Schreiner, Olive (1855–1920)

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Schreiner, Olive (1855–1920)

South African novelist, socialist and feminist who became an important critic of British imperial policy and struggled to reduce the many social restrictions placed on Victorian women. Name variations: Emilie Schreiner; (pseudonym) Ralph Iron. Pronunciation: SHRINE-er. Born Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner on March 24, 1855, in Wittebergen, South Africa; died in Cape Town, South Africa, on December 10, 1920; daughter of Gottlob Schreiner (a missionary and businessman) and Rebecca (Lyndall) Schreiner; married Samuel Cron Cronwright, on February 24, 1894; children: daughter (died one day after birth on April 30, 1895).

Worked as a governess and began writing novels (1874–1881); published The Story of an African Farm under pseudonym Ralph Iron (1883); developed her feminism and socialism as member of "Men's and Women's Club" in London; hailed as a feminist pioneer after publication of Dreams (1890); became vocal opponent of Cecil Rhodes, British imperial policy, and the Boer War; campaigned for end to racial and gender restrictions on vote in South Africa; defended pacifism and conscientious objectors during World War I; last unfinished work published posthumously (1929).


The Story of an African Farm (1883); Dreams (1890); Dream Life and Real Life (1893); The Political Situation (co-authored by Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner, 1896); Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland (1897); An English South African's View of the Situation (1899); Closer Union (1909); Women and Labor (1911); (published posthumously) Thoughts on South Africa (1923), Stories, Dreams and Allegories (1923), From Man to Man (1926), and Undine (1929).

English women of the sprawling British Empire found themselves playing dual and often ambiguous roles. As members of the colonizing race, they benefited from the increased power and opportunities generated by imperialism. As women, however, they were colonized in turn by Victorian gender norms which sharply curtailed their freedom and relegated them to secondary status within colonial and metropolitan society. From beneath these contradictory impulses, a young South African woman named Olive Schreiner emerged as one of the leading and most influential feminists and critics of imperial policy in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Born in 1855 into an evangelical missionary family stationed in Wittebergen, South Africa, Olive Schreiner was the 9th of Rebecca Lyndall Schreiner and Gottlob Schreiner's 12 children. Christened Olive Emilie Albertina after three dead brothers, Schreiner was known to her family as Emilie for her first 15 years. Her father's preoccupation with mission work left the task of raising and educating the children to Olive's mother. Rebecca Schreiner, faced with life in a series of failing and "uncivilized" mission stations, instilled in her children a stern and unwavering evangelical creed and behavioral code that stressed the importance of duty, proper comportment and the racial superiority of Britons. While all the Schreiner children were taught by their mother at home, Olive's brothers were later sent to school in England in accordance with Victorian beliefs that only men could profit from an extensive education. Olive, on the other hand, was forced to augment her own meager education by reading widely, setting in motion a pattern that she maintained for the rest of her life.

In 1861, under orders from the Wesleyan Missionary Society, Gottlob Schreiner moved the family to Healdtown where he was to run the mission station and its attached vocational school. Four years later, he was dismissed by the mission society in disgrace for breaking its rule prohibiting missionaries from engaging in trade. After nearly three decades as a missionary, Gottlob was forced to try his hand at business in order to make a living. His efforts proved to be a failure, and the family quickly slid into poverty.

In 1867, the three youngest children, including Olive, were sent to live with their older brother, Theo, who had returned to South Africa to take up a position as headmaster and teacher of a small school in Cradock. News about the discovery of diamonds in Griqualand West, an autonomous African state with a growing European population, led to further disruptions in Olive's childhood. When Theo and her younger brother William went to the diamond fields in 1870 in the hopes of raising the family from poverty, Olive was shunted between a series of relatives and family friends. It was in this period that Schreiner finally renounced formal religion and became a freethinker. Despite her mother's teachings, which were enforced by corporal punishment and stinging criticism, Olive began questioning her commitment to religion after the death of a younger sister in 1864. This loss of religious sentiment and the ensuing disapproval from her deeply spiritual family left a hole in her life that was not filled until she read and adopted the philosophies presented in Herbert Spencer's First Principles. Spencer and other freethinkers rejected formal religious authority and dogma in favor of science, rational inquiry and speculation. Schreiner's growing commitment to this ideology distanced her from her family and helped foster a lifelong need for independence.

