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OLIVE SCHREINER'S ALLEGORICAL VISION Gerald Monsman University ofArizona The current esteem for Olive Schreiner (1855-1921), one of the first significant writers from Great Britain's African colonies, derives in no small measure from her discerning critique ofthe narrowly patriarchal and racist ??aßf?????^ of nineteenth-century Anglo-African society. Her most significant Uterary legacy was a concern with personal relationships, manners, and values that lifted British colonial fiction from the mediocrity of hunters' tales, native uprisings, and hairbreadth escapes to a toughminded depiction of the political character of colonialism, the clash between indigenous ways of life and the march of capitalistic development. The visionary and allegorical were employed to reflect the intensely private anguish of the marginalized, especially her own silencing as a colonial woman. A growing interest in women writers, in provocative approaches that combine sophisticated criticism with feminist psychology, and in a developing multiculturalism in English-language societies (including recent unanticipated poUtical upheavals within South Africa itself) are raising Schreiner to the company ofthose innovative transitional figures between high Victorianism and modernism, between the proud Empire on which the sun never set and its post-colonial demise. Schreiner may be seen as tentatively delineating a more Utopian future than actually dawned for such later critics of empire as Joseph Conrad or E. M. Forster, who declared more unconditionally than Schreiner that the darkness and muddle ostensibly in Africa's heart or India's caves were somehow ineradicably in the hearts and minds of the British themselves. Ln the decades following Schreiner's death, preoccupation with her controversial, even flamboyant, personality produced numerous biographical studies, not merely various ephemeral tributes, such as Ruth Alexander's "OUve Schreiner: A Study of Her Amazing Personality" which appeared in the Cape Times (26 April 1930), but the more than half dozen early full-scale biographies surveyed by Patricia Morris. However, not until a century after her radical novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883), did the Victorian Review 18.2 (Winter 1992) 50Victorian Review reproach for her putatively disabled Uterary production yield to a spirit of canonical revision that now permits a recognition of her adroit use of the symbolic fable, of the religious quest, and of social and poUtical allegory to illuminate the failures of colonialism. Supporting the politics of her fiction and polemical writings were her brief allegories, surreal and fugue-like word-paintings that once were felt to faU only just short of poetry. Although known primarily for The Story ofan African Farm, Schreiner may have been more celebrated during the last decades of her Ufe as the author of Dreams (1890), a slim and now only occasionally read coUection of eleven aUegories reflecting her intensely private anguish as a colonist and a woman. Current popular standards of low-mimetic "formal realism" have devalued the oracular and moralistic, but Schreiner's aUegories received an enthusiastic reception when they were coUected and published. A quarter century after their appearance, Amy WeUington proclaimed that to those concerned with the social growth of women, "this volume of Olive Schreiner's 'Dreams'—profoundly stirring aUegories which have their place among the greatest in world-literature—is the complete expression of her peculiar power" (ix). And a few years after Schreiner's death, T. Fisher Unwin, her publisher, observed that many readers regarded this volume as her greatest literary work. This startling (to us) vogue for Schreiner's Dreams owed much to its compatibility with Platonic myth (Schreiner relished Benjamin Jowett's widely-read translations), with Swedenborgian and German Romanticism (J. W. Goethe, Novalis), as weU as with British Romanticism from WUliam Blake and Thomas Carlyle to the visionary art of the PreRaphaelites and the lyricism of the fin-de-siècle W. B. Yeats. Reviewing the volume, her friend Arthur Symons (a leading exponent of advanced aesthetic theories) implicitly also connected her allegorical "poems in prose" with the French Symbolists' mystical correspondences and visionary ideals, their desire to go above or beyond the rationalism and materialism of the nineteenth-century temper. Symons seems to suggest that what preeminently colors these pieces is a precarious message of hope nearly canceled out by quiet desperation: "they are . . . expressions of sympathy with man...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 49-62
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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