- Feminism, Freethought, and the Sexual Subject in Colonial New Woman Fiction:Olive Schreiner and Kathleen Mannington Caffyn
Toward the end of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883), Lyndall writes to the father of her child, from whom she has separated, to refuse his second proposal of marriage. She tries to imagine a different kind of love from his that might call “into activity” the “higher part” of her nature (204). Though it is clear by this point in the novel that Lyndall is dying, she begins the letter confident of finding such love in the future and anticipates its transformative power: “One day—perhaps it may be far off—I shall find what I have wanted all my life; something nobler, stronger than I, before which I can kneel down. You lose nothing by not having me now; I am a weak, selfish, erring woman. One day I shall find something to worship, and then I shall be—” (247). Here, Lyndall breaks off. The letter remains unfinished and unsent upon her death. Its significance lies in Lyndall’s conflation of religious and sexual structures. Her failure to complete the sentence signals her inability to imagine herself, specifically her sexual self, outside of the Christian framework, which she rejected as a young girl. In attempting to reconfigure her desire for the “strong … stranger,” she falls back on the language of worship and finds herself wanting—sexually, spiritually, and morally (206–08). Given Lyndall’s defiance of the Christian strictures regulating women’s sexual behaviour by refusing to marry her child’s father, her difficulty in reconciling her sexual self with her disbelief is crucial to reading the narration of women’s political struggle for sexual autonomy in New Woman fiction.
By the time Lyndall was designated the forerunner of the New Woman in the mid-1890s, freethought had become a literary signifier of advanced womanhood, partly because of Schreiner’s “poignant exploration of faith and its loss” in African Farm (deVries 196). As Jacqueline deVries points out, the close relationship between religious orthodoxy and patriarchy in Victorian fiction led New Woman novelists to challenge “both male dominance and received Christian truths” (196, original emphasis). Deliberately confronting religious authority, their fictional counterparts “helped to construct a feminist discourse on religion in which individual choice, rational reflection and doubt were central features in the expression of a feminist worldview” (196). However, Lyndall’s reliance on the language of faith to articulate sexual feeling suggests that this was an area in which feminism’s confrontation with religious [End Page 47] convention was not a straightforward victory. Rather than emancipating the female subject, religious doubt in these novels is used to configure a crisis of femininity in relation to contemporary anxieties about sexual reproduction and marriage. Conversely, the fictional role of the New Woman renders her a popular repository of religious and sexual uncertainty. As Susan Griffin puts it, “A nineteenth-century ideology that understood women as inherently more spiritual than men develops, in a period of growing doubt and secularization, into a focus on the female as a figure of loss” (214).
By examining the role of religious doubt in two New Woman novels, African Farm and Kathleen Mannington Caffyn’s A Yellow Aster, this article provides one explanation for the imaginative defeat of its heroines that has preoccupied feminist critics.1 Lyndall is a particularly frustrating example because of the “gap” between her “speaking and acting” (Burdett 31). Brilliantly articulating the relationship between women’s sexual subordination to men and their economic dependency, she nevertheless agrees to run away with her lover when she discovers that she is pregnant. Fearing her dependence on him after the birth of their child, she sends him away before her confinement. The baby dies at three hours old and Lyndall succumbs to a chill caught at the child’s grave. Despite the utopian ending of A Yellow Aster, which recuperates its heroine for marriage and maternity, the force of her political speechmaking is similarly undercut by its context. Just as Lyndall tells her lover that she likes “to experience … to try” (Schreiner, African Farm 206), Gwen Waring accepts a proposal...