Olive Schreiner (1855-1920)

More than a mere novelist, Olive Schreiner attained the status of a celebrity shortly after her first novel was released. Schreiner's semi-autobiographical The Story of an African Farm, first published in 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron, was hailed by contemporary critics as a sensitive expression of a thinking woman's perspective on religion, marriage, and other social topics. Schreiner's concern with social issues, the secondary status of women, and the racism of her native South Africa would continue to serve as the focus of her work, both in fiction and nonfiction. Her Women and Labour, published in 1911, was long considered one of the major feminist tracts written in English; 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.

("Olive (Emilie Albertina) Schreiner." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2005).


South African novelist, feminist, and political polemicist Olive Schreiner has exerted a profound and continuing influence on many generations of thinkers and writers in South Africa, Europe, and the United States. As the first English-speaking novelist to give the indigenous landscapes of southern Africa a vivid fictional existence, showing memorable human beings growing up in the isolated terrain of the Karoo, and experiencing in that isolation the fears and doubts of Victorian Christians, as well as the power structures of colony and family, she etched powerful images of oppression and struggle on the international imagination by drawing on "the grey pigments" around her. Her depiction of Victorian religious crisis in a colonial setting in her famous 1883 novel, The Story of an African Farm, made southern Africa a reality to the metropolitan audience, and by linking feminist protest to colonial conditions she spoke to the awakening spirit of the late Victorian and Edwardian woman's movement, as well as the broader current of egalitarianism and socialism represented by her English friends Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis. The Story of an African Farm was read and admired by writers such as D. H. Lawrence and George Moore; the novel was an expression of, and helped to intensify, modernist experimentation in the novel associated with the overthrow of realist conventions and the challenging of stale social and moral norms for human sexuality, social organization, and spiritual aspiration. The feminist speeches of Schreiner's heroine, Lyndall, in The Story of an African Farm set out clearly and passionately the grounds of women's justified outrage at being confined to a private domestic sphere and being deprived of a proper education and professional training. Her eloquence stirred the hearts of Victorian women and her arguments are still central to today 's feminist debates. Schreiner's major (but unfinished) novel, the posthumously published From Man to Man; or, Perhaps Only . . . (1926), which has two sisters as protagonists, extended and reinforced the linkage Schreiner always made between economic autonomy for women and their sense of value and relevance in the wider life of society and culture. Woman and Labour (1911), her nonfictional statement on the social structures and history of women's lives, was an attempt to give an historical and polemical form to her experience and reading of Victorian women's parasitic and dependent position within conventional marriage and the nuclear family. Her major plea was still for women to be given the same professional training and social relevance as men.

Born on an isolated mission station on the frontiers of what was then the Cape Colony on 24 March 1855, Olive Emily Albertina Schreiner was the ninth of twelve children of a German father and an English mother, Gottlob Schreiner and Rebecca Lyndall Schreiner, who had come to southern Africa in 1838 as part of the London Missionary Society. Both had strong religious convictions and evangelical hopes of converting and civilizing the "heathen" in Africa. How ambiguous this task was is revealed in Schreiner's novel, The Story of an African Farm, when two small black boys "winked at each other" as an old German explained "the approaching end of the world." Gottlob Schreiner, who constantly moved about to different mission stations and later, after a bankruptcy in 1866, became a penurious trader and shopkeeper, was of peasant stock. He was an unworldly, dreamy man who ensured that the family remained on the edges of poverty and that a daughter such as Olive, who was not offered the educational opportunities of her brothers, had to shift for herself at the early age of fifteen and take the only options available to a young spinster: living with relatives, or becoming household help and governess in other families. This early expulsion from the family, constant dislocation and insecurity, combined with a sensitive temperament and a disastrous early love affair, created the foundation for Schreiner's lifelong restlessness and exacerbated her asthmatic condition.

Olive, initially called Em, inherited her father's belief in the world of dreams and idealism, but she also inherited her mother's strong intellect and will. As a child she showed a free, rebellious spirit, one who needed "much patient firmness," as her biographers Ruth First and Ann Scott report her mother, a strict disciplinarian, as saying. Olive's strong dissenting will, and her early clash with Christian dogma, especially the doctrine of predestination, and the hypocrisy of much Christian behavior, led to her becoming a freethinker (a good description of her throughout her life). There is a strong element of self-portraiture in her fictional depictions of a restless, intelligent, and "queer little child," which was her manuscript subtitle for her apprentice novel, Undine, written during the 1870s but not published until 1928. The most vivid scenes of her early novels are those that depict the emotional conflicts of children, within themselves, with the adult world, and with social norms and religious convention. These conflicts were passionately lived through in her own childhood and adolescence.

