AN AGNOSTIC NOVEL" WE owe our readers an apology for
our late notice of this very remarkable book. Our excuse is that the title of the book misled us. It seems to promise information about the rearing and management of bullocks and ostriches ; but the last thing it. suggests is the pathetic story of a troubled soul "crying for the light," and groping its way through pain and sorrow to the inevitable goal of .A,gnostioism in the case of all who love deeply. The hero of the story dreams one night of the woman he had loved, whom death had snatched away, and rushes ont into the night to relieve his pain
"He looked up into the night sky that all his life long had mingled with his existence. There were a thousand faces that he loved looking down at him, a thousand stars in their glory, in crowns, and circles, and solitary grandeur. To the man they were not lees dear than to the boy they had been mysterious ; yet he looked up at them and shuddered ; at last he turned away from them with horror. Such countless multitudes, stretching out fax into specs; and yet not in one of them all was she ! Though he searched through them all, to the farthest, faintest point of light, nowhere should he ever say, 'She is hers!' To-morrow's sun would rise and gild the world's mountains, and shine into its thousand valleys ; is would set and the stars creep out again. Year after year, oentury after century, the old changes of Nature would go on—day and night, summer and winter, seed-time and harvest; but in none of them all would she have part ! Ho shut the door to keep out the hideous shining, and because the dark was intolerable, lit a candle, and paced the little room faster and faster yet. He saw before him the long ages of eternity that would roll on, on, on, and never bring her. She would exist no more. A dark mist
filled the little room. Oh, little hand ! oh, little voice ! oh, little form !' he cried ; 'oh, little soul that walked with mine ! oh, little soul that looked so fearlessly down into the depths, do you exist no more for ever—for all time ?' He cried more bitterly 'It is for this hour—this—that men blind reason, and crush oat thought ! For this hour—this, this—they barter truth and knowledge, take any lie, any creed, so it does not whisper to them of the dead that they are dead Oh, God ! God ! for a Hereafter "
That is the true outcome of Agnosticism in any breast that looks at facts as they are, and not as it would fain have them be. The soul that truly loves, when it has lost the desire of its eyes, cannot face without horror the thought of annihilation,—the thought that never, in all the universe of being, shall it ever- more hold sweet converse with the soul that it has lost. Agnosticism is all very well in fair weather, when Nature is smiling and the sea is calm. But when the storm arises, he rests his hopes upon it finds, like Sinbad the Sailor, that he has cast his anchor not on solid ground, but on the back of a whale, which suddenly sinks beneath him, and leaves him floundering amidst the waves. The value of this book,. besides its great literary power, is that it looks Agnosticism fairly in the face. Its heroine acts upon Agnostic prin- ciples, and the result is a moral chaos, ending in a wild wail of despair. Two influences are apparent in the shaping of the writer's mind. She was born and bred in the strictest school of Calvinism. Waldo, the hero of the book, is introduced to us as a boy oppressed with the thought of the vast majority of the human race living on for ever in misery. As he lay awake upon his bed, the ticking of his father's watch sounded/ in his ears like the knell of departing souls going to perdition. "Dying, dying, dying !" the watch went on repeating, and- " He saw before him a long stream of people, a great multitude, that moved in one direction; then they came to the dark edge of the world and went over. He saw them passing on before him, and there was nothing that could stop them. lie thought of how the, stream had rolled on through all the long ages of the past—how the old Greeks and Romans had gone over; the countless millions of China and India, they were going over now. Since he had come to bed many had gone ! And the watch said, 'Eternity, eternity, eternity !' Stop them ! stop them !' cried the child 'Oh, God ! save them !' he cried in agony. 'Only some ! only a few ! only for each moment I am praying here, one !' " But there was no audible answer to his prayer, no visible token that it had been heard. So the horror increased upon him till, after much brooding, he exclaimed passionately, "I love Jesus • Ti, Story of an &Kean Farm a Nowa. By Ralph Iron (Olive Schreiner). New Edition. London: Chapman sad Hall. lefel. Christ, but I hate God." We have here probably a chapter of autobiography on the part of the authoress. Her moral sense was revolted by the horrible travesty of Christianity which Calvinism offers, and knowing no other kind of Christianity, she embraced Agnosticism, and in this striking story she carries out its premisses to their legitimate conclusion. The second influence which appears to have given so sombre a hue to her thoughts, and infected her mind with such seemingly hopeless pessimism, is probably due to her surroundings. The local colouring of the story is extremely vivid, and clearly bears the impress of painful personal experience. The scene is laid on a lonely farm in South Africa, and man and nature are alike painted in unattractive and depressing guise. The tendency of ordinary mountain scenery is to raise the spirits, to quicken the imagination, to inspire hope, to point to heaven. The mountains of South Africa, on the other hand, have a depressing influence. They have none of the mystery, the sublimity, the poetry, the aspiration of ordinary mountains. They have no peaks. Their gross bulk, and flat tops, and brown sides are altogether of the earth, and seem to repel and to forbid man's yearning for some- thing beyond the visible and temporal. And the vast plains consist of coarse grass and low scrub, lacking alike the grandeur of the desert and the forest loneliness of the Equatorial regions of the Dark Continent. The farm which gives its name to the story is a Boer homestead, and the Boer of South Africa is a sin- gularly unattractive being. Labour, too, is there presented in its hardest, lowest, most unimaginative form.