In the midst of this conversion to freethinking ideology, Schreiner suffered the collapse of a whirlwind engagement to Julius Gau, a German businessman whom she had met while traveling between relatives. Eager to put the whole episode behind her, Olive decided in December 1872 to join her brothers and older sister in the diamond fields of Kimberly. Living in a tent city alongside other prospectors, Schreiner had to contend with poor sanitation, disease, lack of food, widespread drunkenness and gambling. Since claims were by no means automatically profitable, the wives and sisters of prospectors supplemented the family income by cooking and cleaning for others. In addition to filling these traditional roles, Schreiner also taught in the local school and began writing short stories in which she started to develop many of the themes and characters that later appeared in her novels.

Barely a year after her arrival, an increasingly sickly Schreiner was forced to leave Kimberly for a sister's home in Fraserburg in search of better health. Life in the tent city of the diamond fields had caused an asthmatic condition which would plague her for the rest of her life. After meeting and befriending Dr. John and Mary Brown in Fraserburg, Schreiner decided to pursue a career in medicine. While the Browns encouraged this decision, which would have required study in England or the United States, her family's poverty prevented Olive from enacting her plans.

In an effort to begin contributing to the family income, Schreiner answered an ad in April 1874 for a position as governess, one of the few reputable occupations open to Victorian women of middle-class origins. Since most qualified teachers in South Africa were men who opened their own schools in urban areas, female governesses were in high demand in agricultural communities as a cheap alternative to boarding schools. As single women in strangers' homes, they were, however, subject to a variety of abuses ranging from poor pay to overwork and sexual advances from their employers.

Although her own experiences in a series of governess positions over the next seven years were generally positive, Schreiner was not immune from these problems. Her chief complaints were the inadequate pay and loneliness brought on by isolation in remote farming communities. She was not, however, willing to forego the independence that her work gave her and went so far as to refuse her family's offer of monetary aid. Shortly thereafter, Schreiner explained in a letter to her sister: "I made up my mind when I was quite a little child that as soon as I was able I would support myself for I see no reason why a woman should be dependent on her friends any more than a man should." While this commitment to supporting herself compromised many of her choices later in life, Schreiner's dedication to this principle never wavered.

During the seven years that she worked as a governess, Schreiner completed two novels and began work on a third. Set in South Africa, all three (The Story of an African Farm, Undine and From Man to Man) explored and asserted several different positions on women, freedom, religion and love. In 1880, Schreiner sent the manuscript of The Story of an African Farm to the Browns in England and asked them to find her a publisher. Although they were initially unsuccessful, Olive began revising the manuscript and set sail for England in 1881 in the hopes of entering medical school. Shortly after her arrival, Schreiner enrolled in a nurses' training course at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh and began studying for the medical school entrance exam. Within a few weeks, ill health forced her to abandon both pursuits and she returned to writing.

In 1882, Schreiner succeeded in finding a publisher for The Story of an African Farm, which came out the following year under the pseudonym of Ralph Iron. Her first novel was very well received and Schreiner found herself being introduced into social and literary circles which included such influential figures as Have-lock Ellis, Eleanor Marx-Aveling , Oscar Wilde and H. Rider Haggard. In addition to enabling her to forge close friendships with Marx-Aveling and Ellis, Schreiner's newfound notoriety assured her of an audience and linked her in the public mind with the growing movement for women's emancipation. This link was as much the result of Schreiner's own behavior and independence as it was of the feminist commentary of her main character, Lyndall, who persistently critiqued the social restrictions placed on women by Victorian society.