After spending her young womanhood as a governess on farms in the Karoo area of the Cape Colony, a landscape she loved for its connections with wildlife, its abundant vitality, and the freedom to be herself untrammeled by social restraints, Schreiner departed for England in 1881, having almost completed three novels during this fruitful period of her life. She never again created as powerfully, and wrote only one other novel, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897). She hoped to train as a nurse in London, but this soon proved unfeasible for someone of her temperament and patchy education, so she tried, at a time when this was almost impossible for women, to be a professional writer and intellectual. The enormous success of The Story of an African Farm, acclaimed by British intellectuals such as Edward B. Aveling in his review of the novel in Progress (1 December 1883), for "bold outspeaking" on religious and social questions, brought her many new acquaintances and friends. Yet, the social scene did not suit her, and only the friendship of Havelock Ellis , then a struggling medical student with a keen interest in literature, offered her a kind of emotional anchor in an unfamiliar and complex urban environment. They talked and corresponded voluminously, and their correspondence provides rich insights into the mood and crosscurrents of London life in the 1880s, as well as their own desperate need for love and reassurance. After an unsuccessful relationship with mathematician and later eugenicist Karl Pearson, which grew, as had her relationship with Ellis, partly out of their involvement in the Men and Women's Club (a meeting place for supposedly frank discussions of sexuality, experimental living arrangements, and "the Woman Question") Schreiner fled to the Riviera, where she found a sort of base at Alassio, Italy.

There the Mediterranean climate and the presence of the sea gave her a feeling of reconnecting with a landscape she had lost, and she wrote many of her "dreams" here, in which a troubled male-female relationship is seen as resolvable only through renunciation and departure. Schreiner was recognizing in fantasy that she found the life of a woman writer and marriage hard to reconcile, and she was setting the stage for her own return to South Africa in 1889.

She remained in South Africa from 1890 to 1913, the years of her maturity and marriage: she married a congenial farmer, Samuel Cron Cronwright, on 24 February 1894; they had only one child, a girl who died almost immediately after her birth on 30 April 1895. This loss left a lasting wound; nevertheless, the couple became a formidable public presence in South Africa, involved in daily political affairs in an increasingly active way. During the 1890s Cecil Rhodes and his plans for a united South Africa under the British flag became prominent,and Rhodes's Chartered Company sought to control and exploit Matabeleland and Mashonaland. Later came the South African War of 1899-1902 in which British troops defeated the independent Boer republics, and the intense political debates that led up to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. Schreiner's fullest response to Rhodes was in her novel Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, but throughout these events and debates, she remained a supporter of the underdog, of indigenous and worker rights, of small embattled minorities, of individual rights and of federal structures. Her pamphlet Closer Union (1908) makes these political views clear. She saw, with prophetic insight, that the fates of white and black South Africans were intertwined and that if white capitalists created a large black workforce without any real attempt at education or integration, the future would be bleak. She was right. She also supported the extension of the vote to women and worked within the Women's Enfranchisement League, but objected to the exclusion of women of other races and resigned her membership in protest at a racially exclusive suffrage movement (in 1930 the vote was given to white women only).

During the South African War she and her husband (who had changed his name to "Cronwright-Schreiner") played a key role as national and international speakers on behalf of the Boer cause and tried to rally international sympathy on their behalf. She was always opposed to the materialism and capitalism of British mining interests in South Africa. Her 1899 pamphlet The South African Question: By an English South-African , published in England as An English-South African's View of the Situation: Words in Season , was written as an urgent response to the political and economic pressures that were rapidly building up to war while the Cronwright-Schreiners were living in Johannesburg in 1898 and 1899. In it she appealed to the conscience of the British people and expressed her own sense of being torn apart by such a conflict between a country long considered a liberal guardian and the Boer republics. The war hardened attitudes among English-speaking South Africans, and many became sympathizers and allies to the Afrikaans-speaking Boers, or Afrikaners (largely descendants of Dutch settlers). Schreiner's personal views and recollections of Boer life in South Africa are most fully stated in the essays eventually collected in Thoughts on South Africa (1923), originally written mainly for the Fortnightly Review in London during the 1890s. In these articles she writes as an interpreter of South African landscape, history, and peoples to an English audience. Her attitude to the Boers here is passionately protective, as her biographers First and Scott point out: "Her defense of the Boer was a critique of the purposes of capitalism in South Africa."

During the South African War, Schreiner was in the small Karoo town of Hanover. She was one of the leaders of the women's protest movement in the early years of the war, speaking at key rallies in the Cape. One of her finest short stories (she did not write many, and they were often for a readership of children), "Eighteen-Ninety-Nine," stems from this period. In it Schreiner sketches graphically the phases of Boer life in South Africa, showing the sacrifice of successive generations of young men in each phase of frontier conflict or wars of independence. The story is made more moving by being told through its effects on two women in a family as they endure a series of losses.