Such is the environment, spiritual and material, out of which The Story of an African Farm has grown, and it would be difficult to imagine influences more likely to beget in a sensitive mind that brooding, desponding pessimism which pervades the book, and follows naturally from the cheerless view of life to which Agnosticism, left to its own resources alone, logically leadP. The story revolves round two very striking figures. Waldo is the only child of the German overseer of the Boer farm,—a pious Calvinist who accepted reverently the traditional theology of his creed. The boy is left an orphan in his early teens, and is subject to much cruel and undeserved treatment. He is of a brooding, contemplative disposition, yearning dreamily after ideals which the hard facts of life shatter one by one. The Calvinistic theology, as we have seen, was his first stumbling. block, and he passes through his brief life—for he dies in early manhood—disappointed, frustrated, broken-hearted, joyless, hopeless, the sport of cruel circumstances, the victim of a fond despair. Lyndall, the heroine of the book, is of English parentage. She, too, is fated to spend her childhood and early girlhood on the Boer farm. Her independence of spirit, her energy, her courage, her love of adventure, her mastery over others, begin to assert themselves ere she reaches her teens. She loves Waldo, and he loves her; but they love each other in very different ways. His love is of a semi-mystical order; pare, unselfish, reverential. He looks up to Lyndon as a superior being, and shows in innumerable ways how deep his love is, bat never plainly avows it. Her love for him is partly pity, partly sympathy, partly admiration for his absolute unselfishness. But his character is not strong enough for her to lean upon. She longs to be independent, under no control, tied to no man, absolute mistress of her own will and conduct; yet underneath that passion is a passion still more intense,— desire for union with one stronger, nobler, purer than her- self; some one whom she could love with a feeling of perfect trust and reverence. In the conflict of these two emotions her life is wrecked. She disappears from the Dutch farm for a season, and gets herself educated in her own way ; and then returns, a clever, brilliant, beautiful, fascinating young woman ; wearing a wedding-ring, and yet unmarried. The mystery is solved by the sudden apparition of a stranger on the Boer farm. To him Lyndall speaks as follows ' I believe yea do love me as much as you possibly could love any- thing; and I believe that when you ask me to marry yea, you are performing the most generous act yon ever have performed in the course of year life, or ever will; but, at the name time, if I bad required your generosity it would not have been shown me. If, when I got your letter a month ago, hinting at your willingness to marry me, I had at once written imploring you to marry, you would have read the letter. "Poor little devil!" you would have said, and torn it op. The next week you would have sailed for Europe, and have sent me a cheque for a hundred and fifty pounds (which I would have thrown on the fire), and I would have heard no more of you. Bat because I declined your proposal, and wrote that in three weeks I should be married to another, then what you call love woke up. Your man's love is a child's love for butterflies. Yon follow till you have the thing and break it. If you have broken one wing, and the thing flies still, then you love it more than ever, and follow till yea break both. Then you are satisfied, when it lice still on the ground.'—' And you loved sue ?' he said, interrogatively.—' Because you are strong,' she answered. You are the first man I ever was afraid of. And '—a dreamy look came into her farm= because I'like to experience, I like to try. You don't understand that cannot marry you,' she said slowly, 'because I cannot be tied ; but, if you wish, you may take me away with yon, and take care of me ; then when we do not love any more, we can say good-bye.' "
So they went off to the Transvaal; and when next we meet Lynda% she is a lone lodger, tossing in pain one bed of sickness, in a farmhouse in the TransvaaL The stranger is gone,—by her own wish, we are left to infer :—
