A Successful Martyr

Olive Schreiner

by Ruth First and Ann Scott
Schocken, 383 pp., $20.00

Olive Schreiner
Olive Schreiner; drawing by David Levine

The women’s movement has been reclaiming biography as an account of a single human life that can illuminate its times and teach a moral and political example. The effect is to return to the evangelical roots of biography, to the spirit of, say, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or the Puritan journals which petered out in sanctimonious Victorian lives or the consciously archaic biographies of Scottish nineteenth-century divines.

Lay biography inevitably tended to concentrate on “great men,” on personalities so prominent that their lives were in themselves public history. This has produced recent mighty works—Margery Perham’s life of Lugard, Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky. But this tendency also generated a vast quantity of merely civil and unambitious books, like the innumerable biographies of statesmen, generals, and other public figures written by well-educated politicians or busy academics, books to “fill in” gaps in historical narrative. Of this kind of lay biography even the best work has something essentially secondary about it, of a contribution which must one day be subsumed in some greater general work of historical analysis.

Feminist intellectuals believed that biography was a primary form, that the struggles of a woman, not only to act but to be, revealed her society. The qualifications of power and worldly success for a biography could be pushed aside; it was in the nature of society that women who struggled were not likely to have provided success stories in their public or private lives. But the fervent new historical analysis provided by feminism, enriched by the movement’s use of psychoanalysis, demands that individual and subjective experience should be put back at the very center of the writing of history. It is in this spirit that Ruth First and Ann Scott have achieved this biography of Olive Schreiner, as a key to understanding late Victorian culture but also as a moral and political tract from which their sisters should learn.

“The bulky parcel was sewn up in a piece of coarse cotton cloth to keep its pages together, and then in brown paper…. The manuscript was very indifferently written; many blots, many erasions were on almost every page, and here and there a grease mark as though the tallow candle, by which she probably wrote, had dropped a tear.” In this package from South Africa, still smelling of the woodsmoke of the Karoo back country, was the first version of The Story of an African Farm. It was 1880; Olive Schreiner, governess in a remote Afrikaner farm, was only twenty-five years old. She had written one of the most extraordinary novels of the century. To describe it as a Bildungsroman, the tale of a young girl’s search for truth and independence, is to evade its lonely originality. The Story of an African Farm is an orphan without close relations in literature and defies classification. Olive Schreiner herself never wrote anything else to compare with it in quality, during the…

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