Her husband set up a growing practice as a general law agent in Hanover and later De Aar, where they lived from 1907 to 1913. There Schreiner tried to revise From Man to Man and worked on Woman and Labour, but there were growing stresses on the marriage and on the health of both husband and wife. In 1911 Schreiner's Woman and Labour appeared. She claimed it was a reconstructed fragment of an earlier work on women, and it clearly grew out of her own experience of Victorian prejudices against the education and training of women, and her own perception of the stultification of women's talents and powers in traditional roles of dependent wife and mother. She argues from evolutionary patterns and historical examples, tracing the effect of women's loss of traditional occupations with the rise of industrialism, and their subsequent descent into a condition of "parasitism" (economic dependence and passivity). She argues the case for the interdependence of Victorian marriage and prostitution, which she was seeking to give fictional form in From Man to Man. Though it was well received, the work has the aura of an earlier time. There are flashes of great power, but the strength of the work lies in its materialist analysis of women's historical situation. Her own experience of marriage, despite her husband's literary interests and similar political sympathies, had shown her the difficulty of combining traditional roles with sustained creative work, and she had grown increasingly disillusioned with her own marriage. In 1913 she separated, in fact though not legally, from her husband and went to live in England, ostensibly to gain medical help for her asthmatic condition, with which she had become preoccupied. In wartime London she was isolated and out of sympathy with British jingoism; the presence of her brother W. P. Schreiner, High Commissioner for South Africa from 1914 to 1919, was a comfort. They were always close, and her interest in South African politics was intertwined with his career as a politician (he was Attorney-General to Rhodes and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1898 to 1900), though she always held her own views and often influenced him toward more liberal views of African rights.

In 1920 Schreiner returned to South Africa, and she died on 10 December in the same year, not recognizing the country she had left, and dreaming of a return to the Karoo farms of her youth. She was buried on Buffelskop, a mountain peak overlooking the farms where she had been a young governess and the farm where her husband had spent his early manhood. She is rightly revered by South Africans for her passionate eloquence on behalf of human rights in a country that increasingly trampled on those rights, for giving South African literature a founding classic text of white colonial life, and for making South African landscapes and problems a matter of sympathy and concern to an international community.

As a writer, Schreiner began young, and her talent was precocious. She was an involuntary and constant writer: she said she would have continued to express herself in that way even if she had been alone on a star. Unlike George Eliot, she said, she had no direct didactic purpose, though in fact her novel Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland and many of the so-called dreams have social reform as a fairly explicit aim. She had not done much reading of fiction, though she had read the works of Charles Dickens and Eliot. She had a many-sided and profound intellect nourished by her isolated childhood and the family habits of reading and reflection. Her early influences were the New England writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and the British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer; the latter's First Principles (1862) guided her out of a barren agnosticism toward a morally progressive idealism that became the cornerstone of her thinking. Her fiction grew out of early habits of fantasy and storytelling, to herself or an imaginary companion, while walking up and down in some isolated place, preferably some preferred rock or kloof (ravine) in an African landscape. Many people recorded their first glimpse of her: a young girl with long dark hair and passionate dark eyes walking up and down and rapt in a private world of fantasy or creation, talking to herself or thinking aloud. These habits created the rhetorical power of her writing, especially the power of passionate advocacy, her strong, rhythmical syntax and the often visionary, steeply ascending structures of works such as the allegories. She was an involuntary channel for eloquence on behalf of justice for the oppressed everywhere, but also a writer who thought self-consciously about her craft as a novelist, while seeking to follow the organic impulses of her own creativity.

Three of Schreiner's novels were conceived, and almost entirely written, during her years as a young governess on Boer farms before her departure from South Africa in 1881, at the age of twenty-six. These three novels are linked in many ways, in their characteristic preoccupations, themes, and structures. Undine , her first completed novel (it was finally revised in 1876), was an apprentice work, and she did not consider it worth publishing, though her husband published it in 1928, eight years after her death. It shows how she was attempting to transform autobiographical situations, chiefly her own unhappiness within the family and her clash with parental and sibling Christian authority, into a work of fiction. Drawing on fairy-tale sources, the novel shows a young heroine, Undine, unable to adapt to the adult world, and at home in neither Africa nor England. Undine, like Schreiner's later heroine Lyndall, is a superior orphan or changeling figure, and the family relationships in the novel are unclear or confusing. Undine is an unconventional child, born on a drought-stricken African farm, who is suddenly transported to a vague English setting, where she comes into conflict with the conventional Christianity of her relatives. A semi-incestuous romance between her brother, Frank, and her Aunt Margaret ends melodramatically when Frank drowns and Margaret goes mad.

Undine rejects the loathsome advances of her cousin Jonathan, a married man, and becomes entangled with a family of three men: George, Albert, and Henry Blair. George, the father, is cold, cruel, and rich; his son Albert is superior, chillingly conventional, and perversely attractive to her; George's other son, Henry, is effeminate and a devoted lover whom she coldly rejects. These figures dramatize Schreiner's inability to create a sympathetic male figure and her general tendency to separate out opposed or complementary qualities in her characters, men as well as women. Head and heart, body and soul, will and imagination, domestic and intellectual ability are often counterpoised in different characters. Thus, even her "realistic" narratives partake of the nature of allegory. They also reveal the structures of women's unconscious life in the Victorian era, when gender polarities were so conventionally ordered.

