Capturing the Ideal: Olive Schreiner’s From Man to Man
W. T. Stead, journalist and commentator on the reality and fiction of New Womanhood, gave a special place to his friend Olive Schreiner in the pages of his 1894 review of ‘The Novel of the Modern Woman’.1 Schreiner’s only published novel was, of course, The Story of an African Farm; its heroine, Lyndall, the novel’s ‘first wholly serious feminist heroine’.2 Lyndall speaks — although she does not manage to enact — a language of progress which identifies marriage and maternity as amongst the chief bars to women’s emancipation: ‘I am not in so great a hurry to put my neck beneath any man’s foot; and I do not so greatly admire the crying of babies’, Lyndall says as a counter to her cousin Em’s not-yet-disabused enthusiasm for married life.3 Lyndall is, like her author, a modern: she scorns the worthlessness of crafting for six weeks a footstool that ‘a machine would have made better in five minutes’ (SAF, 186). Her analysis of the constructedness of gender identity is so strikingly modern that, when Schreiner’s work was rediscovered by the women’s movement of the next century, Lyndall could be quoted ‘straight’, her words as relevant to the position of women in the second half of the twentieth century as they were at the end of the nineteenth. There has been no question that what Lyndall speaks is the truth; the problem for Schreiner’s present feminist critics is what happens to the woman who does so.
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