Shortly after the appearance of her first novel, Schreiner immersed herself in the newly formed "Men and Women's Club," which committed itself to intellectual work aimed at improving the relations between the sexes. As an active member, Schreiner took part in its many discussions on the inadequacy of women's education, the Contagious Diseases Acts (which were designed to curtail the prevalence of venereal disease among prostitutes), and the non-recognition of women's sexuality. She also explored these themes in her extensive correspondence with Havelock Ellis and fellow club-member Karl Pearson. When the club turned its attention to prostitution, Schreiner began researching the problem in detail. After some initial efforts at rescue work, she came to the conclusion that her energies would be better spent on publicizing women's issues through her writing.

As a result of her work, Schreiner developed an intense but short-lived friendship with Pearson. Although biographers speculate that she was in love with him, Schreiner herself consistently denied that they were ever romantically involved. When their friendship collapsed at the end of 1886, Schreiner sank into despair and left England to travel around Europe. While abroad, she began work on an introduction for a new edition of Mary Wollstonecraft 's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This introduction, never finished, was soon abandoned in favor of a series of allegories, later published as Dreams, which explored the constraints placed on women by Victorian society.

On her return to England in 1889, Schreiner, still upset over the loss of her friendship with Pearson, studiously avoided the Club and declined most social invitations. In October, she decided to return to South Africa, after an absence of eight years, in order to concentrate more fully on her work. Prior to her departure, Olive entrusted Ellis with the publication of her allegories on the condition that they be targeted at the rich, whom she felt were most in need of enlightenment. Published in 1890, Dreams, with its emphasis on the injustices done to women by Victorian society, appeared as a feminist call to arms.

Shortly after her November 1889 arrival in South Africa, the widespread popularity of Dreams led to invitations to appear as a speaker at meetings and social gatherings throughout the British Empire. Anxious to continue her work and plagued by increasingly severe asthma attacks, Schreiner moved to Matjesfontein in search of better health. After settling into her new home, she began grappling with the problems of Victorian colonial society and South African politics in a series of essays which appeared as journal articles in the United States and England between 1891 and 1900. In these essays, collected and published in 1923 as Thoughts on South Africa, Schreiner emerged as an opponent of racial and ethnic segregation and as a staunch supporter of the Dutch farmers, called Boers, who had fled British rule after the Napoleonic wars and set up semi-autonomous republics in the Transvaal (also called the Republic of South Africa) and Orange Free State.

Schreiner's involvement in South African politics increased dramatically when her younger brother William, who had returned to South Africa to practice law after attending Cambridge University, became an advisor and, subsequently, attorney-general for the newly formed government of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes' own rise to political power lay in his control over South Africa's nascent diamond and gold industries. In addition to his control of De Beers Consolidated Mines, however, Rhodes was also given a charter by the British government which empowered his British-South Africa Company to annex and administer new territory as he saw fit. By 1890, Rhodes had used his economic power to forge an alliance with the Afrikaner Bond, a Boer political party dedicated to an autonomous and united South Africa, and to become prime minister of Cape Colony.

Initially impressed by Rhodes' accomplishments, Schreiner quickly became one of his most vocal critics, a position she was to maintain throughout the 1890s. Her actions irreparably damaged her already weakened relationship with her family, since they regarded Olive's critique of Rhodes as an attack on her brother. Despite the pain that this caused her, Schreiner remained firm in her opposition to Rhodes and his official policies, which she attacked in essays and satirical sketches. The basis of these criticisms lay in Schreiner's own anti-capitalist sentiments which had been forged during her years in England. Olive's critique of Rhodes and his government was centered around her belief that governmental policy was set by capitalists with little regard for the needs of the masses. This was subsequently confirmed by Rhodes' efforts to annex the remaining independent African states, impose voting restrictions and a labor tax on the indigenous populations, and inflict corporal punishment on those who hindered South Africa's industrial development.

In the midst of this campaign against government policies, Schreiner met and was courted by her future husband, an ostrich farmer named Samuel Cron Cronwright. After a brief period of indecision in which she worried that marriage would impinge on her independence, she accepted his proposal, and they were married in a civil ceremony in February 1894. At Schreiner's insistence, she retained her own name while he changed his to Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner, thereby making them an anomaly within Victorian society. Within three months, they abandoned Samuel's farm and moved to Kimberly after Olive's asthmatic condition worsened. Shortly thereafter, a pregnant Olive resumed her unsuccessful attempts to complete From Man to Man, a task which was to elude her for the rest of her life. Schreiner's grief over the death of her baby a day after its birth in April 1895 was compounded by four subsequent miscarriages. In an effort to alleviate their sadness, both Schreiner and her husband plunged into work and politics.

