BORN: 1855, South Africa
DIED: 1920, South Africa
NATIONALITY: South African
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
The Story of an African Farm (1888)
Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897)
Woman and Labour (1911)
From Man to Man (1927)
South African author Olive Schreiner was an important feminist and social critic. Her fiction, set in her native South Africa, brought that country's natural beauty, people, and racial problems to the world's attention. Modern feminists consider Schreiner one of the most important voices of the movement's early days. Her pioneering essays on the repressed plight of women and South African blacks have influenced many writers around the world.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Child of Missionaries Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner was born on March 24, 1855, at a remote Wesleyan mission station, Wittebergen, on the border of
Basutoland in Cape Colony, South Africa. (At the time, Cape Colony was controlled by the United Kingdom, which annexed much of the territory that became South Africa in the nineteenth century.) The ninth of Gottlieb and Rebecca Lyndall Schreiner's dozen children, Olive was one of the seven who survived to adulthood. To supplement the meager salary he earned as a missionary, her father resorted to private trading, a violation for which he was expelled from the London Missionary Society. Financially unable to provide for his family as a storekeeper, Gottlieb Schreiner sent his two youngest children, eleven-year-old Olive and her nine-year-old brother, Will, to live with their older brother Theo, a school headmaster in Cradock. With her family dispersed, Schreiner boarded with relatives and friends until 1874, when she began to work as a governess for up-country Boer farming families. (Boers were Dutch farmers. The Dutch had begun settling what became South Africa in the mid-seventeenth century and soon began establishing farms. Boers and British settlers sometimes came into conflict over territory.)
Launched Writing Career Self-educated and well read, Schreiner took five teaching posts in the Cape Colony over the next seven years. She began writing fiction and saving her wages for a trip abroad, hoping to find a publisher and to study medicine. In 1881, at the age of twenty-six, Schreiner traveled to London with three manuscripts, including one she at first called Thorn Kloof, then Lyndall, before finally deciding on The Story of an African Farm. Writer George Meredith, a reader for the publisher Chapman & Hall, recommended its publication. The novel appeared to acclaim in January 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. Critics soon revealed that the best-selling work had been penned by a woman, making the ideas it espoused all the more controversial.
Breaking with Tradition Prevented from studying medicine by worsening asthma, Schreiner forged a career as a writer, moving in progressive political and literary circles, planning an edition of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), and agitating for suffrage. At the time, women did not have the right to vote in Great Britain, though the Isle of Man had granted property-owning women the right to vote in 1881. Despite her upbringing by missionary parents, she gradually repudiated their traditional religious and social beliefs and formed friendships with freethinkers like Havelock Ellis, Eleanor Marx, and Karl Pearson.
Schreiner had little regard for prevailing fashions. With her marked disdain for hats, gloves, and restraining undergarments, Schreiner endured the constant disapproval of those who adhered to the rigid code of Victorian decorum. Her apparent disregard for appearances and adoption of the New Woman's reformed dress stemmed from more than a desire for comfort in her native South African climate. It was a deliberate statement on the severely limited boundaries of the woman's sphere. By emphasizing her “strong square figure” in shapeless suits, Schreiner physically asserted the feminist beliefs that formed the basis of her writing.
Return to South Africa In 1889, Schreiner returned to South Africa and, five years later, married farmer-politician Samuel C. Cronwright. Defying tradition, she retained her maiden name, while he hyphenated his to Cronwright-Schreiner. Their marriage was intermittently happy, marked by frequent and lengthy separations and marred by the death of their only child soon after her birth in 1895. As the nineteenth century drew to a close and the twentieth century began, Great Britain cemented its power in South Africa after winning the second Boer War in 1902. The British fought the Boers, largely farmers of Dutch descent, who were concerned that the British wanted to exert total dominance over the Boer states of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, which had been annexed by Great Britain after the First Boer War in 1877, but enjoyed limited self-government; it turned out they were right to be concerned. The war was unpopular even in Britain, where the military's brutal actions in South Africa were viewed as naked imperialism. Great Britain gained control of the region with the signing of the Treaty Vereeninging.
