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Olive Schreiner

Olive Schreiner, undoubtedly the most famous woman South Africa ever produced, may no longer be considered our greatest writer, but she remains one of the most remarkable literary and political figures. She was born in the Eastern Cape of missionary parents, one of twelve children, in 1855. When she was aged ten, her father was dismissed for a relatively minor infringement of the London Missionary Society's rules, for private trading. The last twenty years of his life had him eking out an existence as trader, tutor and dependant.

Olive had little formal education, but it is thought that she inherited a love for reading from her mother. At an early age she plunged into books by the literary, poetical and philosophical greats of the 19th century, as well as delving into medicine. She spent most of her childhood in the Karoo, but at age 18 she joined her brother on the Diamond Fields for a period; an experience she translated into the novel Undine, which was only discovered and published after her death in 1929. A period as governess to various Cape families followed, and it was at the home of the Fouche family of Ganna Hoek in the Karoo, that her most famous work, The Story of an African Farm was written. In 1881 she was assisted financially by her siblings to go to England to find a publisher for the work. The book was rejected by a number of firms, but finally found acceptance by Chapman & Hall in 1883, who published it under the pseudonym of Ralph Irons.

The book made a considerable impact on Victorian society; the exotic setting as well as its unconventional attitude to women's role in society and marriage found a ready, if sometimes disapproving public. It was during this period she met Havelock Ellis, the noted sexologist, and formed a close friendship that was to last through both their marriages. She returned to South Africa in 1889 and became a restless wanderer always seeking release from the asthma, which was plagueing her, as well as finding a place where she could concentrate on her writing. She married a Karoo farmer, Samuel Cronwright, who, as a token of his acceptance in her crusade for women's equal rights, changed his name to Cronwright-Schreiner. For a short while this brought some stability to her life, but when her child was found dead the day after her birth, Olive never quite recovered from the blow.

The Schreiners were to become fierce ooponents of the British role in the Boer War; several pamphlets and the allegory Trooper Halket of Mashonaland, was aimed at Cecil Rhodes in particular. She was a proponent of the extension of political rights for all races, a view which was published in Closer Union, as well as proposing a federation for South Africa. Her most profound political work was only published posthumously; Thoughts on South Africa is considered to contain her most noble thoughts.

She was an eloquent champion of women's rights. Her Woman and Labour was published in 1911, before Emily Pankhurst came to the fore. She saw woman's role as a 'female parasite... an effete wife, concubine or prostitute', unless she became something more than a fine lady. Her plea was for education to train women to play a full role in society.

Although Olive did not develop the promise of becoming a talented writer to the full, her major work shows evidence that she had remarkable streaks of genius. She was a distinguished writer of allegories, her book Dreams being published during her lifetime, while Cronwright Schreiner prepared her unfinished novel From Man to Man for publication after her death. A number of short stories, among others Eighteen-ninety-nine and The Buddhist Priest's Wife showed exceptional promise of her unfulfilled talents.

The Schreiners spent much of their latter years apart, yet a deep love seems to have pervaded their relationship. Olive died in 1920, having left Cronwright in England a few weeks previously. She, her husband, her infant daughter as well as her favoured dog 'Nita' are buried on an inaccessible hilltop on the farm Buffelshoek, near the Town of Cradock, surrounded by the lonely grandeur of the Karoo.

  • Dictionary of South African Bibliography, Nasionale Boekhandel, 1968
  • Meintjes, J: Olive Schreiner Portrait of a South African Woman

Find available information written about: Olive Schreiner
Selected Works
  • The Story of an African Farm, 1883
  • Dreams, 1890
  • Dream Life and Real Life, 1893
  • The Political Situation in Cape Colony, 1895 (with S.C. Cronwright-Schreiner)
  • Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, 1897
  • 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 Olivia Schreiner, 1924 (d. by S.C. Cronwright-Schreiner)
  • From Man to Man, 1926
  • Undine, 1929
  • An Olivia Schreiner Reader, 1987
  • Olive Schreiner Letters, 1988 (ed. by Richard Rive)
  • My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884-1920, 1992 (ed. by Y.C. Draznin)

Content provided by: Arne Schaefer, Africana Books.

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