Olive Schreiner (in full Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner), a South African Anglophone novelist and radical feminist, was born on a missionary station in South Africa in 1855 as the ninth child of Gottlob Schreiner, a German Methodist missionary, and Rebecca Schreiner née Lyndall, the daughter of a London Congregational minister. Young Olive was raised in a strict Calvinist tradition in the remote mission stations of the Cape Colony. The family was financially unstable and Olive at fifteen left home and worked as a governess and nurse for wealthy Afrikaner families in the Cape Colony. After a crisis of faith, she became estranged from her zealously religious parents. For the next few years years she experienced sexual harassment and denigration that haunted her for a long time. Besides, in adolescence she contracted asthma that impaired her breathing for the rest of her life.

Although Olive Schreiner did not receive formal education, she read eagerly works by Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer (First Principles), John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson. As a teenager Olive started to write her most successful novel, The Story of an African Farm. In 1880, she sent the completed manuscript to her friends, Mary and John Brown in England, asking them to find a publisher for her novel. The Browns sent the manuscript to the Edinburgh publisher David Douglas, who recommended substantial editing and alterations of the text. Schreiner sent the revised manuscript to several publishers, but they refused to publish it. Eventually, on the recommendation of George Meredith, Chapman and Hall, published the novel under the pseudonym Ralph Iron in 1883. The Story of an African Farm, which had 15 editions during Schreiner's lifetime, is considered South Africa's first important novel. Schreiner wrote two other novels, Undine (drafted 1874 and published posthumously in 1929), and From Man To Man; or, Perhaps Only (drafted in 1885 and published posthumously in 1929). All these novels deal mainly with the Woman Question, gender relations, as well as sexual, racial and class oppression.

In 1881, Schreiner travelled to England and enrolled as a nurse at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, but after a few days she gave up her study because of health problems. In 1884, she met the pre-Freudian sexologist Havelock Ellis and formed very close friendship with him. She lived in London until 1889, mostly in the East End. In 1885, she joined the exclusive “Men and Women's Club”, founded by Karl Pearson, a socialist and mathematics professor at University College, London, to discuss the future of gender, the equality of the sexes and marriage reform. Olive was attracted by Pearson's individuality and his opinions on the Woman Question.

In 1889, she returned to South Africa and became involved in South African politics; she wrote polemical articles for British and local magazines, criticising British imperial policy. She also wrote short feminist fiction, some of which was published in 1893 in Dream Life and Real Life, and the rest in Stories, Dreams and Allegories, published three years after her death, in 1923. In 1894, she married Samuel Cronwright, a young ostrich farmer, cattle breeder and freethinker. When she refused to adopt his surname, he, gallantly, extended it to become Cronwright-Schreiner. They had a daughter who died at birth. In 1897, she published Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, a fictional attack on Cecil Rhodes's imperial policy. Before the outbreak of the Boer War (1899-1902), Schreiner published her pro-Boer views in “An English South African Woman's View of the Situation” (1899), which caused embarrassment to her brother Will, then Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. She also criticised the British invasion of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and as a result, was interned for a year.

In 1911, Schreiner published Women and Labour, a plea for women's emancipation, and one of the most important feminist texts of the early twentieth century. In 1913, she decided to go Italy for medical treatment, but finally arrived in England, where she spent six years, visiting occasionally her lifelong friend, Havelock Ellis, and his wife Edith, who died in 1916. At that time she wrote passionate antiwar pamphlets. In 1920, Schreiner returned to South Africa and died of heart attack in Cape Town in December that year.

Olive Schreiner was acquainted with leaders of the socialist movement although it is not certain whether she fully shared their socialist views. She was a close friend of Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx's youngest daughter, a feminist and socialist, Edith Lees (later Havelock Ellis's wife) and Amy Levi, a member of the 'New Woman' circle in 1880s London. Schreiner's other intellectual friends and acquaintances included Edward Carpenter, Margaret Harkness, Bertrand Russell and his first wife, Alys Pearsall Smith, Leslie Stephen, Arthur Symons and Thomas Fisher Unwin, her main publisher.

References and Further Reading

Beeton, Douglas Ridley. Olive Schreiner: A Short Guide to Her Writings. Cape Town: H. Timmins. 1974.

Berman, Joyce Avrech. The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts, 1989.

Burdett, Carolyn. Olive Schreiner and the Progress of Feminism: Evolution, Gender, Empire. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Clayton, Cherry. Olive Schreiner. Twayne: University of Michigan, 1997.

Draznin, Yaffa Claire. My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884-1920. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

First, Ruth, and Ann Scott. Olive Schreiner. London: Andre Deutsch, 1980.

Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Knechtel, Ruth. "Olive Schreiner's Pagan Animism: An Underlying Unity." English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 53.3 (2010).

Monsman, Gerald Cornelius. Olive Schreiner's Fiction: Landscape and Power. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

___. "Olive Schreiner: Literature and Politics of Power," Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 30.4 (Winter 1988).

Murphy, Patricia. Time is of the Essence. Temporality, Gender, and the New Woman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Parkin-Gounelas, Ruth. Fictions of the Female Self: Charlotte Brontë, OliveSchreiner, Katherine Mansfield. St. Martin's Press. 1991.

Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. Edited by Joseph Bristow. Oxford: Oxford University, 1998.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers From Brontë to Lessing. London: Virago Press, 1978.

Wallraven, Miriam. A Writing Halfway Between Theory and Fiction: Mediating Feminism from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Mary, A Fiction. Project Gutenberg.

Last modified 14 March 2012