- Olive Schreiner: A Biography by Ruth First and Ann Scott
Deutsch, 383 pp, £9.95, May 1980, ISBN 0 233 97152 1
It is astonishing that since Olive Schreiner died in 1920 there have been six biographies. Why should the life of a woman writing from remote farms and railway stoppings in South Africa between the 1870s and the First World War attract this attention? The new Olive Schreiner has been commissioned with the renewed interest in the feminist heroine of The Story of an African Farm (1883), and this approach to Olive Schreiner, which places her as a polemicist rather than a novelist, may be the most durable basis for her fame.
In one of her letters Schreiner predicted that potential biographers would never understand her horror of falsity. How does a biographer, accustomed to delve for a buried self, relate to a person who presents herself directly, without a mask? First and Scott record the events and emotions of Schreiner’s life with minute fidelity, but the living, brilliant-eyed woman escapes yet another attempt to pin her down. Her openness remains too disconcerting; her positions, which defy categorisation, seem to these biographers ‘confused’.
Olive Schreiner was born in 1855 at Wittebergen, her parents’ mission station on what was then the Cape border. Her first two novels were completed in her early twenties while she earned her living as a governess on farms in the Cradock region of the Eastern Cape. She wrote Undine in a lean-to room which leaked so badly that she sometimes sat under an umbrella – hardly the cure for her crippling asthma. In 1880 she was revising the manuscript of the African Farm each morning before dawn, wretchedly unsure of herself – she once felt like throwing it in the farm dam – but when she took the book to London soon afterwards, it had a wide success and the young author was swept up in freethinking, socialist and Utopian circles.
The real attraction and challenge of Olive Schreiner for her many biographers is to take hold of a multi-sided career that rocks perpetually between England and Africa, fiction and politics, feminism and marriage, Boer and black. The solution of First and Scott, to record everything, leads to some exasperation with the ‘inconsistent’ Olive: a more imaginative selection of facts might reveal a life with a rationale of its own. Olive Schreiner always looked for a ‘walking up and down place’: as a child of three, pacing the coconut matting of the mission-house passage while she made up stories; as a young woman of 18, her hands clenched behind her back, treading out silent ambitions on her sister’s stoep in the middle of the Karoo. This movement between two points, not restless but measured, forms the intellectual pattern of her life. As she engaged with ideas – free thought or women’s needs – she took in too many conflicting facts to adhere to a fixed platform, but her biographers are too deferential to ideological slots, from Marx to Freud, to sympathise with her independence of mind.
Another problem of this biography is that it does not pick out the prophetic strain embedded in its collection of detail. Everyone who met Schreiner was rapt by her rhetoric Celebrities like Keir Hardie and the Pethick Lawrences travelled hundreds of miles to a remote dorp in the Karoo, Hanover or De Aar, to hear her opinions. Her oratory to congresses summoned during the Boer War to protest against British farm-burning tactics was described by one observer as ‘transfigured’: ‘I have heard much indignant eloquence, but never such a molten torrent of white-hot rage. It was overwhelming. When it suddenly ceased, the large audience – about 1,500 men and women – could hardly gasp.’ All her words were designed to convert: Englishmen in their relation to Boers, men towards women, women towards prostitutes. She had the vehemence of a long line of Nonconformist preachers behind her, as well as great powers of sympathy. But her force came mainly, I think, from a rare indivisibility of mind and action. She spoke for causes when they were unpopular: for disfranchised blacks in 1908, when white groups were combining to frame the segregationalist constitution of South Africa. She refused to exclude black women from the Women’s Enfranchisement League, with some surprise that English suffragettes should be as indifferent as their colonial counterparts.
In the end, literary efforts were subsidiary to the causes she took up with apostolic zeal. All her life she blamed herself for not completing From Man to Man, her novel about prostitution, but this was only one of multiple efforts to support the downtrodden. Workers saw in her, as one put it, ‘the true Christ spirit’. She was struck by the Sermon on the Mount, not by the Christian religion. ‘To me,’ she said, ‘Jesus was a poor working-man socialist of genius, a sort of Keir Hardie!’
Schreiner’s was a healing, redemptive vision, compassionate towards men’s errors, and independent of a party line. During the First World War she dissociated herself from the ‘theatrical’ Pankhursts, who backed the war, she thought, to stay in the limelight. Her feminism was linked with an outspoken pacifism: she hoped that, in time, women would outlaw war because women ‘know the cost of flesh’, because ‘men’s bodies are our women’s works of art.’ Her feminism is expressed more compellingly, to my mind, in the lesser-known Dreams (1890) than in the African Farm. Her visionary mind and Biblical cadences were better suited to brief parables than long novels. Her brilliant parable of emancipation, ‘Three Dreams in a Desert’, was read aloud by suffragettes in Holloway prison. Constance Lytton said that it seemed not at all figurative: it was more ‘like an ABC railway guide to our journey’.
One is curious to know how a woman who spoke up for women’s buried sexual needs got on with men, and this biography provides a full account. Havelock Ellis first saw her in 1884, sitting ‘with hands spread on thighs, and above, the beautiful head with large dark eyes, at once so expressive and observant.’ First and Scott describe the strange relationship that developed between them with some initial delicacy, stressing Ellis’s delight in the strong, careless, creative powers he saw in Olive Schreiner; her delight in a sense of shared self. He wanted, he told her, ‘an immense realisation of you’, but she could not love him physically because he was ‘sad in body’.