"‘ It will rain to-night,' says Lyndall to her attendant. 'How terrible when the rain falls down on yea. Will you presently take my cloak—the new grey cloak from behind the door—and go out with it ? You will find a little grave at the foot of the tall blue gum- tree ; the water drops off the long, pointed leaves; you must cover it up with that.'" A letter arrives from the stranger, urging her again to marry him. But she still refuses :— " I cannot marry you. I will always love you for the sake of what lay by me those three tours; but there it ends. I must know and see ; I cannot be bound to one whom I love as I love you. I am not afraid of the world—I will fight the world. One day—perhaps it may be far off—I shall find what I have wanted all my life ; some- thing 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
But Lyndall's days were numbered, and the end was not far off. Pain and solitude, and the desolation that comes of baffled hopes and unrealised ideals, forced upon her mind at last the emptiness of all human desires and efforts if they end in death. Agnosticism is but a poor anodyne for pain of mind or body :- "'I cannot bear any more, not any more,' she said, in a deep voice. Oh, God, God ! have I not borne in silence ? Have I not endured these long, long months ? But now, now, oh, God' I cannot. I do not ask for wisdom, not human love, not work, not knowledge, not for all things I longed for,' she cried ; 'only a little freedom from pain ! Then I will suffer again.' "
" Had she found what she sought for f" is the reflation of the authoress on the death of Lyndall ; "something to worship ? Had she ceased from being ? Who shall tell us P There is a veil of terrible mist over the face of the Hereafter." The authoress, indeed, has tried to raise this veil and peep behind it. But the effort is not successful. The Gospel which she preaches from behind the veil carries no conviction ; it wears a make- believe smile of peace and satisfaction. But a character like Waldo's could never have found consolation where she makes him find it. His love for Lyndall was passionate, deep, unchangeable, and it was Lyndall that he longed to see again ; not an angel, not a spirit glorified out of identity with his lost love, but "a little human woman full of sin, that he once loved." "Give me back what I have lost, or give me nothing!" And it is this man, whose affections are so human and so intensely concentrated, who is presently represented as losing "all consciousness of its little self" in the contemplation of "Universal Unity that surrounds it :"—
" No death, no death,' he muttered; there is that which never dies—which abides. It is but the individual that perishes, the whole remains. It is the organism that vanishes, the atoms are there. It is but the man that dies, the Universal Whole of which be is part reworks him into its inmost self. Ah! what matters that man's day be short ?—that the sunrise sees him, and the sunset sees his grave that of which he is but the breath has breathed him forth and drawn him back again. That abides—we abide Let us die, beloved, you and I, that we may pass on for ever through the Universal Life !' In that deep world of contemplation all fierce desires die out, and peace comer' down. He, Waldo, as he walked there, saw no more the world that was about him ; cried out no more for the thing that he had lost."
No man who loved as Waldo loved could find a moment's comfort in such phantom bliss as this. One might as well bid a thirsty traveller slake his thirst in a painted river. Love cannot be given to a mere abstraction, each as Universal Unity or Universal Life; it must be fixed on a person. Nothing short of a being endowed with will, and intellect, and moral qualities, can attract the love of man. What is Universal Life apart from individual life P There is no such thing. It is a mere chima3ra, and it does not become a reality by being printed in capital letters. The only kind of life of which we have any knowledge is life under individual forms, and when death robs no of that, it is the veriest mockery to send us for consolation to a formless, voiceless, impalpable figment of the imagination. "0 for the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that instill!" That is the irrepressible craving of the soul that has lost what
it loved best. The extinction of individual life, disguise it as one may, is for all practical purposes annihilation. And, indeed, the authoress virtually admits it ; for having paid her homage to Agnosticism by speaking in the conventional language of its creed, she frankly admits that the consolation in which she makes the soul of Waldo find rest is, after al/, nothing better than "a dream." "Without dreams and phantoms man cannot exist." But can he exist on these ? The universal experience of mankind answers emphatically, "No."
