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Olive Schreiner (1855-1920)


South African novelist, whose most famous novel is The Story of an African Farm (1883). Olive Schreiner was a central figure in the development of modern Anglophone literature in Southern Africa. She was a radical liberal and pacifist, she opposed racism, and struggled for women's rights. One of her brothers, William Phillip Schreiner, became prime minister of the Cape Colony.

"The boy lay with his eyes wide open. He saw before him a long stream of people, a great dark multitude, that moved in one direction; then they came to the dark edge of the dark world and went over. He saw them passing on before him, and there was nothing that could stop them. He thought of how that 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, how many had gone!" (from The Story of an African Farm)

Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner was born in Wittebergen (now Lesotho), the sixth of 12 children of Gottlob Schreiner, a Methodist missionary of German descent, and Rebecca Lyndall, the daughter of a London Congregational minister. Her parents were sent to South Africa by the London Missionary Society. In 1854 they settled at the Wittenberg missionary station. Schreiner grew up in the remote mission stations of Cape Colony, where she was educated by her mother. In 1861, the family moved to Healdtown, where Gottlob Schreiner became head of the Wesleyan Native Industrial Training Institution. He was dismissed four years later, and the family moved to Balfour. There he tried his luck as a general dealer, but his business failed.

The death of one of her sisters launched in Schreiner a process that led her to challenge the beliefs of her parents. At the age of twelve she left home and worked as housekeeper for her older brothers and sisters. When she worked as a governess on Eastern Cape farms (1871-80), she read works by Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Spencer's First Principles (1862) was for her the most important guide to the philosophy of free-thinkers. Several drafts of her most noted books were born during this period of her life, among them The Story of an African Farm, which she started to write while a teenager, From Man to Man (1926), and Undine (1929). Central subjects in her novels were childhood experiences, spiritual search, and the conflict between individual rights and social norms. Schreiner also combined in her writings naturalistic, symbolist, political and philosophical genres.

In 1881 Schreiner traveled with her savings to England to seek a publisher for her three manuscripts. Eventually The Story of an African Farm was accepted for Chapman & Hall by the novelist and poet George Meredith (1828-1909). The first edition was published under the pseudonym of Ralph Iron. Its feminist standpoint provoked much controversy, but the pioneering work is generally known as South Africa's first novel. Schreiner set the story against the barren landscape of the Great Karoo.

"'A parent is only like to God  if his work turns out bad, so much the worse for him; he dare not wash his hands of it. Time and years can never bring the day when you can say to your child: 'Soul, what have I to do with you?'" (from The Story of an African Farm

The central characters include two orphaned cousins, the kind and adaptable Em and the independent Lyndall, who was greeted by feminists as one of the first 'New Women'. They live on a farm under the care of Em's stepmother. Lyndall falls in love with the rebellious Waldo, the son of the German farm manager. (Waldo was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lyndall after Schreiner's mother.) Lyndall dies in childbirth, refusing to marry her lover, who wants a more submissive woman. In her last moments she is visited by a man called Gregory Rose, an aesthete from England dressed as a woman. Waldo is faithful to his art, and he rejects orthodox Christian belief. He dies nearly unobtrusively in the closing pages, watching tiny, yellow chickens. "Ah, to live on so, year after year, how well! Always in the present; letting each day glide, bringing its own labour, and its own beauty; the gradual lighting up of the hills, night and the stars, firelight and the coals!"

In the second edition Schreiner added a preface in which she defended her work – it was criticized for its structure, and its apparently arbitrary plot. Schreiner argued that it reflected her method – "the method of the life we all lead. Here nothing can be prophesied. There is a strange coming and going of feet. Men appear, act and re-act upon each other, and pass away. When the crisis comes the man who would fit it does not return. When the curtain falls no one is ready."

The novel gave Schreiner an entry to progressive literary and political circles, where she met Eleanor Marx, Karl Pearson, Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) and Edward Carpenter (1844-1929), a writer, bisexual activist, and social reformer. But a more important person in her life was the sexologist Havelock Ellis (1859-1939), they met for the first time in her rooms in Fitzroy Street during May 1883. He was not what she expected and she burst into tears. However, they remained close friends, sharing intimate secrets, until her death in 1920. It has been speculated that their relationship was unconsummated – Ellis was shy and suffered from impotence. Once they examined Ellis's semen together through a microscope. "My feelings about Socialism is exactly yours," she wrote to Ellis in a letter. "I sympathize with it, but when I see the works and aims of the men who are working for it my heart sinks." The letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis were published in 1992.

Schreiner lived in London to 1889, much of the time in the unfashionable East End. After returning to South Africa, Schreiner stayed in Cape Town and published polemical articles. In 1894 she married Samuel Cronwright, an ostrich farmer and lawyer politician; he took Schreiner's surname and abandoned his career to help his wife. Schreiner's pregnancies ended in a miscarriage and a daughter born in 1895 lived only one day. With her husband Schreiner took trips to England and traveled around Africa.

Schreiner's Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897) was an attack on the racist policies advocated by the empire builder Cecil Rhodes, whom her brother William had introduced to her. In the story a young trooper meets at his camp fire Jesus Christ coming back to Earth. Jesus tells him: "Peter Simon Halket, cry to the white men and women of South Africa: 'You have a goodly land; you and your children's children shall scarce fill it; though you should stretch out your arms to welcome each stranger who comes to live and labour with you. You are the twin branches of one tree; you are the sons of one mother." Rhodes's ideas had fascinated Schreiner, but not his abuse of power. Following Rhodes's resignation, he was succeeded as prime minister by William Schreiner.