In August 1895, Samuel delivered a speech on South Africa's political situation to a local Farmer's Association meeting. Although the speech was billed as his own creation, its content and style reveal Olive's extensive input. Published in England the following year as a jointly authored book entitled The Political Situation, Samuel's speech argued that capitalists had acquired too much control over South Africa's government and economy. In a much more radical move, Samuel and Olive also called for the expansion of the franchise regardless of race or color and began referring to the so-called "native question" as one of labor, since the issues involved were created by capitalist exploitation.

As the details of the ill-fated 1896 Jameson raid unfolded in the South African press, Schreiner built on the socialist critiques presented in The Political Situation and issued a warning that the capitalists' need for unified markets would lead to war between the British and their Boer neighbors. The origins of the raid, part of a plot to complete the British takeover of the Transvaal, were traced back to Rhodes himself and eventually led to the collapse of his government. Rhodes' incurable expansionist impulses were demonstrated later that same year when he used his position as head of the British-South Africa Company to invade and annex the nearby lands of the Matabele and Mashona tribes. Appalled by Rhodes' actions in the newly renamed territory of Rhodesia, Schreiner wrote Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland, a scathing attack on capitalist expansion and a warning that its next target would be the Boers rather than the indigenous African peoples.

Convinced that her warnings were falling on deaf ears, Schreiner and her husband went to England in 1897 to visit family and friends. While abroad, she continued her crusade and delivered many speeches warning of the coming war and criticizing British policy in South Africa. These activities and her subsequent speeches on behalf of both the women's movement and conscientious objectors helped to create her image as a brilliant crusader and campaigner. In 1898, Schreiner returned to South Africa in time to see Rhodes defeated at the polls. Although he was replaced as prime minister by her younger brother William, Olive remained convinced that capitalists like Rhodes were attempting to provoke a war with the Boer republics. Her renewed warnings, published in 1899 as An English South African's View of the Situation, also went unheeded.

With the outbreak of the Boer War (1899–1902), Schreiner's husband went to England to campaign for an end to the hostilities, while she moved from Johannesburg to Hannover in an effort to relieve her asthma. During the war's initial phase, she wrote very little, preferring instead to devote her time to gathering food and raising money to alleviate local shortages. When she returned to her house in Johannesburg a year after being stranded in Hannover by the imposition of martial law, she found that it had been looted and her manuscripts burned. Schreiner's response was to resume her involvement in politics, this time in direct opposition to her brother's governmental policies which called for the annexation of the Boer republics once they had been defeated. Olive's frequent speeches at conferences opposed to official policy played no small part in the subsequent collapse of her brother's ministry. While the republics were eventually annexed, the 1902 peace treaty, which granted the Boers internal autonomy and allowed them to impose racial restrictions on the franchise, was only a temporary solution to the problem of South African unity.

In the midst of Schreiner's increasing political activity, her husband, who had returned to South Africa in 1900, established a business and entered politics as a member of the Cape Colony Parliament. Although historians speculate that this may have marked the beginning of an estrangement between the couple, they both denied the existence of any marital problems in their correspondence with others. While Samuel busied himself with his parliamentary duties, Olive began campaigning for the nascent South African labor movement, despite her disagreement with its tendency towards racial exclusivity, which she felt unnecessarily hindered the struggle against capitalist exploitation. In addition to her commitment to labor, after the war Schreiner also became heavily involved in the South African women's movement which received a welcome boost from both her notoriety and her ties to suffragists in England.