Undine, having been flirted with and rejected by Albert Blair (after being slandered by her cousin; gossip and slander play a strong role in Schreiner's fiction), self-sacrificingly marries his repulsive father in order to help Albert gain access to his father's money. Undine gives birth and her baby dies; her husband dies and she renounces his money and returns to Africa. On board the ship Undine meets a "shabby woman" who represents another aspect of Schreiner's own life, her experiences of being overworked as a young governess and of being sexually attracted to and drawn into a relationship with her married employer. This "shadow" story anticipates the ending of the novel: Undine, like the shabby woman, will find her lover only after his death. This discovery happens at the Diamond Fields, in a section of the novel depicted with far more realism, as Schreiner had lived at the Fields (then called New Rush, later Kimberley) with her brother and sister after her own unhappy love affair. Undine at the Diamond Fields is a paradoxical figure: finding a kind of economic independence as a washerwoman, "Little Irons," she nevertheless prostrates herself before a totally unworthy lover.

The melodramatic plot of Undine, with its oscillation between a realistic South Africa and a dreamlike England, its obvious martyrdom and pathos, reveals it as an apprentice work where Schreiner was experimenting with modes of storytelling and ways of transforming experience into fiction. The narrative voice shifts between third and first person; there are attempts at authorial and moral generalizations, and at internal allegory. In the novel, Schreiner deliberately draws on a sensational mode, with episodes of madness, violent action, and disaster. The characters are stereotypes, and Undine is an exaggerated martyr to conventional standards and social customs. Nevertheless, in this work Schreiner was training herself in novel construction, plotting, characterization, the shifting of registers, and in combining autobiography, fairy tale, and melodrama. Although there is little of her own individuality in the novel, she was beginning to see that it was the African landscape that drew her and which she knew best. Also, Undine shows that Schreiner's novels would be a complex interweaving of many different stories and storytellers, that storytelling was both an escape from and a transformation of actual experience. The situation of an older woman telling stories to a younger girl or pet creature, the theme of storytelling as healing, and alternations between realism and fantasy recur in all of Schreiner's fictions. Also recurrent in Schreiner's writing are stories of young victimized children in African landscapes, challenges to Victorian orthodoxy in matters of religion and sexuality, and the clash of an unconventional woman with the force of social custom.

The Story of an African Farm , the central text in Schreiner's body of work and the novel for which she is chiefly remembered, marked a great advance on Undine in terms of novelistic skill and originality of vision. This advance is partly because the rather bulky novel was revised and cut after a first submission to a publisher, and also because it was written under greater creative pressure and achieved an organic fusion of many different aspects of Schreiner's own personality and aspirations. It falls into two parts, which are variations on the themes of aspiration and confinement, creative love, friendship, and power. Part 1, mainly comic in mood, though with an undertone of suffering in the boy Waldo (named for Ralph Waldo Emerson) and his experience of spiritual isolation and human tyranny, turns on the invasion and attempted colonization of an African farm by an upstart European interloper, Bonaparte Blenkins. Part 2 chronicles the rise and fall of Blenkins, who usurps the position of the gentle German overseer (modeled closely after Schreiner's father), cruelly beats young Waldo, and courts Tant Sannie, the ignorant and gross Boer woman who owns the farm. The three children on the farm are the orphan Lyndall, a later version of the elfin Undine (and thus a version of Olive); Em, a domesticated and more placid girl who embodies traditional feminine virtues of service and passivity; and Waldo, the rustic, visionary son of the German overseer. Lyndall aspires to knowledge and power, Em to married happiness and fulfillment, and Waldo to a perception of universal unity and benevolence. Tant Sannie and Blenkins set up a rule by tyranny and ignorance on the farm, which is only ended when Blenkins, a farcical, hypocritical figure who is nevertheless convincingly sly, overreaches himself, tries to court Tant Sannie's richer niece, and is chased ignominiously off the farm. These relationships dramatize the competing social and political forces on the South African frontier in the late nineteenth century.

Part 2 of the novel shows the reader the more complex relationships between the emerging adults on the farm and their attempts to find some fulfilling role for themselves in the outside world and wider society. Each of the main figures is defined in relation to a "stranger" who appears more or less suddenly at the farm. Waldo, who carves a crude wooden post for his father's grave, has his carving interpreted for him by a cultured stranger who waters his horse at the farm one day. Waldo regards such cultivation and intellectual power with awe and devotion, but the stranger himself is presented as a sybarite who envies Waldo his pastoral life, and he can give Waldo nothing permanent. Waldo leaves the farm to search for work, but he finds only demeaning work as a shop assistant and then the physically brutalizing work of a transport rider; he loses all interest in nature and the world of thought and imagination. He returns to the farm, anticipating a reunion with Lyndall, whom he loves, but after he reaches the farm he learns that she has died elsewhere. Her death makes him question the value of life itself, but his doubts are finally reconciled through the beauty of the farm, once he recognizes that although the individual ceases to exist, some vaster form of universal life continues. He dies on a beautiful day on the farm after a long drought has broken.