During her marriage, she published collections of allegories and stories, articles on South African politics, and her most influential writing on women's lives, Woman and Labour (1911). Gathering evidence from the animal world and women's history, Schreiner argued that the roles played by men and women were “neither universal nor innate.” In the future, she maintained, both sexes would shed outer pretenses and emerge as equal “comrades and co-workers.” As a result, Schreiner rejected the prevailing Victorian doctrine of separate spheres for the sexes and emerged as an advocate of egalitarian cooperation.
Yet in a society with such a fixed social and political hierarchy, she was by and large an outsider often unwell, and frequently short of funds. Schreiner feared at times that she was “only a broken and untried possibility” as a writer, citing her literary gifts, her unfinished works, and her difficult private life.
Novels Published after Death Throughout her life, Schreiner worked in spite of ill health and self-doubt to expose and remedy what she called “the desolating emptiness and barrenness of the majority of middle-class women's lives,” paving the way for feminists who followed. After a return to England in 1914, she went back to South Africa shortly before her death in 1920. Schreiner's other novels—From Man to Man (1927) and Undine (1929)—had feminist themes and appeared posthumously.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Schreiner's famous contemporaries include:
George Meredith (1828–1909): English novelist and publisher's adviser who recommended that Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm be published. His novels include The Egoist (1879).
Havelock Ellis (1859–1939): This controversial British psychologist was a friend of Schreiner. His books include The New Spirit (1890) and Sexual Selection in Men (1905).
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941): This British author wrote the extended essay A Room of One's Own (1929), an important feminist work.
Works in Literary Context
Questioning Established Beliefs Schreiner's experiences growing up in South Africa as the daughter of Christian missionary parents provided much inspiration to her writings and her life. While she eventually rebelled against these beliefs as well as many of the values of Victorian society, the background gave her something to react against. Schreiner was also self-educated, and the many books she read also influenced her as a writer.
Women and Children All of Schreiner's novels are concerned with women's search for equality, love, and fulfillment. They share characteristics common to Victorian fiction: the tendency to ramble and to appeal to the emotions rather than to the intellect. Schreiner drew credible characterizations of children, but her depictions of adults, and especially her male characters, are often considered unrealistic. In her Story of an African Farm, however, the characters are sketched so vividly, so concretely, that most readers will remain attentive when the farm's isolation or the descriptions of nature lead a character to some philosophical or mystical musing. Clearly the young children's attempts to think through the demands of conventional religion are touching; the children are stunted and controlled by these restrictions.
The Natural World and the World of Mind Set in the landscape of Schreiner's childhood, The Story of an African Farm recounts the tale of two orphaned cousins, one a domestic, unimaginative sort, the other the most outspoken feminist to appear until then in British fiction. The novel combines several haunting, evocative descriptions of nature with many explorations of each character's own point of view. Many of the philosophical musings on religion, life, death, sexual roles, and the purpose of life may have seemed profound to Schreiner, who was only twenty when she began to work on the isolated Fouche farm, Klein Ganna Hoek, in the Cape Colony.
Influence Modern feminists consider Schreiner one of the most important voices of the movement's early days. Her role as an influence upon other writers is also widely acknowledged. D. H. Lawrence's early novels owe much to Schreiner's daring treatment of human sexuality.
Works in Critical Context
Pioneer An unconventional woman, Schreiner was a pioneer in her treatment and depiction of women and in her vivid portrayal and use of the African landscape. As a novelist, short-story writer, and political essayist, she was both acclaimed and derided during her lifetime for her pioneering views on the role of women, her rejection of Christian convention, her anti-imperialist stance, and her pacifism during World War I.
Many critics contend that Schreiner is best appraised as something other than a fiction writer. In her novels, the artist often gives way to the social reformer, and Schreiner's bold, lively, and realistic style takes on a quasi-biblical aura in her short stories. These stories offer vibrant, optimistic visions of life, contrasting sharply with her novels in style and tone. Based upon readings of Schreiner's stories, some critics have described her as essentially a poet and a prophet and not a fiction writer. Today, Schreiner's works are read and studied by a new generation of feminists who ascribe to her a leadership role in the advancement of women's rights.