When negotiations for a new South African constitution were initiated in 1907, she helped form the Women's Enfranchisement League which waged an unsuccessful campaign to secure the vote for women. In tandem with this effort, Olive reconciled with her brother William and joined him in calling for a federated South African republic devoid of racial restrictions on voting rights. They believed that smaller, more loosely controlled states would provide better government and more liberty. Like the campaign to include women in the franchise, these efforts failed and the new constitution instead created the Union of South Africa, a white-controlled, semi-autonomous British Dominion made up of the former Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

Frustrated by the failure of her efforts to secure a decentralized, racially integrated South Africa, Schreiner threw herself even more fully into the women's movement. While continuing her work with suffrage groups and the organization of women's trade unions, she also began to research and write Women and Labor. Hailed by many as the bible of the early 20th-century feminist movement, Women and Labor, which appeared in 1911, argues that the industrial revolution narrowed and depleted the labor roles available to women until they were reduced to "sex parasites" and childbearing machines. In order for women to regain their rightful place and for society to progress, women had to be allowed to break free of social restrictions and engage in productive labor. Thus, for Schreiner, the women's movement was inextricably linked with the labor movement. Influenced by Women and Labor, which met with critical acclaim, feminists throughout the empire revamped their platforms and began pressing for an end to the social restrictions on women's work.

Despite her influence within the feminist community, Schreiner did not always meet with success in this period. In 1913, she resigned as vice-president of the Women's Enfranchisement League as a protest against the League's decision to alter its program in favor of securing a racially based vote for women. Disillusioned and increasingly ill, Schreiner left for Britain in the hopes of getting treatment for her asthma. The outbreak of World War I trapped her in England where she suffered taunts and persecution because of her German name, her pacifism, and her spirited defense of conscientious objectors. During the war, Schreiner called for equal pay for women filling industrial positions formerly occupied by men and began work on "The Dawn of Civilization," a long article published after her death in which she explored and justified pacifism.

Although she had become incapacitated by illness four years earlier, it was not until July 1920 that Samuel ended their long separation and joined her in England. Shocked by her appearance, he canceled a proposed trip to the United States in order to care for his wife. Eager to avoid another damp English winter, Olive set sail for South Africa the following month, leaving her husband to follow after he had tied up their affairs. On arrival at the Cape, Schreiner began raising money for striking African workers and avidly followed press accounts of the civil disobedience campaign organized to protest the issuing of internal passbooks. She was working on these campaigns when she died on December 10, 1920.

Returning after the funeral, Samuel arranged for his wife to be reinterred on the ridge above his old farm at Buffelskop and began writing her biography. Despite her wish that her papers and unfinished manuscripts remain private, over the next decade Samuel produced an edited collection of her letters and oversaw the posthumous publication of several works, the last of which was the semi-autobiographical novel Undine which she had begun as a young governess on the verge of an intellectual awakening.


Barash, Carol. An Olive Schreiner Reader. London: Pandora, 1987.

Berkman, Joyce Avrech. The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

——. Olive Schreiner: Feminism on the Frontier. Quebec: Eden Press Women's Publications, 1979.

First, Ruth, and Ann Scott. Olive Schreiner. NY: Schocken, 1980.

Thurman, Howard. A Track to the Water's Edge: The Olive Schreiner Reader. NY: Harper & Row, 1973.

suggested reading:

Chaudhuri, Nupur, and Margaret Strobel, eds. Western Women and Imperialism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Cronwright-Schreiner, Samuel Cron, ed. The Letters of Olive Schreiner. London: Unwin, 1924.

——. The Life of Olive Schreiner. London: Unwin, 1924.

Draznin, Yaffa Claire, ed. My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884–1920. NY: Peter Lang, 1992.

Hobman, D.L. Olive Schreiner: Her Friends and her Times. London: Watts, 1955.

Lewis, Jane. Women in England 1870–1950: Sexual Divisions and Social Change. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

Rive, Richard, ed. Olive Schreiner Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.


Correspondence, papers and manuscripts located in Cradock Library, Cradock, South Africa; South African Library, Special Collections, Cape Town; Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin; the privately owned Fryde Collection, Johannesburg; and the J.W. Jagger Library, University of Cape Town.

Kenneth J. Orosz , Ph.D. candidate in European History, Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York

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Schreiner, Olive (1855–1920)

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