Rebecca West said that Olive Schreiner was a ‘geographical fact’. Others were reminded of a natural force, admired and dreaded, unchecked by illness, war or poverty, something new coming out of Africa. To fit her into the history of South Africa, of literature or of women’s movements is an exhausting business. ‘The day will never come when I am in the stream,’ she said. ‘Something in my nature prevents it I suppose.’
Olive Emile Albertina Schreiner (named for three brothers who died before her) was one of nine children born to a German missionary and his wife Rebecca, a member of Moorfields Tabernacle. The family was reared in the strictest possible Bible Christianity. Gottlob Schreiner was an unfortunate man, difficult to place in the Lord’s vineyard, arriving finally at a mission station in Wittebergen on the edge of Basutoland. Here he was forced to leave the ministry, having broken the strict regulations against trading. As a trader he was even less successful, but Olive never ceased to love the ruined father. Left homeless, she was taken in by her eldest brother, Theo, who first ran a school, then went to try his luck in the diamond fields.
When Olive was five she sat among the tall weeds behind the house and understood, without having the words for it, that they were alive and that she was part of them. At six, she was whipped for speaking Cape Dutch, and felt ‘a bitter wild fierce agony against God and man’. At nine her little sister died and Olive, who had slept with the body until it was buried, lost her Christian faith. At 16 she was possibly engaged to, possibly seduced by, an insurance salesman who let her down: ‘the waking in the morning is hell,’ she wrote in her diary. At about the same time she was lent a copy of First Principles by Herbert Spencer. She had three days to read it, and Spencer’s vision of human evolution towards the Absolute remained with her for a lifetime. At 18 she had a long conversation, which was profoundly important to her, with an African woman. This woman said to her: God cannot be good, otherwise why did he make women? At 19 she was close to suicide, but found strength to go on from reading Emerson and John Stuart Mill. These are her own landmarks, ‘disconnected but indelibly printed in the mind’. At 20, she began to write The Story of an African Farm.
If she had been the child of an English Evangelical parsonage, she would have been conforming, in her struggle from faith to free-thinking, to a recognisable pattern. But Olive was self-created. It’s true that African Farm is, in some ways, much what might be expected from a young woman in the 1870s, jilted, working as a governess, writing in a leaky farmstead by candlelight. The heroine, Lyndall, is very small, with beautiful eyes (Olive was small, with beautiful eyes), a penniless orphan, ‘different’. Her lover rides a hundred miles to see her, and her dull cousin’s fiancé, Gregory Rose, leaves everything to follow her. ‘What makes you all love me so?’ she asks. But Olive, by her own account, had read, at this stage, no other fiction at all. And the African Farm, as it goes on, is a very strange book. Lyndall, in the end, is nursed on her deathbed by Gregory Rose, disguised as a woman in long skirts. He has shaved off his beard and watched the ants carry off the hair to their nests – an example of the book’s perilous balance between fantasy and observation. More than anything else it is a book of dreams, and specifically the dreams of children. Lyndall has a vision of independence and free choice for women. She refuses to marry the man who has made her pregnant, because she doesn’t love him enough. Waldo, the son of the farm overseer, represents another side of Olive. He dreams, in his ‘seasons of the soul’, of studying the earth and rocks around him as a scientist. A stranger who rides in from the Karoo tells him a story – ‘The Search for the Bird of Truth’. But Waldo, though he understands the allegory, dies without getting his opportunity, ‘In after years,’ Olive wrote, ‘we cry to Fate, “Now, deal us your hardest blow, give us what you will, but let us never again suffer as we suffered when we were children.” ’
She sent the manuscript to a friend in England, who recognised as she opened the parcel ‘the strange, pungent smell of the smoke of woodfires, familiar to those who know a Karoo farm’. It was published in 1883, partly on the recommendation of George Meredith, and with its great success Olive Schreiner entered on her passionate dialogue with the world at large. Of all Lyndall’s confused perceptions, the clearest is: ‘When I’m strong, I’ll hate everything that has power, and help everything that is weak.’ Olive was not a leader, or even an organiser, but she was a great advocate, and the evangelist her father had failed to be. The only necessary claim on her attention was weakness. She needed, as she freely admitted, to be needed. For women’s right to financial and sexual independence, for the Boers against the British, the small farmer against the capitalist, the blacks (always ‘Kaffirs’ or ‘niggers’ to Olive) against the whites, she spent herself recklessly. All this was in the face of a chronic illness, apparently asthma, which is often said to be psychosomatic (though never by any one who has had asthma), and an inability to settle for long in one place. Her restlessness meant, as her biographers Ruth First and Ann Scott point out, that she ‘lacked a constituency’. In spite of her record of friendships, she felt the pain of isolation, both personal and political. ‘Indeed the two were joined, for her sense of politics included the necessity for the individual to define her independence and make it an inviolable part of herself.’
First and Scott’s Olive Schreiner was written in the context of the women’s movements of the Seventies. The earliest biography, by her husband Cron Cronwright, has been under fire ever since it appeared in 1924, and indeed even before that, since several of Olive’s women friends refused to lend him their letters. Cronwright, as a practical man, a farmer and lawyer, probably felt he had done a fairly good job and put the best face on things, but he allowed himself omissions and even alterations. Now the Clarendon Press has published the first of two authoritative selections of the Olive Schreiner letters.
