London: Chapman and Hall, Limited, 1883. First edition. Full leather. This is the two-volume first edition, strikingly bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe in exotic full black ostrich skin, referencing the ostriches prominently featured on the illustrated spines of the original pictorial cloth binding. This first edition of The Story of an African Farm was published in 1883 in a very small edition of 300 copies. Its publication caused a sensation, critics and the public both lauding and condemning the novel for its unconventional views on marriage and religion.
Sensation meant that first edition copies were often widely read and circulated, with expected wear and loss the result. Testifying to both the scarcity of the first edition and contemporary interest in the work, a second edition was issued the same year. In addition to the richly textured ostrich skin, this magnificently apropos specimen of fine binding features gilt top edges, hand-marbled endpapers, and coordinating head and foot bands. Both volumes are signed in stamped gilt “Sangorski & Sutcliffe” on the lower front pastedown turn-ins.
The condition of the binding is virtually as new. Both volumes are tight and square with sharp corners and no discernible wear, soiling, or toning. The contents are worthy of the binding - remarkably crisp, clean, and bright with no spotting or previous ownership marks. Even the untrimmed fore and bottom edges are clean and bright. This copy came from an extensive collection of fine literature of and about 17th-20th century sub-Saharan Africa, much of it exceptionally bound.
Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) was the ninth of twelve children born to a missionary couple in South Africa. Her childhood was spent in the harsh conditions of the colonial frontier and her education came from her mother. Schreiner began working as a governess during her early teen years. Given her fiercely independent perspectives, Schreiner’s appointments were often short lived. Her rejection of religion in particular brought conflict with the more traditional farming families for whom she worked. By the age of 25 she saved up enough to travel to England and pursue a career in nursing. However, once in England her ill health prevented her studies and she turned to writing.
Her first novel, The Story of an African Farm, was published in 1883 under a male pseudonym to immediate success and infamy. Its narrative, part autobiographical, part inspired by a family for whom she worked, chronicles the lives of three characters and the harsh realities of their experience on a farm in South Africa – what South African Bibliographer Sidney Mendelssohn calls “the hard, coarse, unlovely life” of “an ordinary Boer farm”. The novel’s themes of opposition to traditional gender roles, objection to oppression in marriage, and morality free of religion make this a characteristic example of the “New Woman” novels of the late 19th century.
In his introduction to the 1998 Oxford edition, literary scholar Joseph Bristow wrote, “Schreiner's strongly intellectual novel courageously faced up to the increasing agnosticism of her age, its growing doubts about the sanctity of marriage, and the violence incurred by imperialist expansion.” Mendelssohn wrote that The Story of an African Farm is "certainly the most notable volume of fiction relating to South Africa undertaken up to this period by any writer of South African birth and education." Item #003914