The truth is, this gifted woman has been driven from her religions and moral moorings,—first by the ghastly theology of Calvinism, and then by the difficulty which she finds in recon- ciling the facts of the world around her, and especially the injustice done to her own sex, with the doctrine of a God who is omnipotent, compassionate, and just. With regard to Calvinism, all that need be said here is that it is not Christianity at all, but a hideous excrescence essentially foreign to the religion of Christ. The existence of evil, with its attendant misery, is, indeed, the necessary correlative of virtue in a created will. For virtue implies free choice; free choice implies the possibility of making a wrong choice ; perseverance in a wrong choice creates habits ; habits form character; and a bad char- acter entails misery as a necessary consequence, and may, EIS far as we can see, become incorrigible. The question is therefore reduced to this dilemma : either virtue or moral goodness, how- ever we choose to phrase it, is impossible ; or evil, with its con- comitant pain and sorrow, is possible. Omnipotence could not create a being capable of moral goodness without being at the same time capable of sin, and consequently of misery. So far we can see; and we may hope to reach in a higher state of being a point of view where we can see a solution of what now seems a moral enigma. A man inside a large, complex building can have no idea of its architecture. He must be able to "go round about" it, and view it from outside, as the Psalmist did the Temple on Mount Sion, before he can trace its fair lines and harmonious proportions. Now we are inside the method of divine government, in a tiny corner of the great Architect's plan, and are therefore bad judges of its symmetry and the coherence of its parts. We must wait till we have attained an altitude which shall give us a more commanding vision :—
"Nature takes us by the neck," says our authoress, "and shows us new.made graves with the red sand flying about them ; eyes that we love with the worms eating them, evil men walking sleek and fat— the whole terrible hurly-burly of the thing called life ; and she says, ' What do you think of these ?' We dare not say, 'Nothing.' We feel them ; they are very real. But we try to lay our hands about and feel that other thing we felt before. In the dark night, in the fuel room [where Waldo had been used most cruelly], we cry to our Beautiful dream-god 'Oh, let us come near you and lay oar head against your feet. Now, in our hour of need, be near us.' But He is not there ; He is gone away. The old questioning Devil is there."
But what has Agnosticism got to say to "the old questioning Devil"? Christianity and Agnosticism are alike obliged to face the facts of human existence. The world is full of pain, of cruelty, of injustice, of disappointments. Virtue is clad in rags and full of sores, while selfishness is arrayed in purple and fine linen, and faring sumptuously every day. Wretches who have proved themselves a curse to mankind flourish and prosper, and die peacefully on their pillows; while men eminently qualified in mind and disposition to benefit their race are hurried out of life in the midst of their usefulness by a whiff of cold wind, or the stumbling of a horse, or the folly of a tipsy engine-driver. Or the anomaly may exhibit itself in the possession of splendid talents by persons who use them for the corruption and misery of their fellows. And over all is the terrible, the inevitable doom of death. These are problems which Christianity does not make ; it finds them and offers an explanation and a remedy. Physical science finds them too; but it has no explanation to offer, nor remedy to suggest. It does, however, point to a solution which it cannot itself supply. For it is a doctrine of Physical science that instincts which are aboriginal and universal are intended in the economy of Nature to be satisfied. Hunger implies food. The eye implies light. The pinions of the bird imply an atmosphere in which it can fly. Now it is a fact of human consciousness that men live and act as if they were not the mere creatures of a day, emerging for a moment into activity and light, and then passing back into the darkness out of which they came. In the universal heart of humanity is planted an instinct which shrinks from death as from an unnatural cata- strophe, and yearns for a life beyond it where the inequalities of this shall be redressed, where wrong shall be righted, where love ehall have its fill and the mourners shall be comforted. Another
universal instinct is that of prayer. In moments of distress man naturally prays, lifts up imploring eyes to a Being whom he believes able and willing to hear the cries of His creatures. Instincts like these are facts as truly as the instincts of ants and bees and spiders. Are we, then, to resign ourselves to the melancholy conclusion that while the instincts of the lower animals and of ephemeral insects point to corresponding objects, the far-reaching instincts of such a being as man have been bestowed for no other purpose than to torment and mock him ? Is Nature to be recognised as a true prophetess up to man, and then to be regarded as a cruel siren who lures him with false hopes, and then tarns round and laughs at him ? As well believe that there is nothing in space to attract the mariner's compass, as that there is no God who attracts the prayers of human beings.
Another great mistake of the writer of The African Farm is her belief that the happiness of woman lies in her being in- dependent. Lynclall 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 outside of ourselves to which we can cling, and thereby rain ourselves. And, indeed, Lyndon 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. 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 " blas- phemous." 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.