These days there is little to be heard about South Africa with respect to literature. Of course, there are recently deceased Nadine Gordimer and John Maxwell Coetzee who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 and 2003 respectively and whose work keeps being read around the globe, but how many names of other authors from South Africa come to mind at once? Although the official language of the country is English, which makes access to the international reading community so much easier, the fame of only few contemporary writers like André Brink has spread across her borders. I know even less names of South African authors from the times of the British Empire, but it goes without saying that there were some excellent ones. One of them was Olive Schreiner.
Olive Schreiner was born on 24 March 1855 in Bosutoland, Cape Colony, British Empire (today: Lesotho). Her parents were missionaries working at the Wesleyan Missionary Society station at Wittebergen Reserve, in the Eastern Cape ever since 1837. Due to the father’s low salary and his lack of common sense in financial matters, the numerous family suffered great poverty. The situation got even worse after he was expelled from his post because he had started trading which was against the missionary regulations. Eventually, Olive and two of her siblings were sent to live with their older brother Theophilus, who had just been appointed headmaster in Cradock in 1867, where they attended school for the first time.
Already during those early years, Olive Schreiner began to question her family’s strong religious belief and completely rejected their creed at the age of 15. To free herself and to escape from the constant quarrels at home, she became a governess. She read the works of Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin which strongly influenced her view of the world and of religion. This first period away from the family didn’t last long, though. After a brief engagement, the young woman returned first to her brothers working on the Kimberley diamond fields and then to her parents. It was then, when she first fell ill with asthma, an illness that would accompany and handicap her for the rest of her life.
While living with her family, Olive Schreiner set out to write her first novel, Undine, but soon her family’s increasingly difficult financial situation forced her to hire herself out again as a governess. In her free time she continued to write and produced the semi-autobiographical Story of an African Farm as well as a collection of short stories and allegories titled Dream Life and Real Life. Since writing was just a hobby for her at the time, she didn’t try to publish them. In 1880 she could finally afford moving to Scotland to begin training as a nurse. Later she attended Women's Medical School in London to become a doctor. Her life was meant to take a very different turn, though, because the English climate made her asthma become chronic and eventually she had to accept that her poor health would never allow her to practice medicine or only to finish her studies.
As from that moment Olive Schreiner set her hopes on writing and offered Story of an African Farm to several English publishing houses which all rejected it. Only in 1883 the quality of the book was recognised and later the same year it appeared in print for the first time. To escape the common prejudices against a woman writer, it was brought out under the male pseudonym Ralph Irons, though. The novel was received with immediate acclaim by literary critics and feminists alike. The famous sexologist Havelock Ellis was so impressed by the book that he wrote a letter to the author which was the beginning of a mutually inspiring and long-lasting friendship.
During her studies in London Olive Schreiner had got into touch with the socialist movement and made friends with some of its leading figures like for instance Edward Carpenter, Eleanor Marx, Bruce Glasier and George Bernard Shaw. After her success as a writer she joined several discussion groups and different progressive organisations where she advocated women’s equality. As a freethinker she was in her element there and her later work was strongly influenced by the ideas discussed there. In 1886 Olive Schreiner left England to travel Switzerland, France and Italy. She used her free time to begin writing her novel From Man to Man, several allegories which were published in journals and an introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
Back in England she soon decided to return to South Africa. In 1889 she settled down in Karoo at the town of Matjiesfontein where the air was better for her health. Also there she got soon involved in politics, especially feminist and human rights movements, and met the politically active farmer Samuel Cronwright. At the same time she resumed publishing. She brought out the short story collections Dreams (1890) and Dream Life and Real Life (1893).
Pushing aside doubts about being able to adapt to married life, Olive Schreiner became the wife of Samuel Cronwright in 1894, who took the name Cronwright-Schreiner, and hoped to have a family. Their marriage remained childless, though, since the only child who was ever born to them alive died after only a few hours. Before long Olive Schreiner’s feeble health also urged the couple to give up the farm and to move houses often until they finally settled down in Johannesburg in 1898.
In collaboration with her husband, who shared her political views on the “native question”, Olive Schreiner wrote a political pamphlet titled The Political Situation in Cape Colony (1895). Out of disappointment over the politics of Cecil John Rhodes she brought out a satirical allegorical tale under the title Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897). When the Boer war was looming, whe wrote An English South African Woman's View of the Situation, a critique on the Transvaal difficulty from the pro-Boer position (1899) in which she stood up for Boer interests and advocated a peaceful solution of the conflict.
After 1900 Olive Schreiner’s health was further deteriorating, since the frequent asthma attacks had affected her heart and caused angina pectoris. Despite all she continued to be politically active and to write. She published A Letter on the Jew (1906) and Closer Union: a Letter on South African Union and the Principles of Government (1909). In 1911 she finished and released at last her book Women and Labour which she had begun when she was still living in England. In 1913 the author travelled to England for medical treatment and was prevented from returning home by the outbreak of World War I. Inspired by the carnage in Europe, she set out to write another book, her last one, which was later published in an abbreviated version as The Dawn of Civilisation.
After the end of World War I Olive Schreiner returned to South Africa. She died in Wynberg, South Africa, on 11 December 1920. A collection of articles from the early 1890s about country and people was published posthumously under the title Thoughts on South Africa (1923) like Stories, Dreams and Allegories (1923). Also her novels From Man to Man and Undine were published only after her death, in 1926 and 1929 respectively.