Author of what most consider the first great novel— The Story of an African Farm—to come out of South Africa, Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) is perhaps equally well remembered as an eloquent spokesman for feminist and pacifist causes. Plagued by asthma and severe bouts of depression throughout her life, Schreiner campaigned vigorously against the more predatory aspects of Cecil Rhodes's imperialist philosophy and the British role in the Anglo-Boer War of 1892-1902. Schreiner also set herself apart with her brazen rejection of the prevailing code of Victorian decorum, particularly as it applied to the women of her time.
Largely self-educated, Schreiner read voraciously and was particularly influenced by the writings of naturalist Charles Darwin and philosophers Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill. Adopting a progressive outlook on life, she rejected the generally accepted gender roles of her era and advocated "an equality of shared labor between men and women," according to Ruth First and Ann Scott, coauthors of Olive Schreiner. Although Schreiner first gained attention as a novelist, most of the writings published during her lifetime consisted of social and political essays, including her controversial feminist credo, as outlined in Women and Labour.
Schreiner was born Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner at Wittenbergen Mission Station in the South African territory of Basutoland (now the country of Lesotho) on March 24, 1855. The ninth of 12 children born into an impoverished missionary family, she had an unsettled childhood of great hardship. Traveling with her family from post to post, Schreiner experienced little permanency in her early years. The family's difficulties worsened when her father, Gottlieb, a Boer, was expelled from the London Missionary Society for supplementing his meager missionary salary with income from private trading transactions. Schreiner's mother, English-born Rebecca Lyndall, was also a missionary. Because their father was hard-pressed to support his large family, 11-year-old Olive and her 9-year-old brother Will were sent to live in Cradock, a town in South Africa's Cape Colony. There they lived with their older brother, Theo, who was the headmaster of a school in Cradock. It was just the first stop for Shreiner, who spent the next several years boarding with family and friends.
Although she received no formal education to speak of, Schreiner read extensively, happily digesting the contents of every book she could find. At the age of 15, already depressed by the sudden death of a younger sister, Schreiner rejected the strict religious principles of her parents. By 1872, the 17-year-old Schreiner had found an informal position as a governess for a family in Dordrecht, a village in South Africa's Eastern Cape. While working in Dordrecht, Schreiner experienced her first love affair—a brief dalliance with Swiss businessman Julius Gau. She ended the affair and once again moved in with brother Theo, who had since relocated to South Africa's diamond fields. Shortly thereafter, Schreiner began working full time as a governess for wealthy Boer families in the Cape Colony. During her free time, she wrote. During 1874 and 1875, Schreiner largely completed work on three novels, Undine, which was published posthumously in 1929; The Story of an African Farm, published in London in 1883; and Man to Man, also published posthumously in 1924.
In 1881, Schreiner left South Africa for England, where she hoped to become a nurse and get her novels published. She was forced to give up her dream of becoming a nurse when an asthmatic condition from her days in the diamond fields became chronic not long after she relocated. She did, however, continue her search for a publisher that might be interested in her writing. In 1882, Schreiner's semi-autobiographical The Story of an African Farm was accepted for publication by Chapman and Hall of London with the proviso that it appear under the pseudonym, Ralph Irons, to overcome the prevailing bias of the era against women authors. Although the novel, first published in 1883, stirred considerable controversy with its liberal views on marriage and religion, it was widely acclaimed as the first realistic description of life in South Africa. It was eight years before the true identity of the book's author could be revealed when a second edition was published in 1891.
Schreiner's novel examines in detail the lives of two orphaned cousins. One, Em, is a fairly traditional young woman, who feels her happiness will be complete when she has found a husband and become a mother. The other, Lyndall (the character thought to represent Schreiner) is an outspoken, sometimes stubborn embodiment of the "New Woman" ideal who refuses to marry her lover after he impregnates her. Although Lyndall and her child eventually die, the rebellious cousin's hopes for the future remain intact. "In the future … perhaps," Schreiner wrote, "perhaps, to be born a woman will not be to be born branded."
Although the true identity of the novel's author was kept from the public until 1891, Schreiner's accomplishment was well known to a small group of England's prominent, young socialists, who quickly welcomed the South African author into their inner circle. Members of this exclusive group included Edward Carpenter, George Bernard Shaw, W.E. Gladstone, and Eleanor Marx. Another close associate of Schreiner during her years in England was noted "sexologist" Havelock Ellis, with whom Schreiner had a brief love affair. Although the affair was over almost before it began, Ellis and Schreiner remained lifelong friends. In 1885 Schreiner was invited to join the Men's and Women's Club, an exclusive discussion group headed by Karl Pearson, a one-time attorney who had taken up a second career as a professor of mathematics. Smitten by Pearson, Schreiner tried unsuccessfully to take their friendship to a higher level. Frustrated by Pearson's lack of response, she set off on a tour of England, France, Germany, and Italy. During her travels she began work on From Man to Man, a novel she never was able to finish. In 1889 a brief romantic relationship with novelist-poet Amy Levy ended in tragedy when Levy committed suicide.
