Remarkable People

ID #5212

Olive Schreiner, Author, Pacifist and Political Activist, South Africa.

Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner (1855-1920), was an author, pacifist and political activist. She is best known for her novel The Story of an African Farm which has been acclaimed for the manner it tackled issues of its day, ranging from agnosticism to the treatment of women.

She was named after her three older brothers, Oliver, Albert and Emile, all of whom died before she was born. She was the ninth of twelve children born to a missionary couple, Gottlob Schreiner and Rebecca Lyndall, at the Wesleyan Mission at Wittebergen near Herschel in the Eastern Cape. Her childhood was harsh because, while her father was loving and gentle, her mother was intent on teaching her children the same restraint and self-discipline that had been a part of her upbringing. Olive received virtually all her education from her mother who was well-read and gifted.

When Olive was six, Gottlob transferred to Healdtown in the Eastern Cape to run the Wesleyan training institute. As with so many of his other projects, he was not up to the task and was expelled in disgrace. He was forced to make his own living for the first time in his life and tried a business venture – it failed and he was insolvent within a year. The family lived in abject poverty as a result.
However, Olive did not remain with her parents for long. When her older brother Theophilus was appointed headmaster in Cradock in 1867, she and two of her siblings went to live with him. She also attended his school and received a formal education for the first time. Despite that, she was no happier in Cradock than she had been in Wittebergen or Healdtown. Her siblings were very religious, but Olive had already rejected the Christianity of her parents as it had been the cause of many arguments.

When Theo left Cradock for the diamond fields of Griqualand West, Olive chose to become a governess. On the way to her first post at Barkly East she met Willie Bertram, who lent her a copy of Herbert Spencer’s “First Principles”, which had a profound impact on her. While rejecting religious creeds and doctrine, Spencer argued for belief in an Absolute that lay beyond the scope of human knowledge and conception. This belief was founded in the unity of nature and a teleological universe, both of which Olive felt were applicable to herself.

After this meeting, Olive travelled from place to place, accepting posts as a governess with various families. In many instances she left because of sexual predation by her male employer. During this time she met Julius Gau, to whom she became engaged. However it did not last and she returned to live with her parents and later with her brothers. She read widely and began writing seriously.

However, diamonds became increasingly difficult to find and her brothers’ financial situation deteriorated. Olive had no choice but to resume her transient lifestyle, moving between various households and towns, until she returned briefly to her parents in 1874. It was there that she had the first asthma attack that plagued her for the rest of her life. Since her parents were no more financially secure than before and because of her ill-health, Olive was forced to work to support them.
Over the next few years, she accepted the position of governess at a number of farms, most notably the Fouchés, who provided inspiration for parts of The Story of an African Farm which she published under the pseudonym Ralph Iron, as well as a collection of stories and allegories called Dream Life and Real Life.

However, Olive’s ambitions did not lie in the direction of writing. She had always wanted to be a doctor but had never had enough money to pay for the training. Undaunted, she decided that she would be a nurse as that did not require her to pay anything. By 1880, she had saved enough money for an overseas trip and applied to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. In 1881, she traveled to Southampton in England. Once there, ill-health prevented her from completing any training or studying. She was forced to concede that writing would and could be her only work in life.

Despite this setback, she still had a passion to heal society’s ills. Her Story of an African Farm was acclaimed for the manner it tackled issues ranging from agnosticism to the treatment of women. It was also the cause of one of her most significant and long-lasting friendships as the sexologist Havelock Ellis wrote to her about her novel. Their relationship soon developed beyond intellectual debate into a source of support for Schreiner.

She finally met him in 1884 when she went to a meeting of the Progressive Organisation. It was one of several radical discussion groups to which she belonged and brought her into contact with important socialists of the time. She also attended meetings of the Fellowship of the New Order and Karl Pearson’s Men and Women’s Club, where she insisted on the importance of woman’s equality and the need to look at both men and women when considering gender relationships.