The Story of an African Farm When the public discovered that the author of African Farm was a woman, Schreiner's fame turned to notoriety, and the book was reassessed as un-Christian and antifeminine by many critics. While Henry Norman of the Fortnightly Review believed the novel was written by a woman despite the male name on the title page, he found much to praise. Norman called the novel “remarkable,” and noted “in spite of its occasional youthful lapses, the whole story is of fascinating interest, and, what is more, of great moral power.”
After its publication, Schreiner moved back to her homeland and continued to pursue a writing career, putting her energies into nonfiction dealing with a variety of social concerns. Schreiner published several other novels, including From Man to Man and Undine. Although her later novels contained feminist themes similar to African Farm and found critical favor for their depiction of the exotic African landscape, they were deemed, on the whole, inferior to Schreiner's first published work of fiction.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Schreiner is often associated with the feminist movement. Her literary portrayals of women who were equal partners with the men in their lives were inspiring and, at the time, uncommon. Here are some other works that focus on the role of women in difficult times:
A Room of One's Own (1929), an essay by Virginia Woolf. In this extended essay, Woolf claims that women must have money, time, and space if they want to write.
The Feminine Mystique (1963), a nonfiction book by Betty Friedan. This popular book challenged the idea that women mainly belong in the home.
The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. In Atwood's futuristic society, women's main purpose is to produce children or to be wives.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987), a novel by Fannie Flagg. In this novel, which was made into a popular film, a group of southern American women explore their various social and sexual roles and try to change them.
Woman and Labour Woman and Labour is considered Schreiner's most important piece of writing and social statement. The book attacks the economic and personal oppression of working women and was hailed throughout the Western world as a persuasive, timely document. In Woman and Labour she used scientific observation to argue that gender roles are “neither universal nor innate.” Rather, she believed, future eras would find men and women living side by side as “comrades and co-workers.” In Olive Schreiner: Her Friends and Times, D. L. Hobman called Woman and Labour “one of the noblest books which have ever appeared in defense of feminism.”
Responses to Literature
- Critics have claimed that Schreiner is more of an activist than a writer. Using examples from some of her works, write a short essay explaining why you agree or disagree.
- compare Schreiner's writings about South Africa with more modern writers from the same region, such as J. M. Coetzee and Alan Paton. In a paper, address the topic and include the answers to these questions: Who seems to know more about the landscape? How can you tell?
- Research the Boer War and create an oral presentation explaining Schreiner's involvement.
- Woman and Labour and Woolf's A Room of One's Own have similar themes, but Woolf's is usually the more well regarded of the two. With a group of your classmates who are familiar with Woolf and Schreiner, discuss why that might be true.
Barash, Carol, ed. An Olive Schreiner Reader: Writings on Women and South Africa. London: Pandora, 1987.
First, Ruth, and Ann Scott. Olive Schreiner. New York: Schocken, 1980.
Norman, Henry. “Theories and Practice of ModernFiction.” Fortnightly Review (December 1, 1883): 870–86.
“Olive Schreiner: Biographical Overview.” EmoryUniversity. Accessed July 2, 2008, from http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Schreiner.html.
“Olive Schreiner (1855–1920).” Drew University. Accessed July 2, 2008, from http://www.depts.drew.edu/wmst/corecourses/wmst111/timeline_bios/OSchreiner.htm.
“Olive Schreiner.” Spartacus Educational. Accessed July 2, 2008, from http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUschreiner.htm.
“Olive Schreiner.” Washington State University. Accessed July 2, 2008, from http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/Schreiner.html.
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.
Experienced Difficult Childhood
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.
First Novel Published in England
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."
Joined London's Inner Circles
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.
Married Ostrich Farmer
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."
Develolped a Heart Condition
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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