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White Eve in the "petrified garden" : the colonial African heroine in the writing of Olive Schreiner, Isak Dinesen, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer Visel, Robin Ellen


Olive Schreiner, writing in the tradition of George Eliot and the Brontës, was an isolated yet original figure who opened up new directions in women's fiction. In her novels, The Story of an African Farm (1883) and From Man to Man (1926) she developed a feminist critique of colonialism that was based on her own coming-of-age as a writer in South Africa. Schreiner's work inspired and influenced Isak Dinesen, Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, who have pursued their visions of the colonial African heroine in changing forms which nevertheless consciously hark back to the "mother novel." Dinesen's Out of Africa (1937), Lessing's Martha Quest (1952) and Gordimer's The Lying Days (1953) are in a sense revisions of Schreiner's Story of an African Farm. These texts, together with later novels by Lessing and Gordimer (such as Shikasta and Burger's Daughter, 1979) and key short stories by the four writers, form a body of writing I call the "African Farm" texts. Written in different colonial countries—South Africa, Kenya and Rhodesia—in response to different historical circumstances, from different ideological and aesthetic stances, the "African Farm" fictions depict the problematic situation of the white African heroine who is alienated both from white colonial society and from black Africa. Through her own rebellion against patriarchal mores as she struggles to define herself as an artistic, intellectual woman in a hostile environment, she uncovers the connections between patriarchy and racism under colonialism. She begins to identify with the black Africans in their oppression and their incipient struggle for independence; however she cannot shed her white inheritance of privilege and guilt. Just as colonial society (the white "African Farm") becomes for her a desert, a cemetery, a false, barren, "petrified garden," so black Africa becomes its idealized counterpart: a fertile realm of harmony and possibility, the true Garden of Eden from which she, as White Eve, is exiled. I trace the "African Farm" theme and imagery through the work of other white Southern African writers, such as J.M. Coetzee, whose stark, poetic, postmodernist novels can be read as a coda to the realistic fiction of the four women writers. Finally, I look at the post-"African Farm" texts of such transitional writers as Bessie Head, whose novels of black Africa preserve a suggestive link with Schreiner.

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