Critical acclaim

Scan the first reviews of The Story of an African Farm, which, surprisingly for the time, were mostly favourable.

"A Notable Book"

It is hoped that the cumbersome title of this very remarkable work will not frighten away readers. Mr - or is it Miss? - Ralph Irons would have done more wisely in this helter-skelter age of helter-skelter reading had she invented a name for her book more likely to arrest popular attention. Nor is the awkwardness of the title atoned for by its accuracy, for the events and the thoughts recorded in the two volumes might, with but slight modification, be recorded of an Indian bungalow or an English homestead. It is true that not a little local colouring runs through the book; that a glossary of twenty-three Dutch and Colonial words precedes the first volume; that certain descriptive passages - as, eg. the account of the Boer wedding in the second volume - could only have been written of South Africa. Yet the book is cosmopolitan and human, and the portrayal of emotion and of the working of passion, the analysis of suffering and of motives, might have been written in any civilised language as well as in English...
Above all, let me commend our author for her bold outspeaking

Above all, let me commend our author for her bold outspeaking. The poetry and prose of today are happily becoming, with ever less and less of compromise, outspoken on the subject of religion. In some few cases also, social questions are discussed, though with more of breath-bating than is observable if the question is a purely religious one. One or two daring spirits venture to speak out on political matters.

A few writers are pointing the eyes of their readers in the direction of the great socialistic revolution that is rapidly approaching. A larger number are teaching in poem and in novel the changes in social life that are inevitable, are close at hand. Still more write boldly from that entirely irreligious standpoint that is to be the foundation of all thoughtful men and women of the coming generations.

Ralph Irons speaks out clearly upon the last of these matters. Since Tom Jones there have been few novels so uncompromising in their way of looking at, their frank manner of speaking about, things in general as this one. The relations between men and women are discussed in a fearless, open, righteous fashion, altogether different from the hanging upon the outskirts of the question and pecking at it that are characteristic of your average person... But the Story will be of deepest interest to the majority of readers when it deals with religion. Partly because everyone is now beginning to discuss religion with open mouth and open ears. We have gone further in our investigations here than we have ventured in social matters. Partly also because it is here that Ralph Irons seems to feel most deeply...


"Theories and Practice of Modern Fiction"

...I said just now that from the confused memory of many novels, one person and one place stood out most prominently. The person was Egon V€rs€hely [in Ouida's Wanda], the place is a weary flat plain of red sand, broken only by a solitary hillock and a clump or two of prickly-pear trees; in the distance a ragged boy with a straw hat is herding a few ewes and lambs, and still farther off a few ungainly ostriches are feeding. A simple scene, truly, but a memorable one to most of the readers of the story of that African Farm.

In spite of the very masculine name on the title-page it is clearly the work of a woman, and almost equally clearly of a very young one, which makes it all the more remarkable. The hand of the beginner, too, is betrayed by a number of faults of proportion and perspective. The modest title gives no clue to the contents. It is the story of the growth of a human mind cut off from all but the most commonplace influences, facing its own doubts, crushing its own and others' deceits, and at last beating out a music which is not very melodious, but which is thoroughly honest. On the solitary "kopje", in the growth of the mind of the little Dutch Waldo, there come up for solution one after another the simple questions of human nature and human action that the world has labelled with many big names; and this young lady historian of Boer life - if the above surmise is correct - faces them as they rise with refreshing temerity, and what is still more surprising and refreshing, she has the right word to say about almost all.
The characters are all original - we have met none of them before; the style is fresh and full of humour; and ... the whole story is of fascinating interest and ... of great moral power

Orthodox Christianity, Unitarian Christianity, woman suffrage, marriage, Malthusianism, immorality - they all arise, though not with these names, over the horizon of this African farm... It is, too, an unspeakable relief to escape from the domains of the ordinary novelist - from Homburg and the Highlands, from yachts, clubs, hansoms, and Piccadilly. This book teaches the lesson that wherever there are human hearts beating with natural impulses there is scene enough for all the tragedy and all the comedy of life - that for the delineation of highest interests of men and women una domus sufficit.* The characters are all original - we have met none of them before; the style is fresh and full of humour; and, in spite of its occasional youthful lapses, the whole story is of fascinating interest and, what is more, of great moral power.