The book is divided into three parts, beginning in 1871, when Olive was 16. One of the troubles about collecting letters is that before the writer becomes famous no one is likely to keep them: there is only a handful of family letters here, but they are touching in their awkwardness and affection. Hard work, scarcity, the death of nieces and nephews, all in a careful copybook style. In I860, with the help of her brothers, she scraped together £60 and sailed to England, meaning to study medicine. She never completed her training, either as doctor or nurse, and this was one of the personal failures – as opposed to her great public successes – which made her call herself, at the end of her life, ‘broken and untried’. At last, however, except for persecuting landladies, she was free, and, after a day spent ‘worrying an idea to its hiding-place’, she had people to talk to, and was understood. A celebrity after the publication of African Farm, she launched herself into socialist circles of the Eighties, and joined the Fellowship of the New Life. ‘It’s dreary work eating one’s own fire’ – but now she no longer had to, and her relief can be felt like a kind of intoxication. The most important letters are to three new friends, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, whose Towards Democracy came out in 1881, and the mathematician Karl Pearson. With Carpenter she was always on easy terms, he was ‘my dear old Ed’ard’. She does not discuss in her letters, and perhaps never recognised, his homosexuality, nor does she criticise his version of the Simple Life, although she tells him that he has been overfed with education whereas she is ‘dying of hunger’. Havelock Ellis, still when she first knew him a medical student, offered her a long and tender friendship which was perhaps intellectual only, although in My Life he recalls her dashing naked out of the bathroom to explain an idea which had suddenly come to her. Rive himself, in his introduction to the 1975 edition of African Farm, mentions Olive’s ‘inability to exercise restraint over the number of themes which interested her’. In the Letters, Havelock Ellis is asked, as her ‘other self’, to respond to them all. Karl Pearson, on the other hand, set definite limits on their friendship which Olive seems not to have been able to keep. He was the moving spirit of the Men and Women’s Club, which met for free discussion of all matters concerned with relations between the sexes. And Olive does discuss them freely, leaving herself without defences. ‘I would like to think you could make any use of me as a scientific specimen, it would be some compensation to me.’ The break with Pearson was a dark night of her existence. She wrote, but could get nothing finished, and dosed herself with dangerous medicines. Her influence over most people she met was as strong as ever – ‘I sometimes am filled almost with terror at the sense of the power I have over them,’ she tells Havelock Ellis – but she had begun to long for South Africa. Her last letter in this selection is to Edward Carpenter (October 1889). ‘Goodbye, dear old Brother. You will have to come out after me some day, when you hear about the stars and the black people and all the nice things. I’m going to be quite well.’
By this time her younger brother Will was legal adviser to the Governor of Cape Colony, and she made a forceful entry into Cape politics. ‘There is one man I’ve heard of,’ she tells Havelock Ellis (April 1890): ‘Cecil Rhodes, the head of the Chartered Company, whom I think I should like if I could meet him; he’s very fond of An African Farm.’ She did meet him, four months after he became prime minister of the Cape, and began what Rive calls ‘a complex relationship’, although it might perhaps be seen as grandly simple. At first she felt a ‘curious and almost painful interest’ in Rhodes as ‘the only big man we have here’. She had the highest hopes of him politically and perhaps in other ways, walking away from him at Government House where ‘it had been said that I wished to make him marry me.’ But after he voted in favour of the Strop Bill (making it legal to flog farm servants for certain offences) she never forgave him. He came to stand, in her eyes, for the greatest of all political evils, capitalism. ‘It’s his damnable and damning gold which has first ruined himself and is now, through him, ruining South Africa.’ As to the Jameson Raid, she saw his complicity at once, although her old friend, the journalist W.T. Stead, did not. A point was reached when Olive and Rhodes were passengers on the same ship and, as she told Will Schreiner in 1897, ‘he was so afraid of me that he dared not come and wash his hands in his own cabin, because he had to pass my cabin and might meet me.’ But when there were rumours that the ‘almighty might-have-been’ had suffered a breakdown, she felt ‘intense personal pity’.
Olive believed, or thought she believed, that women must take responsibility for their own future – this is the subject of one of her allegorical Dreams – but she had to combine this with her evolutionism, with the eugenics learned from Karl Pearson, and with Lyndall’s declaration in African Farm: ‘I will do nothing good for myself, nothing for the world, till someone wakes me.’ In 1894 she married Cron Cronwright, seeing him as he at first saw himself, as ‘something like Waldo, but fiercer and stronger’. Cron, eight years younger than Olive, deeply respected her genius and sacrificed a good deal for her: he changed his name to Cronwright-Schreiner and gave up farming, which he loved, for the sake of her health. Olive calls her marriage ‘ideally happy’, and indeed continued to do so in the years to come when they found it impossible to live under the same roof or even in the same country. Only five of her letters to Cron are given here, showing their early years together as ‘tenderness itself’, though deeply shadowed by the death of their child, who lived for only 16 hours. ‘Morally and spiritually’ – which for Olive was the same thing as politically – they were, at first, completely in tune. They campaigned together against Rhodes and the Chartered Company. The ‘Native Question’ was not Olive’s main concern as yet, although she saw, as perhaps no one else in South Africa did, that it was another aspect of the world’s confrontation of capital and labour. In the Nineties her pressing duty was to champion Boers, the small up-country farmers, the patriarchs of her childhood. Olive’s vision of Africa was pastoral and republican. On the other side were principalities and powers, the ‘wild dogs of gold’. ‘All my friends (liberals) from home write saying there cannot be war,’ she tells her brother in July 1899. ‘But for us there is a worse possibility than war, that of slowly falling into the hands of speculators.’ On 9 October 1899, the Transvaal presented its ultimatum. Two days later, war began.
Olive, too ill to go to the Front as a war correspondent, as she had been asked to do, braced herself to do all she could in ‘my poor little handful of life’, confident that her time of work would come when the war was over. Her letters show her courage, her integrity and her intuition, and, with them, the alarming neurotic force of the Victorian ‘wonderful woman’. It was this, probably, that made the liberal politician J.X. Masterman call her ‘one of those persons one admires more at a distance’.