Imperial Masochism: British Fiction, Fantasy, and Social Class

By John Kucich | Go to book overview

Chapter Two
OLIVE SCHREINER'S PREOEDIPAL DREAMS
FEMINISM,CLASS, AND THE SOUTH AFRICAN WAR

As I walk'd through the wilderness of this world, I
lighted on a certain place, where was a Denn; And I laid
me down in that place to sleep: And as I slept I
dreamed a Dream.
—JOHN BUNYAN, The Pilgrim's Progress

OLIVE Schreiner's masochistic disposition has been obvious to anyone familiar with her self-defeating protagonists or the pathos of her own biography: the head banging; the infatuations with powerful, bullying men; the family persecutions from which, at the very least, she did little to shield herself.1 But what makes Schreiner's masochism particularly useful to cultural analysis is the wide range of social boundaries it crossed. A native-born South African with British citizenship; a preeminent feminist who wrote instrumentally about race and empire; an obscure, bankrupt missionary's daughter who became the darling of London intellectual circles; a novelist whose tracts and speeches placed her at the center of South African politics—Schreiner illustrates like no other writer what happens to masochistic fantasy as it traverses the domains of gender, class, nation, and race.

Schreiner's masochism, however, has tended to be the exclusive concern of feminist readers. This is not simply because of the vexed theoretical relationship between masochism and feminism. Feminist readers have also been concerned about the self-punitive turn taken by certain currents in

1 According to her husband, when Schreiner was a child she would bang her head against
the wall until she was half stunned. See Samuel Cron Cronwright-Schreiner, The Life of Olive
Schreiner
(London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1924), p. 236. Hereafter cited as Life. He also records
that, at a fashionable dinner party, she became so enraged with Cecil Rhodes “that she not
only hammered her fists violently on her head and on the table but also banged her forehead
on it with such force that the guests actually were alarmed lest she would injure herself”
(208). Ruth First and Ann Scott, Olive Schreiner (London: Andre Deutsch, 1980), p. 115,
cite unconfirmed evidence that Schreiner had a sexual relationship with a sadistic man and
that she “discovered to her horror that she liked being a masochist.” Both biographies have
extensive discussions of the persecutions she suffered at the hands of family members.

-86-

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