Schreiner’s relations with a series of Englishmen – the brotherly Ellis, the kind, plain doctor, Bryan Donkin, the distant and formidable mathematician, Karl Pearson (with whom she participated in the high-toned Men and Women’s Club for re-defining the nature of the sexes) – show her drawn to men who were trying to transcend sexual convention. In places, the biographers go in for too much mystery-mongering about ‘Olive’s masochism’ and ‘Olive’s difficulty in accepting her own sexuality’, with a drawn-out fuss over what they finally admit was a platonic friendship with Eleanor Marx. Olive Schreiner’s declaration that an independent, passionate, intelligent and virtuous woman could not easily expect to find an appropriate mate is not ‘neurotic’: it is common sense. She reminds me of Isabel Archer turning down the eligible Lord Warburton, when, in 1886, she refused Donkin with the words: ‘I must be free, you know, I must be free.’
Later that year she seems to have had a breakdown over Pearson, her passionate nature unable to maintain the limited intellectual friendship he wanted. She lived under a shadow for three years until she decided to return to Africa. Before leaving, she stood outside University College, where Pearson taught, but there was no glimpse of him and she sailed in a state of deadness. Four years later, at the age of about 38, she married a South African farmer who offered her a combination of strong, sunburnt arms (she had him photographed with his sleeves rolled up) and vigorous mental appetite. Samuel Cron Cronwright-Schreiner had not, I gather from G.M.C. Cronwright’s incisive biographic essay, that quickness to intercept nuance which Olive Schreiner missed when she left England. Cron exercised his mind, his nephew says, like a Swedish machine then popular for developing biceps. It was hard for him to give up his beloved Angoras and cows to join Olive’s restless search for breathable air. Perhaps their marriage was eventually darkened by the unexpected death of a much-wanted baby with ‘such a calm, strong face’. From 1907 until 1919 they kept the coffin, secretly unburied, in a spare room.
A side of Schreiner that would be most interesting to her countrymen is left out of this biography: her poetic sense of the land which is the one thing all South Africans share. Why did that Biblical landscape, through which other South Africans moved, she observed, as slowly as cattle, quicken her prophetic voice? In the 19th century, the descendants of the 17th-century Dutch colonists trekked into the interior as if they were going to the Promised Land. The Puritans who migrated to America at the same time had to stretch their fancy to identify New England with the landscape of Exodus, but the South African interior was receptive to a very literal re-enactment of religious dreams. With all this there was an affinity in Olive Schreiner.
First and Scott follow the convention of the forward-thrusting career. But in Olive Schreiner’s case this is balanced by backward-yearning. Her forward-looking Dreams are located in the landscape of her past: flat brown earth stretching to remote horizons, fierce African heat that throbs slowly against the skin, scorched prickly bush, dust drying the nostrils. It was to this scene that she returned in her deadness in 1890, not to the colonial towns or lush valleys of the Cape, and this scene renewed her ‘with a sense of wild exhilaration and freedom’. Her feminine independence drew its strength from this soil: ‘The effect of this scenery is to make one silent and strong and self-contained. And it is all so bare, the rocks and the bushes, each bush standing separate from others, alone, by itself.’ She saw something of that containment reflected in the faces of Boer women. She and Cron drove to a wedding three hours from De Aar, passing only one house and two small flocks of sheep on the way, to be met, finally, with a row of grim, iron-willed women, shoulder to shoulder on one sofa. They embodied for her both the grandeur of spirit and the narrowness of South African life.
This biography, which is best at straight-forward political and historical narrative, gives an interesting account of Schreiner’s public advocacy of the Boer cause between 1891 and 1900. She described Boer psychology in terms of a 17th-century Calvinism which, encysted in the Taal (as their dialect was known before it established itself as Afrikaans), remained unaffected by the 18th century’s awakening to reason, tolerance and fraternity. But if their linguistic isolation cut them off from enlightenment, it also left them untouched by the degradations of commerce.
Schreiner was attracted by the energetic power of the empire-building Cecil John Rhodes, yet she was one of the first to smell mercenary exploitation. While Cape politicians, including her brother and leading Afrikaner Bondsmen, were still sycophantic and the Jameson Raid on Oom Paul Kruger’s gold-rich republic was still to come, she closed her door to Rhodes when he called at Matjesfontein in 1894. She was especially proud of her unpopular parable of 1896-7, ‘Trooper Piet Halket of Mashonaland’, which boldly indicted the men of Rhodes’s Company for atrocity, murder and enslavement.
The climax for a feminist approach to Schreiner would seem to be Women and Labour (1911), with its ringing refrain: ‘We claim, today, all labour for our province!’ I was disappointed by a carping chapter which in no way explains why Vera Brittain’s contemporaries seized this as their Bible. Looking generations ahead to the woman ‘still to be’, Olive Schreiner argues for what we now take for granted: an end to a parasitic role, useful and respected labour, equal pay, and sexual ties that liberate ‘latent ... forms of creative energy and life-dispensing power’.
By the end of this book Olive Schreiner appears increasingly peripheral and eccentric, as though the authors were more interested in certain issues – such as exploited blacks – than in her. She might have been brought closer by more attention to letters, which have been tapped only for minimal facts. The Letters of Olive Schreiner is perhaps her best work; it is also a marvellous biographic source, for, during the productive periods of her life, she lived in remote places and depended on letters to explain herself and her setting to a large number of friends. She had the knack of intimacy, and reveals herself with dazzling directness and warmth.