G. A. Henty, John Buchan and Paul Du Chaillu.

4 ‘In all, three editions appeared in 1883, and over the next forty years there were twelve more.’ (First and Scott 119)

5 The book was finished in 1870, and the manuscript finally fell under the notice of the novelist Meredith, who recommended that Chapman publish it. It came out in two volumes in 1883 (First and Scott 117-20).

6 Schreiner’s positions as a governess were near Cradock in the Cape Colony, east to the districts of Riversdale, Oudtshoorn, and George, where most of the ostrich farm could be found.

7 There are several references to gold and diamonds, and two mentions of the ‘Diamond fields’ (225, 236) in the novel.

8 Subsequent references to The Story of an African Farm are to the pagination in that volume and will appear as follows: (SAF x).

9 Lyndall was also Schreiner’s mother’s surname.

10 The verb ‘to peck’ is also used alternately for the birds and for the characters.

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Electronic reference

Nathalie Saudo-Welby, « Learning from Nature: Feminism, Allegory and Ostriches in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883) », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 85 Printemps | 2017, Online since 21 March 2017, connection on 22 September 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3200

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About the author

Nathalie Saudo-Welby

Nathalie Saudo-Welby is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Picardy in Amiens, France, where she teaches British Literature and translation. She wrote her doctorate (2003) on degeneration in British literature (1886-1913). She has published over fifteen articles on Dracula, the influence of scientific discourse on fin-de-siècle literature and New Woman fiction (Mona Caird, Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, H. G. Wells). Her current research interests include feminist narratology and women’s autobiographical accounts of the battle of Waterloo.
Nathalie Saudo-Welby
est maître de conférences à l’Université de Picardie, où elle enseigne la littérature et la traduction. Son doctorat (2003) était consacré à la notion de dégénérescence dans la littérature britannique (1886-1913). Elle a publié une vingtaine d’articles sur Dracula, les rapports entre science et littérature à la période fin-de-siècle et la fiction de la Nouvelle Femme (Mona Caird, Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, H. G. Wells). Sa recherche porte actuellement sur la narratologie féministe et les récits autobiographiques féminins relatant la bataille de Waterloo.

By this author

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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