Lyndall, who has been confronted with the travesty of education offered to young colonial girls at the time, has returned a beautiful girl but shrouded in the mystery associated with her "stranger," a man who later visits the farm and wants to marry her. She is carrying his child, but she feels that marriage to him would satisfy only one part of her nature, though she is drawn to his strength. Like Schreiner's real-life suitor when she was young, he appears to be both cold and conventional. After briefly planning to marry Gregory Rose, who has been engaged to Em, she leaves the farm with her stranger but they quarrel and part, and Lyndall is later discovered by Gregory in an upcountry hotel where she has wasted away after the death of her newborn child. He nurses her, but she dies while they are traveling by ox wagon under the stars and open African sky.

Em's "stranger" is Gregory, a conventional and sentimental young English colonial who takes over half of Tant Sannie's farm while Lyndall is away at finishing school. At first he thinks he is in love with Em, but when Lyndall returns he transfers his affections to her, though she treats him coldly. In a strange but convincing scene, he dresses himself as a female nurse in order to nurse Lyndall anonymously during her illness. After Lyndall's death he returns to the farm to tell his story, as Waldo does, and later marries Em, now the owner of the farm and a mature and sympathetic woman, though one who perceives the compromise inherent in her marriage. She and Gregory become the representatives of a new generation of colonial survivors, while the exceptional talents and aspirations of Waldo and Lyndall are checked and sacrificed on the altar of colonial limitations and the cruelty of fate.

The novel has a fine control of action and reflection, pathos and comedy, and Schreiner interweaves impersonal commentary and passionate speech, as in Lyndall's rhetorical protest against the confinement and dependence of women. There are two internal sections, "Times and Seasons" and the Hunter allegory (a quest for the bird of Truth that involves suffering and renunciation), which expand the personal lives of the characters into figures within a more extensive philosophical as well as emotional tapestry. Tension is built up in the novel from the opening scenes and is fully released only in the closing pages with Waldo's death scene, after the drought on the farm has broken. The farm is a constant presence in the novel, as a microcosm of a colonial social order, emblematic of a brutal frontier lifestyle dependent on the existence of subjugated and broken indigenous people, and a vulnerable economic unit threatened by new forms of appropriation. Only those who accept what is depicted as a coarse-grained self-satisfaction and adherence to rural social convention survive within the novel. Other values are adumbrated by Waldo and Lyndall, the two young sacrificial figures. Waldo suggests a sensitive response to landscape and people, past and present, and embodies the listening virtues of the "new man"; Lyndall forcefully expresses a vision of a new order that might offer women a fuller role and a new equality with men.

The Story of an African Farm occupies an important place in the development of colonial literature by making its provincialism a strength, taking the farm as a center, not a margin, and weaving its vision around the interaction of colonial people and landscapes. The novel is also central in the development of women's fiction, showing how a colonial woman writer could reshape the genre of the novel to express her own colonial experience of sexual and economic oppression, and accommodate her own dissenting voice and fictional techniques.

Schreiner's unfinished magnum opus, From Man to Man , though only posthumously published in 1926, is also substantially derived from her experiences in South Africa during the 1870s. She had finished one version of the novel before she left for England, but its rejection by publishers made her feel she had to recast it entirely to follow up the success of The Story of an African Farm. Culturally adrift in England, she had trouble revising and recasting the novel, and the material itself must have made her feel vulnerable about publication, since it took female unconventionality a step further in the story of Bertie, an innocent farm girl who becomes a prostitute. The novel remained a reproach and a challenge to Schreiner throughout her life: she could not finish it, as she was too busy living out the consequences of her own troubled and restricted marital and extramarital choices. She wanted to incorporate within the novel the life lessons she was constantly learning: of the double standard of sexual morality, of the unpleasantness of female economic dependence on a husband, of the power of affection between the sexes, of the pain of living in one country and constantly longing for another, of the power of social convention, and of the difficulty for a woman in leading an independent intellectual life.

The novel is marked by a greater maturity in the handling of tone and feeling, of plot and action: there is a sense of an organic pattern that is different from the more arbitrary and abrupt form of The Story of an African Farm. The two sisters, Bertie and Rebekah, who are the main protagonists, are different enough in character and fate to create a complex sense of the likely outcome of colonial women's lives. The social scene and range of situations are also expanded: there is a glimpse of social interaction and domestic life in Cape Town itself, of life and gossip in a small upcountry village, and of childhood on an English South African farm. Family life gets a fuller treatment; the sections of the novel set in London, though overshadowed by the extreme homesickness and depression of Bertie as well as the melodrama of her situation with her abductor, are nevertheless more convincing and more realized in their sense of actual place than the comparable English scenes in Undine. There is a wonderful delicacy and hope in the tentative unfolding of love relationships in the earlier sections of the novel. The novel relates individuals to their social context much more fully, so that situations unfold with a compelling sense of probability, which makes their social judgments more telling. Although Schreiner still showers her protagonists with authorial compassion, they are less cruelly victimized: Rebekah, in particular, shows a growing sense of her own possible agency in changing the pattern of her life to suit her own needs.

