Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) political activist, feminist, writer and free-thinker, remains one of South Africa’s most discussed female novelists. Several biographies have been written about her – some with more insight than others – yet it seems as if this incredibly complex woman still remains an enigma.
Olive Emily Albertina Schreiner was the ninth child of Gotlieb Schreiner, a German missionary and his English wife, Rebecca (nee Lyndall). Schreiner was born in the mission house at Wittebergen, a remote village in the Eastern Cape. Her mother, an intelligent and educated woman, was responsible for her early education and she learnt to read and write at a very early age; she appears to have been a quick learner with an exceptionally enquiring mind; not surprisingly, she was pre-occupied with religion, questioning everything and coming to her own conclusions: even before her teen years she had lost faith in organised religion.
Cradock and the Karoo years
The Schreiner family fortunes declined after Gotlieb Schreiner was forced to resign from the Wesleyan Mission Society for starting a trading venture, in the vain hope of augmenting his paltry income. Schreiner and her sister Ettie were sent to Cradock, a small Karoo town, to keep house for their elder brother, Theo, who was headmaster at the school there. This was an unhappy and difficult time for Schreiner as she clashed with both her brother and sister over her religious views (both Theo and Ettie were fanatically religious). It was here, in this vast, bare and arid region that Schreiner spent many hours in solitude amongst the koppies and rocks. Her imagination and flights of fancy enjoyed full rein in this seared landscape. Years later, she used the harsh and barren terrain as the setting for her novel The Story of an African Farm.
Life as a governess
From the age of 15 Schreiner lived a peripatetic existence as a governess – going from one town to another and from family to family. During one of her travels she met a young man, Willie Bertram, who gave her a copy of Herbert Spencer’s book First Principles, which made a profound and lasting impression on her. Later Schreiner was to base her character Waldo (in The Story of an African Farm) on Bertram.
In December 1872 Olive joined her brother Theo at New Rush, on the Diamond Fields. It was here that she began to write Undine while reading voraciously anything that she could find, including Mill’s Political Economy and Darwin’s Descent of Man.
The following nine years were spent in different towns in the Karoo where she was employed by various families as governess. During these years she wrote The Story of an African Farm and began her third novel From Man to Man (which she never finished).
First visit to England and Europe
Schreiner had long wanted to study medicine but was forced to abandon the idea due to lack of funds. Instead she decided on a nursing career and applied to train at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. She left South Africa to begin her training and arrived in Southampton in 1881. However, it wasn’t long before she realised that her health (she suffered from asthma) would not permit her to take on the vigorous training that nursing demanded.
Despite this disappointment, Schreiner threw herself into the intellectual life of London. The Story of an African Farm was published in 1883 in two volumes (under the pseudonym Ralph Iron). It caught the eye of Havelock Ellis who was intrigued by Schreiner’s writing and her handling of issues such as feminism and atheism. He wrote to her and they began to correspond, finally meeting each other in 1884. This was the basis of a lifelong friendship.
During her time in England, Schreiner became involved in many radical discussion groups – socialist and progressive organisations where she promoted the rights of women.
Schreiner returned to South Africa in 1889 and devoted herself to writing both fiction and non-fiction, including many political articles. She vehemently opposed Cecil Rhodes’s policies and it was about this time that she met Samuel Cronwright, a farmer who shared her views on Rhodes. The couple got married in 1894 (Schreiner kept her maiden name) and settled on Cronwright’s farm. Their daughter and only child (who only lived for a day) was born the following year on 30 April 1895.
The Anglo-Boer War
When the Anglo-Boer war broke out in 1899, Schreiner spoke out strongly against the war, championing the side of the Boers. In two very eloquent and fiery public addresses, she blamed England for the war, citing greed and ambition as the instigators of the conflict. In 1899 she wrote An English South African Woman’s View of the Situation, writing from a pro-Boer position, in the vain hope of showing Britain the true picture concerning the war.
Throughout the war, Schreiner held fast to her views, although they did not make her popular in some quarters and she actually recieved some death threats and insulting letters.
Schreiner’s important work Woman and Labour was published in 1911. This ground-breaking work concerned gender equality, labour and capitalism. Her health, never good, deteriorated but she nevertheless decided to visit England again and arrived there in 1913. In London she met up with her friends Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter. She remained in England for the duration of the first World War, attending pacifist and protest meetings and was severely ostracised because of her German name. After the war and in very poor health, she returned to South Africa and stayed in Cape Town. Cronwright, who had joined her in London, was still in London when she died in her sleep, in a boarding house in Wynberg, on 11December, 1920.
Schreiner was eventually buried on a hill, on the farm Buffelshoek, near Cradock, in the Karoo which she so loved. She was buried in an ironstone sarcophagus, together with her little daughter and her beloved dog Nita. Her husband, Samuel Cronwright, was also buried there some years later.
Influences on Schreiner’s novels
There were three main influences on Schreiner’s fiction. The first was her family circumstances: her father, the gentle, ineffectual minister and her mother, a strict autocrat, who had a strong sense of duty and a Colonial attitude of moral and social superiority. This, coupled with the brand of Calvinism whcih prevailed in the house, accounts for Schreiner’s rebellious streak and alternative views of religion – a significant theme in her novels. Her female characters are often strong, independent women while the men, with a few exceptions, are often gentle, gullible or weak-willed.
The second influence was her geographical location, which provided the setting for her novels. Most of Schreiner’s early life was spent in small towns in arid regions and this sense of loneliness and isolation haunts many of her main characters.
Schreiner’s third major influence on her writing stemmed from her avid reading. She read Spencer, Carlyle, Ruskin, Goethe, Emerson, Darwin and John Stuart Mill (Mill remained her moral mentor throughout her life). Darwin and Mill’s works emphasised individual freedom and equality, two concepts which were to shape all Schreiner’s writings.
Schreiner flouted convention with her fiction; she rebelled against injustice, racism and war and was brave enough to put her ideas into her novels. These novels are still read and studied today for their insight and inspiration, written by a woman whose thinking was way ahead of her time.
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