* Literally, this Latin phrase translates as "one house suffices". In the context of this sentence, Henry Norman is asserting that the world is large enough to contain and satisfy the greatest aspirations of both men and women.


"Review of Story of an African Farm"

...But perhaps the noblest part of the book, and that which has certainly fascinated me most, is the passionate advocacy of woman's rights which is uttered by the lips of Lyndall. The chapter which is called by her name is from beginning to end simply one of the most striking pieces of writing in modern literature. It is a woman's protest on behalf of women, intensely felt, and spoken with infinite energy and eloquence. Pathos, wit, humour, epigram, dialect; tenderness and scorn, sarcasm, irony and banter, things original and things undisputable, touches of poetry and pleading, following instantly by the bitterest invective - all these are here, and all are expressed with masterly ease and vigour.


"Three Controversial Novels"

The Story of an African Farm is one of the most intensely painful books we ever read: not that the writer melts us to sorrow by her powers of pathetic description - although she possesses these in no ordinary degree - but because of the revelation the work affords of a mind that seems hopelessly diseased...

But a rapid outline of the story conveys a very imperfect conception of the style and structure of the book, which might serve to illustrate the exact reverse of Goethe's maxim, "Tell me your convictions; keep your doubts to yourself, I have plenty of my own." Whole pages of the Freethinker might have been exhausted for the difficulties which are here crowded into the closest space and scattered indiscriminately throughout the story. Whole chapters are devoted to soliloquy and dissertation, during which the tale does not advance one inch, in order that the superiority of the writer to all religious belief may be unfolded, and the impossibility of faith in Christianity laid bare. Children of ambiguous age are described as haunted by doubts on deep problems of Divine providence and of God's dealing with the heathen, and after agonies of suspense attain to a consciousness of holy joy and peace, which is elaborately described only to be swept aside contemptuously as empty and delusive. How far the experience of facts justifies the picture of Boer religion as embodied by Tant' Sannie we have no means of determining, nor can we deny that there may have been instances of successful hypocrisy as foul and as flagrant in their hateful combination of cruelty and lying, dishonesty and greed, as Bonaparte Blenkins. But surely such examples of moral and religious corruption were better left to fester in congenial obscurity. Are the details of such rottenness fit for condemnation in a high-class English newspaper 'for all and sundry to read'?


"An Agnostic Novel"

...Another great mistake of the writer of An African Farm is her belief that the happiness of woman lies in her being independent. Lyndall does not marry because she will not be "bound".
But the truth is that we are all, men and women, not made for independence. We cannot stand alone. Like climbing plants, we need some support from outside ourselves to which we can cling, and thereby raise ourselves. And, indeed, Lyndall recognises this fact in the touching passage in which, while rejecting the marriage-bond, she cries piteously for "something nobler, stronger than I, before which I can kneel down". And the authoress, with profound insight, brings out, through the instinct of maternity, the love and tenderness and spirit of self-sacrifice which were all the while latent in the nature of the proud, self-centred girl.
No bad woman could have written the book. It contains no suggestion of evil

The idea of the authoress, when she wrote this book, seemed to be that women can only be emancipated and placed in their rightful place by the self-immolation of some pioneers of the sex who will brave the world's scorn, and die, if need be, in sorrow, and under the world's ban, if they can thereby hasten the time when woman shall take her place by man's side as his equal helpmate. We have heard the book described as "immoral" and "blasphemous". This is the exaggeration of prejudice. No bad woman could have written the book. It contains no suggestion of evil. It is evidently the product of a pure and pitying soul, burdened with the consciousness of the evils and sorrows of life and its dark enigmas, and penetrated with a consuming desire to solve the riddle and help forward the advent of a reign of righteousness and love.



Aveling, E, "A Notable Book", in Progress: A Monthly Magazine of Advanced Thought, London, September 1883

Norman, H, "Theories and Practice of Modern Fiction", in The Fortnightly Review, London, Vol. 34, December 1, 1883

Haggard, R, "About Fiction", in Contemporary Review, London, February 1887

Anon, "Review of Story of an African Farm", in The Young Man, London, undated

Anon, "Three Controversial Novels", in Church Quarterly Review, London, Vol. 29 (January 1890)

MacColl, C, "An Agnostic Novel", in The Spectator, London, August 13, 1887

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