Just before the outbreak of the Boer War, Schreiner published her pro-Boer views in An English South African Woman's View of the Situation (1899), and next year she was placed under martial law. Her house was looted and burnt down in one of the battles. After the war, Schreiner's protectiveness towards Boers gradually faded. From Man to Man was Schreiner's most ambitious work, which she started already in the 1870s, never finishing it. The story of two ill treated women came out posthumously. When the Women's Enfranchisement League was set up to lobby for women's right to vote in 1907, the Cape branch invited Schreiner to act as vice-president but she resigned. Much later in 1980 Nadine Gordimer criticized her decision in a review as a sign of her failure to understand what is relevant to the South African situation.

Woman and Labour (1911) is considered a key feminist work. The first manuscript of the book was destroyed in the Boer War. Using social historical material Schreiner argues, that technological inventions have changed woman's duties and obligations, in modern culture "social conditions tend to rob her of all forms of active, conscious, social labour, and to reduce her, like the field-tick, to the passive exercise of her sex functions alone." Without work, women have become more or less parasitic. This can lead to decay in vitality and intelligence in the whole human race. According to Schreiner, "it is the woman who is the final standard of the race, from which there can be no departure for any distance for any length of time, in any direction: as her brain weakens, weakens the man's she bears; as her muscle softens, softens his; as she decays, decays the people."

After the outbreak of World War I, Schreiner used her pen to advocate pacifist ideas. She moved alone in 1914 to England, where she became increasingly despondent, moving from one boarding house to the next. Her German surname arose suspicions and her fervent pacifism isolated her from former friends.

Since the age of fifteen, Schreiner had suffered from asthma. Her health broken, Samuel failed to recognize her when he went to London in 1920 to escort his wife back to South Africa. The very last injustices against which she campaigned concerned the denial of rights to African municipal workers and the pass system. Schreiner died of heart failure in Cape Town on December 10, 1920. She was buried under a rock sarcophagus above the Karoo Desert. The bodies of her daughter and a favorite dog were exhumed and buried with her. In 1924 Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner published her biography.

For further reading: The Life of Olive Schreiner by Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner (1924); Olive Schreiner: A Study in Latent Meanings by M. Friedmann (1954); Woman of the Karroo by G.K. Kmetz (1977); Olive Schreiner: Feminism on the Frontier by J. Berkman (1979); Olive Schreiner by R. First and A. Scott (1980); Olive Schreiner and After, eds. Malvern Van Wyk Smith and Don MacLennan (1983); The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner by J. Berkman (1989); Olive Schreiner's Fiction: Landscape and Power by Gerald Monsman (1991); The Flawed Diamond: Essays on Olive Schreiner by I. Vivan (1991); Difficult Women, Artful Lives by S.R. Horton (1995); 'Schreiner, Olive Emilie Albertina', in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 4, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Olive Schreiner by Cherry Clayton (1997); 'Olive Schreiner (1855-1920)' by Nicholas Birns, in Postcolonial African Writers, ed. by Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); 'Schreiner, Olive', in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Rereading the Imperial Romance: British Imperialism and South African Resistance in Haggard, Schreiner, and Plaatje by Laura Chrisman (2000); Olive Schreiner and the Progress of Feminism: Evolution, Gender, Empire by Carolyn Burdett (2001); Olive Schreiner: Feminism, Theory and Writing by Liz Stanley (2001) 

Selected works:

  • The Story of an African Farm: A Novel, 1883
  • Dreams, 1890
  • Dream Life and Real Life: A Little African Story, 1893
  • The Political Situation in Cape Colony, 1895 (with S.C. Cronwright-Schreiner)
  • Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, 1897
    - Ratsumies Peter Halket Mashonamaasta (suom. Aino Malmberg, 1900)
  • An English South African Woman's View of the Situation, 1899
  • A Letter on the Jew, 1906
  • Closer Union: a Letter on South African Union and the Principles of Government, 1909
  • Woman and Labour, 1911
  • Thoughts on South Africa, 1923
  • Stories, Dreams and Allegories, 1923
  • The Letters of Olive Schreiner 1876-1920, 1924 (ed. by S.C. Cronwright-Schreiner)
  • From Man to Man, or, Perhaps Only, 1926 (with an introduction by S.C. Cronwright-Schreiner)
  • Undine, 1929  (with an introduction by S.C. Cronwright-Schreiner)  
  • Olive Schreider: A Selection, 1968 (edited by Uys Krige)
  • A Track to the Water’s Edge: The Olive Schreiner Reader, 1973 (edited by Howard Thurman)
  • Olive Schreiner’s Thoughts about Woman: Extracts from the Story of an African Farm and Dreams, 1985 (with a new preface by C. Clayton)
  • An Olive Schreiner Reader: Writings on Women and South Africa, 1987 (edited and introduced by Carol Barash, afterword by Nadine Gordimer)
  • Olive Schreiner Letters, 1988 (ed. by Richard Rive, with historical research by Russell Martin)
  • My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884-1920, 1992 (ed. by Yaffa Claire Draznin)
  • Karoo Moon, 2004 (edited by T.S. Emslie)
  • Words in Season: The Public Writings with her Own Remembrances Collected for the First Time, 2005

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