• Emma Barnes

Happy Birthday, Olive Schreiner

The Story of Olive Schreiner

'We were equals once when we lay new-born babes on our nurse's knees. We will be equal again when they tie up our jaws for the last sleep'. – The Story of An African Farm

24th March 2021 marks 166 years since the birth of South African modernist and social theorist, Olive Schreiner. Hailed a ‘genius’ and ‘celebrity’ figure who rubbed shoulders with the likes of George Moore and Oscar Wilde (Showalter 1982, p.104), Schreiner’s success was not limited to her home of South Africa, but reverberated internationally after the publication of her first novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883). Even today, scholars are breathing new life into her works, as evidenced by the new editions of The Dawn of Civilisation (Stanley, 2018), Dreams (Black, Nations and Spydell, 2020), and the four forthcoming volumes in The Edinburgh Editions of the Selected Works of Olive Schreiner (Burdett; Driver; Gill; Van der Vlies). To celebrate her life and legacy, and honour her achievements that inspired this project, I’ve dedicated this month’s blog post to recounting Schreiner’s successes and the many obstacles she had to overcome.

Schreiner was one of twelve children born to German and English parents, Gottlob Schreiner and Rebecca Lyndall, on the Wittenberg mission station in the Cape Colony of South Africa. Whilst some of her brothers attended schools in England, Schreiner moved with her parents between mission stations, receiving no formal education. Instead, Schreiner was home-schooled by her mother whose teaching relied heavily on Wesleyan Christian thought and the study of the Bible (Burdett, p.3). Despite this intensely religious upbringing, at the age of nine Schreiner rejected religion in favour of ‘free-thinking’, a concept that Carolyn Burdett defines as ‘opposition to the organized Church’ and the idea that ‘opinion should be based on reasoned knowledge’ (2013, p.3). That Schreiner’s opposing views engendered fractures within the family was compounded by the death of Schreiner’s sister in 1865, and the fact that in the same year, Schreiner’s father was dismissed from Wesleyan Missionary Society for infringing trading regulations. This resulted in Gottlob and Rebecca no longer being able to care for their dependent children. From this point, Schreiner’s transient lifestyle continued albeit in a different way, as instead of moving between missionary stations, Schreiner now moved between the homes of relatives and family acquaintances.

Schreiner's home in Cradock, South Africa.

Despite this turbulent beginning, Schreiner took up her first governess post at the age of fifteen in Cradock, South Africa, in 1870. After meeting freethinker Willie Bertram in 1871, and reading his copy of Herbert Spencer’s First Principles, Schreiner was able to connect her freethinking to broader philosophical thought. Living close to a lending library, she also continued to pursue her studies, teaching herself natural history, anthropology, and philosophy through reading the works Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Stuart Mill, and Carl Vogt. It was at this point that Schreiner began to write. Beginning with journal and diary entries before creating poetry and fragments of fiction, Schreiner began to lay the foundations for the novel that would propel her to success, with writing offering a space in which to channel her free-thinking and feminist ideas. By 1873, Schreiner had begun Undine, A Queer Little Child, a semi-autobiographical novel that Showalter argues created a fantasy version of England based upon the few novels to which she had access (Showalter 1977, p.204). Dissatisfied with her first attempt at a novel, Schreiner re-worked some scenes into what would become her debut, The Story of an African Farm (1883). Although Schreiner believed that Undine was a ‘highly personal, juvenile piece of writing that ought to have been burnt’ (Munslow Ong 2018, p.28), Jade Munslow Ong makes the case that Undine is more than a ‘forerunner’ or ‘draft version’ of The Story of an African Farm (2018, p.28). This is mainly due to the fact that Undine exhibits an allegorical form of representation that allows the characters to envisage alternatives to their colonial existence. Abandoning Undine, Schreiner channelled her energies into finishing The Story of an African Farm. After travelling to England, a place Schreiner called ‘home’ (Burdett 2013, p.4), The Story of an African Farm was published by Chapman and Hall in two volumes in 1883, under the pseudonym Ralph Iron.