Rebekah and Bertie (Rebecca was the name of Olive's mother; and Albertina was her own third given name) follow contrasted but complementary fates: Rebekah, the stronger intellectual woman, marries her cousin Frank and finds that wifehood and constant motherhood, though they offer forms of rich fulfillment, allow her little time for intellectual pursuits. Her discovery of her husband's infidelity, at first with a neighbor's wife and later with one of their servants, eventually leads her to challenge him and the basis of their marriage. They agree to lead totally separate lives, though she does not give up her children, and she adopts the mixed-race child fathered by her husband. This plot twist is used by Schreiner to intertwine her critiques of racial and sexual oppression. Rebekah falls in love with, and finds intellectual companionship with, her neighbor's husband, Mr. Drummond, but feels she cannot abandon her family and follow him when he sets off on a journey of exploration into Africa.

Although the novel in fact ends with the development of the relationship between Rebekah and Drummond, a projected ending was described by Schreiner in a letter to Pearson. This conclusion would have described the doom of Bertie, whose early seduction by her tutor and honesty to her cousin and lover, John-Ferdinand, about that experience, lead to his breaking off their engagement. After the loss of this relationship and the experience of social ostracism because of gossip, Bertie loses interest in life and allows herself to be abducted to England by a wealthy Jewish merchant from the Diamond Fields, a caricatured Dickensian figure. In England she sinks into depression and isolation as a kept woman, a depression assisted by homesickness and the English climate. In the two sisters, Schreiner wanted to show the likely experience of a sensual but also innocent and traditional woman: Bertie is often shown in the kitchen, and she embodies domestic virtue and service, like Em. It is her emotional honesty that is her undoing, as it is for Thomas Hardy's "fallen" heroines. There is no space outside the normative roles of chaste bride and virtuous mother. Rebekah's career underlines the same kind of constriction from a different angle: Victorian women were not meant to have an intellect or a profession; their intellectual lives were stunted and thwarted. Both women are shown to be marginal to a man-made culture which prefers to keep women confined to domesticity and punishes women who transgress their norms. Men are shown to claim a much greater degree of action and freedom for themselves, either abusing their sexual freedom, or self-righteously judging deviant women. The strength of the novel lies in the moving and credible way in which it reveals the workings of these iron but man-made laws in the lives of two attractive and promising colonial women. It also reveals Schreiner's first sympathetic and attractive male figure. Schreiner called her novel "womanly" in a way she had not quite intended, but thought it would help other women see that they need not suffer alone: other women had felt the injury of the double standard and the effects of social conventions on their most private lives.

One of the most appealing and successful sections of the novel, added much later than its original conception, is the prelude, "The Child's Day" section that acts as a lyrical foreshadowing of the novel itself. In a wonderful intertwining of memory and creativity, the prelude describes a day in the life of five-year-old Rebekah, when her sister is born, a live twin to a dead child. The themes of sisterhood, the fates of girls raised in colonial isolation, fantasy and storytelling, and sexuality and death are all evoked in this memorable prelude, as are the key experiences of Schreiner's own childhood. From Man to Man stands as a kind of unfinished capstone to Schreiner's lifelong concerns with women's lives and their injured possibilities.

Schreiner's other novel published during her lifetime, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland , was written much later than the other three, after her return to South Africa from England, and was a response to Cecil Rhodes and his Chartered Company 's marauding activities in Mashonaland. The novel, which she said came to her in a flash in its entire conception, was rapidly executed and was a direct intervention in the southern African political scene of the late 1890s. Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland concerns the conversion of a young man from an ordinary mercenary British soldier with standard imperialistic aims and attitudes toward the land and the indigenous people to a sympathetic man who gives his life for a young Mashona tribesman who is staked to a tree and faces execution. The conversion is achieved by a nighttime visitation from Christ himself, who arrives anonymously on a lonely kopje (or hill) where Peter is holding a vigil. Although there is some direct preaching in the novel, and the figure of a dissident liberal preacher is eulogized, the central conception of the novel is handled with poise and a sardonic humor in the exchanges between Peter and the unrecognized Christ figure. At the end of the novel a black man and a white man's blood are mingled at the foot of a tree: the image is a powerful one and has often been repeated in South African literature as a symbolic prophecy of multiracial political resistance. Although the novel is a slight work, Schreiner was rightly proud of it. It was a timely political response from a writer who cared about what was happening to the indigenous people in the hinterland. Reviews of the novel tended to polarize around the figure of Rhodes and his aims in southern Africa, and the novel deeply alienated many of Schreiner's family and friends, which was how she knew it had struck a chord of truth.

Although Schreiner's early biographers tended to present her as a divine child and instinctive genius, she was a woman who had a keen interest in political life and social organization. She was a multifaceted, complex woman whose fiction and nonfiction have left readers with a vivid bequest. That bequest is local and regional--her first loyalties were to South Africa and its possible survival and health--but also international and humane: she passionately wanted the private life of intimacy and male-female relationships to improve and to be based on a new honesty and equality between men and women. She dedicated almost all of her writing to that end because it seemed to her the core of life itself. Because her own writer's instincts were sensitive and subtle, and she presents the reader with a complex fusion of autobiography and fiction, Schreiner offered, particularly in her novels, not only lifelike models of the ways in which public and private life are inseparable at any time, but also of the ways in which South Africa has always offered its citizens both roots in a familiar landscape and a constricted political vision of human and social possibilities. She sought to be a mediating figure and interpreter between metropolis and colony.

