South African writer Olive Schreiner was born in what is now Lesotho on 24 March 1855. The ninth of twelve children born to Rebecca Lyndall and her husband, Gottlob Schreiner (1814–1876), a German-born missionary, she and just six of her siblings survived childhood. In adulthood, she suffered debilitating ill-health, exacerbated for a time by grinding poverty.
For a time, Schreiner earned a living as a governess and teacher, but she devoted her free time to writing The Story of an African Farm, a radical feminist novel informed by her experience of growing up in Africa. As soon as she could afford to, she sailed for Britain where she hoped to train as a doctor. Unfortunately, although she attended lectures at the London School of Medicine for Women, established in 1874 by an association of pioneering women physicians, ill-health prevented her from completing her training.
Schreiner espoused liberal views on the emancipation of women, gender equality, sexuality, birth control and marriage. She also developed a keen interest in socialism and befriended leading radical thinkers, among them Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl. Although she held onto her ambitions to be a published author, her novel was rejected by several publishers, before Chapman & Hall brought it out in 1883. A commercial success, it was welcomed by feminists and critics alike, and its success prompted W.T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette to declare Schreiner ‘the only woman of genius South Africa has ever produced’.
Schreiner was also championed by Oscar Wilde, who met her when she was living in poverty in London’s East End, a circumstance that prompted him to write:
“Olive Schreiner …is staying in the East End because that is the only place where people do not wear masks upon their faces, but I have told her that I live in the West End because nothing in life interests me but the mask.”
With Wilde’s encouragement, Schreiner contributed two prose allegories, ‘The Lost’, and ‘A Dream of Wild Bees’, to The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited at the time, He also published her poem ‘Life’s Gifts’. As she was keen to strengthen their friendship, Schreiner took to attending Jane Wilde’s salon to meet Wilde. Her letters to him were full of warmth: ‘I hope the world goes well with you in every way’, she wrote in June 1888.
In 1889, Schreiner returned to South Africa, where she continued to write. Although her short story collections, Dreams (1891) and Dream Life and Real Life (1893), were published during her lifetime, two further novels, From Man to Man and Undine, appeared posthumously. In 1897, she published Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, a fictional attack on the imperial policy espoused by Cecil Rhodes.
Schreiner became increasingly politicised and spoke out strongly for women’s rights and against British Imperialism. Her non-fiction collection of essays, Women and Labour, which called for universal suffrage and praised the pacifist tendencies of women, was published in 1911 and was welcomed as an important policy statement by the feminist movement.
Although marriage to Samuel Cronwright, a young ostrich farmer, cattle breeder, and freethinker, brought personal contentment for a time, her continuing health problems obliged her husband to sell his farm and the death of their only child in early infancy, two years into the marriage, caused further unhappiness. In 1913, shortly before the outbreak of war, Schreiner returned to Europe to undergo medical treatment. In England, she engaged with the peace movement and campaigned for an end to hostilities. Although she lived long enough to see peace return, Schreiner’s health was disastrously impaired by then. In 1920, she returned to South Africa, where she succumbed to a heart attack on 10 December. Her remains were interred next to those of her infant daughter at Buffels Hoek, which overlooks the Karoo Desert.
Written for Sheroes of History by Eleanor Fitzsimons, author of Wilde’s Women.
Find out more…
You can read Olive’s letters and find out more about her on the Olive Schreiner Letters Online website.
You can read Olive’s writing online for free in many places (see links in the article above) or buy copies from online bookshops. You can also listen to someof her books being read out (try searching on YouTube)
Listen to this podcast where Professor Elleke Boehmer gives a talk on Olive Schreiner.