The Story of an African Farm entered Schreiner into socialist and feminist circles in which she formed lifelong relationships. Edward Carpenter, Bryan Donkin, Eleanor Marx, Karl Pearson, and sexologist Henry Havelock Ellis are just some of the notable people with whom Schreiner was in contact. Immersed in these intellectual circles, Schreiner’s progressive ideas about gender, race, imperialism, sexuality, and evolution began to develop and manifest within her writing. Whilst battling her ongoing respiratory illness, Schreiner began writing From Man to Man during her travel across Europe from 1884-1885, and shortly after returning to South Africa in 1889 published her allegorical collections Dreams (1890) and Dream Life and Real Life (1893). A blistering attack on Cecil Rhodes’ aggressive expansionist and genocidal activities in Mashonaland followed, with the publication of Schreiner’s allegorical novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland in 1897. By the turn of the century, Schreiner began to concentrate more intently on her political writings, including the essay “An English South African’s View of the Situation” (1899), and the major feminist polemic Woman and Labour (1911), as well as several journal articles. Following Schreiner’s death in 1920, her estranged husband, Samuel Cron Cronwright-Schreiner, destroyed any letters or diary entries deemed too personal, and set about publishing highly selective and heavily edited versions of Schreiner’s Stories, Dreams and Allegories (1923), Thoughts on South Africa (1923), The Letters of Olive Schreiner 1876-1920 (1924), and From Man to Man…Or Perhaps Only (1926). All were published without Schreiner’s living consent, in acts that Karel Schoeman defines as ‘a largely successful if unconscious attempt to avenge himself posthumously on his wife’ (1992, p.35). After acquiring one final manuscript from Havelock Ellis, and claiming to locate the missing parts, Cronwright completed Schreiner’s publication record, making Undine (1929) at once the first, and last, of Schreiner’s writings.

Schreiner's home in Paddington, London, England.

Despite proving a bestseller and literary success in her time, Showalter describes Schreiner’s work as possessing a ‘literary innocence’ and particular ‘oddness’, with ‘fragmentary’ and ‘eccentric’ structures. Showalter goes so far as to suggest that Schreiner in fact ‘had no idea how to construct a novel, and only in the allegory form’ (1982, 106). This eccentric and fragmentary quality, and distinctive use of allegory, is now widely understood to be central to Schreiner’s own feminist and anti-imperial expression. Indeed Burdett explains that: ‘Schreiner’s experiments with literary tradition were an integral part of her political activism, and at the same time, central to her exploration of identity and selfhood’ (2013, p.2). More than this, however, is how Schreiner’s manipulation of form is indicative of her role in the emergence of African modernism. Munslow Ong argues that Schreiner ‘played a formative role in the development of a distinctly South African literary practice’ (2018, p.1), explaining that it is through her use of experimental allegory and primitivist discourse that she can express anti-imperialist views and ‘facilitate the modelling of an identifiable African modernist form’ (2018, p.1). The legacy of Schreiner’s work lies in the fact that this South African modernist aesthetic is visible in writing by African authors in the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries. Sol T. Plaatje and H.I.E. Dhlomo explore South African politics through aesthetic experimentation; J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing continue Schreiner’s ‘antipastoral tradition’; and Zoë Wicomb uses fragmentation to reject the notion of one coherent truth (Munslow Ong, pp.147-167). The impact of Schreiner’s work can therefore be felt not only throughout the world, but through time.


Burdett, Carolyn. Olive Schreiner (Tavistock: Northcote House, 2013)

First, Ruth, and Ann Scott. Olive Schreiner (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1980)

Munslow Ong, Jade. Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: Allegory, Empire and Postcolonial Writing (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2018)

--- “Olive Schreiner”. The Yellow Nineties Online. ed. by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra (2012) <>

Schoeman, Karel. Only an Anguish to Live Here: Olive Schreiner and the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1992)

Schreiner, Olive. Dreams. ed. by Barbara Black, Carly Nations, and Anna Spydell (Peterborough CA: Broadview, 2020)

--- Olive Schreiner’s The Dawn of Civilisation & Other Unpublished Wartime Writings. ed. by Liz Stanley (Edinburgh: X Press, 2018)

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brönte to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977)

--- ‘Review: Olive Schreiner: A Biography’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 1.1 (Spring 1982), 104-9

Voss, Tony. ‘Olive Schreiner, Undine, and Childhood Reading’. English in Africa, 42.1 (2015), 9-25

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