Olive Schreiner

Olive Schreiner (Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner. March 24th, 1855 – December 11th, 1920) was a South African writer.

Born to a missionary couple, Schreiner was the ninth of twelve children, and her childhood was marked by poverty and maternal abuse. She was educated at home by her mother and her older brothers and sisters. In 1867, when her brother Theophilus started to work as a headmaster in Cradock, Schreiner was able to attend his school for a brief period.

From 1874 to 1881, she moved from town to town, earning her living as a governess. In her free time, she began working on what would later become her most famous novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883).

Intent on becoming a medical doctor, Schreiner saved enough money to travel to the United Kingdom, and initially moved to Edinburgh in 1881, to enrol in the Royal Infirmary. Upon hearing about the London School of Medicine for Women, she moved to London to try her luck, but ill health forced her to abandon her training. She suffered throughout life from asthma, attacks of angina, and bouts of depression.

Schreiner then started send her manuscripts to publishers, in the hopes of making a living by her pen. Initially rejected by several publishers, The Story of an African Farm was finally published in 1883, under the pen name Ralph Iron, with the help of George Meredith, whom Schreiner had met earlier that same year. The novel was an immediate success, praised by George Moore and Oscar Wilde, among others. In Heretics (1905), G.K. Chesterton wrote about Schreiner: “Her literary kinship is with the pessimistic fiction of the continent; with the novelists whose very pity is cruel. Olive Schreiner is the one English colonial who is not conventional.”

Schreiner started to attend socialist meetings, and became friends with Edward Carpenter, Eleanor Marx, and Havelock Ellis. In his memoir My Life (1940), Ellis wrote about his friendship with Schreiner: “We were not what can be technically, or even ordinarily, called lovers. But the relationship of affectionate friendship which was really established meant more for both of us, and was even more intimate, than is often and relationship between those who technically and ordinarily are lovers.”

In 1885, Schreiner joined the Fellowship of the New Life, an organisation that advocated pacifism, vegetarianism and simple living, influenced by the ideas of Henry David Thoreau Leo Tolstoy, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1889, plagued by ill health, Schreiner returned to South Africa to live with her family. She continued to write fiction, and, as a fierce critic of British imperialism, became increasingly involved in politics.

In 1894, Schreiner married a farmer, Samuel Cronwright, who was eight years her junior. In 1895, at the age of forty, she gave birth to a daughter who died sixteen hours after being born. Schreiner later suffered three miscarriages.

In 1913, Schreiner moved to back to Britain to treat her asthma, but was soon engulfed by the outbreak of First World War. Throughout the war, she was active in the peace movement, and worked for various pacifist organizations.

Debilitated by ill health, Schreiner returned to South Africa in August 1920, and died from a heart-attack in December that same year.

Books

  • The Story of an African Farm (1883)
  • Dreams (1890)
  • Dream Life and Real Life (1893)
  • The Political Situation in Cape Colony (1895, together with her husband)
  • Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897)
  • An English South African Woman’s View of the Situation, a critique on the Transvaal difficulty from the pro-Boer position (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 Olive Schreiner: 1876-1920, ed. Samuel Cronwright (1924)
  • From Man to Man (1926)
  • Undine (1929)
  • Diamond Fields: Only a Story of Course (1974)
  • Letters, ed. Richard Rive (1988)
  • Olive Schreiner Letters Online

About her

  • Olive Schreiner, by Ann Scott and Ruth First (1980)
  • Fictions of the Female Self: Charlotte Bronte, Olive Schreiner, Katherine Mansfield, by Ruth Parkin-Gounelas (1991)
  • Olive Schreiner, by Cherry Clayton (1997)
  • White Women Writers and their African Invention, by Simon Lewis (2003)
  • New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, and Mona Caird, by Ann Heilmans (2004)
  • Olive Schreiner, by Carolyn Burdett (2013)
  • In Search of the New Woman: Middle-Class Women and Work in Britain 1870–1914, by Gillian Sutherland (2015)

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