Olive Schreiner (24 March 1855 - December 11 1920), was a South African 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 the issues of its day, ranging from agnosticism to the treatment of women.
When Olive was six, Gottlob transferred to Healdtown in the Eastern Cape to run the Wesleyan training institute there. As with so many of his other projects, he simply was not up to the task and was expelled in disgrace for trading against missionary regulations. He was forced to make his own living for the first time in his life, and tried a business venture. Again, he failed and was insolvent within a year. The family lived in abject poverty as a result.
However, Olive was not to remain with her parents for long. When her older brother Theophilus (1844-1920) was appointed headmaster in Cradock in 1867, she went to live with him along with two of her siblings. 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 baseless and it was the cause of many arguments with her family.
Therefore, when Theo and her brother 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 shared her views of religion and who lent her a copy of Herbert Spencer’s First Principles. This text was to have a profound impact on her. While rejecting religious creeds and doctrine, Spencer also argued for a 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 was to appropriate for herself in her attempts to create a morality free of organized religion.
After this meeting, Olive traveled from place to place, accepting posts as a governess with various families and leaving them because of the sexual predation of her male employers in many cases. During this time she met Julius Gau, to whom she became engaged under doubtful circumstances. For whatever reason, their engagement did not last long and she returned to live with her parents and then with her brothers. She read widely and began writing seriously. She started Undine at this time.
However, her brothers’ financial situation soon deteriorated, as diamonds became increasingly difficult to find. 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 of the asthma attacks that would plague 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 resume working in order 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 certain aspects of The Story of an African Farm, which she published under the pseudonym Ralph Iron, as well as a small collection of stories and allegories called Dream Life and Real Life.
However, Olive’s real 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 she applied to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh in Scotland. In 1881, she traveled to Southampton in England. Once there, she was never to realize her dream of becoming a medical practitioner, as her ill-health prevented her from completing any form of training or studying. She was forced to concede that writing would and could be her only work in life.
Despite that, she still had a passion to heal society’s ills and set out to do with her pen what she could not with pills. Her Story of an African Farm was acclaimed for the manner it tackled the issues of its day, 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 renowned sexologist Havelock Ellis wrote to her about her novel. Their relationship soon developed beyond intellectual debate to a genuine source of support for Schreiner.
She finally met him in 1884 when she went with him to a meeting of the Progressive Organisation, a group for freethinkers to discuss political and philosophical views. This was one of a number of radical discussion groups to which she was to belong and brought her into contact with many important socialists of the time. In addition to the Progressive Organisation, she also attended meetings of the Fellowship of the New Order and Karl Pearson’s Men and Women’s Club, where she was insistent on the critical importance of woman’s equality and the need to consider men as well as women when looking at gender relationships.
However, her own relationships with men were anything but happy. She had refused a proposal from her doctor, Bryan Donkin, but he was irritatingly persistent in his suit of her. To make matters worse, despite her reservations about Karl Pearson and her intentions just to remain his friend, she soon conceived an attraction for him. He did not reciprocate her feelings, preferring Elizabeth Cobb. In 1866, she left England for the Continent under something of a cloud, traveling between 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.
Her involvement with Cape politics led her into an association with Cecil John Rhodes, with whom she would soon become disillusioned and against whom she would write her bitterly satirical allegory Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. This disillusionment began with his support of the “strop bill” that would allow black and coloured servants to be flogged for relatively small offenses.
Her opposition to the “strop bill” also brought her into contact with Samuel Cronwright, a politically-active farmer. They were of the same mind on the “Native Question” and on 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 for them. Olive’s worsening health forced the couple to move constantly, while her first and only child died within a day. This loss was only 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 of these isolated her from her family and the people around her, and she was given to long spells of loneliness during that period of her life.
In 1898, the couple moved to Johannesburg for health reasons. In the aftermath of the Jameson Raid, they were seen as the champions of the Republican cause in the face of the inevitable war between Boer and British. Olive tried to persuade South African officials to turn away from the path of 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 was suffering physically and psychologically and all her efforts only 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 characteristic concerns with socialism and gender equality.
The last few years of Olive’s life were marked by ill-health and increasing sense of isolation. Despite this, she still engaged in politics and was determined to make her mark on new constitution, especially through a work like Closer Union. In this polemic, she argued for more 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 any longer when other 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 started a book on war, which was abbreviated and published as The Dawn of Civilisation. This was the last book she was to write. After the war, she returned home to the Cape, where she died in her sleep in a boarding house in 1920. She was buried later in Kimberly. After the passing of her husband, Samuel Cronwright, her body was exhumed. Olive Schreiner, along with her baby, dog and husband were laid to rest atop Buffelskop mountain, on the farm known as Buffelshoek, near Cradock, in the Eastern Cape.