However, her own relationships with men were anything but happy. She refused a proposal from her doctor, Bryan Donkin, but he was irritatingly persistent. To make matters worse, despite her reservations about Karl Pearson and her intentions to remain just his friend, she soon became attracted to him. He did not reciprocate, preferring Elizabeth Cobb instead. In 1886, she left England under a cloud and traveled to Switzerland, France and Italy before returning to England. During this time, she was tremendously productive, working on From Man to Man and publishing numerous allegories. She also worked on an introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Given the situation in England, it is perhaps unsurprising that Olive chose to return to South Africa, sailing back to Cape Town in 1889. Her return was unsettling – she felt alienated from the people around her but at the same time experienced an affinity for the land itself. In an attempt to reconnect with her surroundings, she became increasingly involved in local politics. In addition she produced a series of articles on the land and people around her, published posthumously as Thoughts on South Africa. Through her work with local politics she became friends with Emily Hobhouse and Elizabeth Maria Molteno, influential women activists with similar opinions on civil and women's rights.

Her involvement with Cape politics led her into an association with Cecil John Rhodes, with whom she soon became disillusioned.  This disillusionment began with his support of the “strop bill” that allowed black and coloured servants to be flogged for minor offenses. As a result she wrote the bitterly satirical allegory Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland.

Her opposition to the “strop bill” brought her into contact with Samuel Cronwright. They had similar opinions on both the “Native Question” and Rhodes, and Olive soon fell in love with him. During a brief visit to England in 1893, she discussed the possibility of marrying him with her friends, although she was concerned that she would find marriage restrictive. She put aside these doubts, however, and they were married in 1894, after which they settled at Cronwright’s farm.

The next few years were difficult and unsettled ones. Olive’s worsening health forced the couple to move constantly, while her first and only child died within a day. This loss was worsened by the fact that all her other pregnancies would end in miscarriages. However, she found solace in work, publishing a pamphlet with her husband on the political situation in 1896 and Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland the next year. Both isolated her from her family and the people around her and she was given to long spells of loneliness.

In 1898, the couple moved to Johannesburg. In the aftermath of the Jameson Raid, they were champions of the Republican cause. Olive tried to persuade officials to turn away from war, and, when that failed, wrote The South African Question by an English South African in an attempt to open the English public’s eyes to the reality of the situation. That was equally unsuccessful, but Olive was undaunted. Throughout the war, she continued to defend Boer interests and argue for peace as did her brother William Philip Schreiner, although she suffered physically and psychologically and her efforts were met with ridicule. As a means of distraction, she began reworking the “sex book” she had started in England into Woman and Labour, which is the best expression of her concerns about socialism and gender equality.

The last few years of her life were marked by ill-health and an increasing sense of isolation. Despite this, she still engaged in politics and was determined to make her mark on a new constitution, especially through a work like Closer Union. In this polemic, she argued for rights not only for blacks but also for women. She also joined the newly-founded Cape branch of the Women’s Enfranchisement League in 1907, becoming its vice-president. However, she refused to lend her support to it when some branches wished to exclude black women from the vote.
When Women and Labour was finally published in 1911, Schreiner was severely ill, her asthma worsened by attacks of angina. Two years later, she sailed alone to England for treatment, where she was trapped by the outbreak of World War I. During this time, her primary interest was in pacifism – she was in contact with Gandhi and other prominent activists like Emily Hobhouse and Elizabeth Maria Molteno - and she started a book on war which was published as The Dawn of Civilisation. It was the last book she wrote.

After the war, she returned home to the Cape where she died in her sleep in a boarding house in 1920. She was later buried in Kimberley but, after the passing of her husband, Samuel Cronwright, her body was exhumed. Olive Schreiner, along with her baby, dog and husband were buried atop Buffelskop mountain on the farm Buffelshoek near Cradock. RSAOS

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Last update: 2014-05-14 16:58
Author: Alan McIver
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