Schreiner's short "dreams" and allegories, written mainly in the 1880s and 1890s (though she employed the form at other times and within her novels), link her with the French symbolist movement and the attempts made by British socialists such as William Morris to harness the symbolist movement to social reform. These short visionary flights are a rewriting of early influences from the Bible and evangelical literature, as well as a way of resolving, by literary means, her own pressing problems in intimate relationships. Another short form she used persuasively throughout her life was that of the political pamphlet. In eloquently argued speeches and public pamphlets, she sought to address the urgent social issues of the day, of political organization in South Africa, social discrimination, and issues of war and peace. In this way she attempted to use her eloquence to advance the interests of minorities and of social justice. Her novel Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland combines the aims of a political pamphlet with those of a satirical work of fiction.

Schreiner's influence on the women's movement worldwide, as a pioneer who understood her own founding role, continues today, and her work, both fiction and nonfiction, is constantly reinvoked in the interests of feminist analysis, an historical understanding of the position and writing of women, and the subsequent unfolding of South African political life. She played a central role in the imaginations of later South African women writers such as Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, and Bessie Head, but was also pivotal for such males writers as Roy Campbell, William Plomer, and Alan Paton. She laid down a vision of white colonial isolation and aspiration, of a brutal social order, of violence and mistrust between the races and between different language groups, which shaped subsequent South African writing because it shaped the realities of life in South Africa until the early 1990s. Gordimer, in The Conservationist (1974), reworked the symbolic terrain of country and city invoked in The Story of an African Farm. Another influential and celebrated recent South African novelist, J. M. Coetzee, has continued to think through and re-vision the relation between the individual, rural landscapes, and social forms that Schreiner created in her fiction.

As a woman always self-consciously concerned with the predicaments of womanhood, and of women as writers, Olive Schreiner is a powerful founding figure and foremother, despite her apparently fragmented life and works. Her work has been read and enjoyed by ordinary readers as well as by critics and intellectuals: her simple, passionate prose touches the heart. One of the things she wanted inscribed on her tombstone was "Citizen of the World." In many ways she earned her right to that ordinary but difficult title.


From: Clayton, Cherry. "Olive (Emilie Albertina) Schreiner." South African Writers, edited by Paul A. Scanlon, Gale, 2000.


  • Bibliographies

    • Evelyn Verster, Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner, 1855-1920: Bibliography (Cape Town: University of Cape Town, School of Librarianship, 1946).
    • Roslyn Davis, Olive Schreiner 1920-1971: A Bibliography (Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand, Department of Bibliography, Librarianship and Typography, 1972).


    • Samuel Cron Cronwright-Schreiner, The Life of Olive Schreiner (London: Unwin, 1924; Boston: Little, Brown, 1924).
    • Vera Buchanan-Gould, Not Without Honour: The Life and Writings of Olive Schreiner (London & New York: Hutchinson, 1948).
    • Marion Valerie Friedmann, Olive Schreiner: A Study in Latent Meanings (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1954).
    • Daisy Lucie Hobman, Olive Schreiner: Her Friends and Times (London: Watts, 1955).
    • Johannes Meintjes, Olive Schreiner: Portrait of a South African Woman (Johannesburg: Hugh Keartland, 1965).
    • Betty McGinnis Fradkin, "Olive Schreiner and Karl Pearson," Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, 31, no. 4 (1977): 83-93.
    • McGinnis Fradkin, "Havelock Ellis and Olive Schreiner's 'Gregory Rose,'" Texas Quarterly 21, no. 3 (1978): 145-153.
    • Ruth First and Ann Scott, Olive Schreiner (London: Deutsch, 1980; New York: Schocken, 1980).
    • Karel Schoeman, Olive Schreiner: 'n lewe in Suid-Afrika 1855-1881 (Cape Town & Pretoria: Human & Rousseau, 1989); translated by Henri Snijders as Olive Schreiner: A Woman in South Africa, 1855-1881 (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1991).
    • Schoeman, Only an Anguish to Live Here: Olive Schreiner and the Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902 (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1992).