Increasingly troubled by her asthmatic condition, Schreiner in 1889 returned to South Africa, settling in the country's pollution-free central high plateau known as the Karoo. Through her brother, William, who was then attorney general in the Cape Colony government of Cecil Rhodes, she met and developed a close friendship with the controversial prime minister. The friendship was to last only a few years, ending in 1892 when the two became locked in a bitter dispute over the future direction of South Africa's political and social development.
Less than two years after her split with Rhodes, Schreiner married ostrich farmer Samuel "Cron" Cron wright, who shared many of her convictions and was extremely supportive of her writing career. Although Schreiner retained her maiden name, her husband took the joint surname Cronwright-Schreiner, perhaps hoping to trade on his wife's growing fame as an author. Cronwright worked at a variety of jobs—including farmer, estate agent, and land dealer—before being elected in 1902 to a seat in the parliament of the Cape Colony. In April 1895, Schreiner gave birth to a daughter, who died only 16 hours later, setting off a deep depression in the author. In 1897, Schreiner published Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland, an anti-war allegory extremely critical of Britain's imperialism and racism in South Africa. Convinced that Rhodes was likely to push South Africa into war, Schreiner wrote An English South African's View of the Situation, an impassioned plea to head off a conflict between the majority Afrikaners and the British. But her plea fell on deaf ears. The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 was a difficult period for Schreiner. For her outspoken support of the Afrikaner cause, she was interned by the British for more than a year. Even more devastating was the burning of her house, in which were stored all her manuscripts, including the notes for her feminist credo Women and Labour.
Released from detention by the British at the end of the war, Schreiner feverishly struggled to reconstruct her notes for Women and Labour. When the book was finally published in 1911, it quickly developed into the "bible" of the early-20th-century feminist movement. Although Schreiner expressed some disappointment with her final product, the book was widely acclaimed as an important statement of feminist aspirations. In the book, Schreiner, a strong supporter of universal suffrage who in 1908 founded the Women's Enfranchisement League in Cape Town, argued that the vote was "a weapon, by which the weak may be able to defend themselves against the strong, the poor against the weak." In making her case that there was essentially no difference between the productive potential of men and women, Schreiner wrote: "When all the branches of productive labor be considered, the value of the labor of the two halves of humanity will be found so identical and so closely to balance that no superiority can possibly be asserted to either as the result of the closest analysis."
The asthma that had plagued Schreiner for years eventually led her to develop a heart condition. In 1914 she made plans to visit Italy for treatment but was forced at the last minute to divert to England after war was declared. She remained in England for the entirety of World War I, working on a new book that examined pacifism within a feminist and socialist moral framework. During the war she also championed the rights of conscientious objectors. In the early fall of 1920, convinced that death was near, Schreiner returned to South Africa, where she suffered a heart attack and died on December 11, 1920. Before her death, she had requested that her remains, along with those of her infant daughter and longtime pet dog, be entombed on a mountain in the Karoo, not far from Cradock. Schreiner's husband, Samuel Cronwright, saw that this wish was carried out.
Cronwright, Schreiner's sole heir and the executor of her will, was, however, less faithful in discharging some of his late wife's other requests. In her will, Schreiner had insisted that only a select few of her unpublished works be submitted for publication. Specifically, she expressed the wish that only The Child's Day and a series of essays under the general title of Stray Thoughts on South Africa be published. Cronwright, from whom Schreiner had long been estranged though never divorced, decided instead to submit a number of her other works to publishers, hoping that he might continue to profit from his wife's celebrity. Under his direction, Schreiner's From Man to Man, or Perhaps Only was published in 1926. The book, a collection of essays outlining Schreiner's political and sociological philosophies, dealt with a wide variety of subjects, including the exploitation of women in prostitution and marriage, the promise of sisterhood, the importance of death within the context of life, and the moral obligation of whites to promote anti-racism in their dealings with blacks. Potentially even more damaging to Schreiner's legacy was the publication in 1928, authorized by Cronwright, of Undine, the unfinished first novel written by the author.
Despite Cronwright's callous disregard of Schreiner's last wishes, the author's reputation appears to have survived untarnished. She will be long remembered not only for her writing but for her unwavering commitment to feminist and pacifist causes. Schreiner's ultimate goal is perhaps expressed best through the voice of Lyndall, the author's heroine in The Story of an African Farm, who argued that "the world will never come right, till … the female element of the race makes its influence felt."
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