    • Christine Barsby, "Olive Schreiner: Towards a Redefinition of Culture," Pretexts, 1, no. 1 (1989): 18-39.
    • D. R. Beeton, Facets of Olive Schreiner (Craighall: Ad. Donker, 1987).
    • Beeton, Olive Schreiner: A Short Guide to Her Writings (Cape Town: Timmins, 1974).
    • Joyce Avrech Berkman, The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989).
    • Berkman, Olive Schreiner: Feminism on the Frontier (St. Albans & Montreal: Eden, 1979).
    • Kathleen Blake, Love and the Woman Question in Victorian Literature: The Art of Self-Postponement (Brighton, U.K.: Harvester / Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983) pp. 202-227.
    • Bill Bolin, "Olive Schreiner and the Status Quo," Unisa English Studies, 31, no. 1 (1993): 4-8.
    • Helen Bradford, "Introducing Palinsky Smith," English in Africa, 21, nos. 1 & 2 (July 1994): 1-32.
    • Bradford, "Olive Schreiner's Hidden Agony: Fact, Fiction and Teenage Abortion," Journal of South African Studies, 21, no. 4 (1995): 623-641.
    • Carolyn Burdett, Olive Schreiner: Hidden Motives (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1995).
    • Janet Galligani Casey, "Power, Agency, Desire: Olive Schreiner and the Pre-Modern Narrative Moment," Narrative, 4, no. 2 (May 1996): 124-141.
    • Cherry Clayton, Olive Schreiner (New York: Twayne, 1997 / London: Prentice Hall, 1997).
    • Clayton, "Women Writers and the Law of the Father: Race and Gender in the Fiction of Olive Schreiner, Pauline Smith and Sarah Gertrude Millin," English Academy Review, 7 (1990): 99-117.
    • Clayton, ed., Olive Schreiner (Johannesburg & New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983).
    • J. M. Coetzee, "Farm Novel and Plaasroman in South Africa," English in Africa, 13, no. 2 (1986): 1-19.
    • Laura E. Donaldson, "(ex)Changing (wo)Man: Towards a Materialist-Feminist Semiotics," Cultural Critique, 11 (1988-1989): 5-23.
    • Irene E. Gorak, "Olive Schreiner's Colonial Allegory: The Story of an African Farm,Ariel, 23, no. 4 (1992): 53-72.
    • Stephen Gray, "Schreiner and the Novel Tradition," in his Southern African Literature: An Introduction (Cape Town: David Philip, 1979), pp. 133-159.
    • Susan R. Horton, Difficult Women, Artful Lives: Olive Schreiner and Isak Dinesen In and Out of Africa (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
    • Susan Jacob, "Sharers in a Common Hell: The Colonial Text in Schreiner, Conrad, and Lessing," Literary Criterion, 23, no. 4 (1988): 84-92.
    • Margaret Lenta, "Racism, Sexism, and Olive Schreiner's Fiction," Theoria, 70 (October 1987): 15-30.
    • Simon Lewis, "Atavism and the European History of Africa," Ariel, 27, no. 1 (1996): 41-60.
    • Jean Marquard, "Hagar's Child: A Reading of The Story of an African Farm," Standpunte, 29 (1976): 35-47.
    • Marquard, "Olive Schreiner's 'Prelude': The Child as Artist," English Studies in Africa, 22, no. 1 (March 1979): 1-11.
    • Anne McClintock, "Olive Schreiner: the Limits of Colonial Feminism," in her Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (London: Routledge, 1995), pp. 258-295.
    • Andrew McMurry, "Figures in a Ground: An Ecofeminist Study of Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm," English Studies in Canada, 20, no. 4 (1994): 431-448.
    • Gerald Monsman, "Olive Schreiner: Literature and the Politics of Power," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 30, no. 4 (1988): 583-610.
    • Monsman, "Olive Schreiner's Allegorical Vision," Victorian Review, 18, no. 2 (1992): 49-62.
    • Monsman, Olive Schreiner's Fiction: Landscape and Power (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991).
    • Monsman, "Writing the Self on the Imperial Frontier: Olive Schreiner and the Stories of Africa," Bucknell Review, 37, no. 1 (1993): 134-155.
    • Nancy L. Paxton, "The Story of an African Farm and the Dynamics of Woman-to-Woman Influence," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 30, no. 4 (1988): 562-582.
    • Graham Pechey, "The Story of an African Farm: Colonial History and the Discontinuous Text," Critical Arts: A Journal of Media Studies, 3 (1983): 65-78.
    • Karen Scherzinger, "The Problem of the Pure Woman: South African Pastorialism and Female Rites of Passage," Unisa English Studies, 29, no. 2 (1991): 29-35.
    • Liz Stanley, "Olive Schreiner: New Women, Free Women, All Women (1885-1920)," in Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Women's Intellectual Traditions, edited by Dale Spender (London: Women's Press, 1983), pp. 229-243.
    • Malvern Van Wyk Smith and Don Maclennan, eds., Olive Schreiner and After: Essays on Southern African Literature in Honour of Guy Butler (Cape Town: David Philip, 1983).
    • Robin Visel, "'We Bear the World and We Make It': Bessie Head and Olive Schreiner," Research in African Literatures, 21, no. 3 (1990): 115-124.
    • Itala Vivan, ed., The Flawed Diamond: Essays on Olive Schreiner (Sydney & Mundelstrup, Denmark: Dangaroo Press, 1989).
    • A. E. Voss, "A Generic Approach to the South African Novel in English," UCT Studies in English, 7 (September 1977): 110-121.
    • Voss, "Avatars of Waldo," Alternation, 1, no. 2 (1994): 15-25.
    • Judith R. Walkowitz, "Science, Feminism and Romance: The Men and Women's Club, 1885-1889," History Workshop, 21 (1986): 36-59.
    • Jane Wilkinson, "Dust and Dew, Moonlight and Utopia. Natural Imagery in the First South African Novel," Commonwealth Essays and Studies, 14, no. 2 (1992): 34-43.