Olive Schreiner


Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner (1855 – 1920) was born the ninth of 12 children to Gottlob and Rebecca Schreiner. Her German father and English mother, both missionaries in South Africa, provided a household grounded in a strict Calvinist tradition.
After studying at the Christian Brother’s school for three years in Cradock (Eastern Cape), Schreiner began working as a governess, an occupation she pursued for eleven years, followed by a teaching job at the Kimberley New School (Northern Cape).
During these early years she studied the works of a wide array of prominent Victorian intellectuals, wrote a considerable number of her own short stories, and began to develop her own social ideas – ideas that would eventually brand her as a Victorian revolutionary. She also began work on her own novel about her experiences in South Africa, ‘The Story of an African Farm’.
When she had saved enough money she travelled to Britain in 1881 with the objective of training to becoming a doctor. While working at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary Schreiner heard about the Women’s Medical School that had been established by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake. She moved to London where she began attending lectures at the Medical School, although she subsequently abandoned her initial aspirations of becoming a medical doctor because of her own poor health.
For the second time Schreiner sought publication of her book, The Story of an African Farm. Chapman and Hall’s acceptance of the novel in 1883 marked a landmark in her career as a novelist and social activist. It was published under the pseudonym, Ralph Irons, because of a contemporary prejudice against women authors.
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The Story of an African Farm: Movie Alan Paton
The novel’s immediate success, which persisted throughout her lifetime, provided her acceptance among a group of revolutionary thinkers. She began to associate with a distinguished group of intellectuals, including Edward Carpenter and Eleanor Marx (youngest daughter of Karl Marx).
Schreiner’s next novel, ‘Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland’ (1897), was a strong attack on Cecil Rhodes and the imperialism and racism that he epitomised in South Africa.
Schreiner returned to South Africa in 1889 and met her husband, Samuel Cronwright, three years later. Before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, Schreiner suffered the loss of her first child (a tragedy that emerges prominently in her later fiction).
Schreiner’s intellectual role escalated to that of an outspoken, oftentimes revolutionary political leader. Her political and literary work included tracts opposing Cecil Rhodes’ colonialist activities in Africa as well as Britain’s involvement in the Anglo-Boer War.
Between 1908 and 1913 Olive and her husband lived in De Aar in the Northern Cape. Their house, a national monument, is now a restaurant.
‘Women and Labour’ was published in 1911. Although Schreiner was disappointed with the book, it was immediately acclaimed as an important statement on feminism and had a major influence on a large number of young women. A strong supporter of universal suffrage, Schreiner argued that the vote was ‘a weapon, by which the weak may be able to defend themselves against the strong, the poor against the weak’.
On the outbreak of the First World War Schreiner moved back to England. Over the next four years she was active in the peace movement and worked closely with organizations such as the Union of Democratic Control and the Non-Conscription Fellowship.
In August 1920 Schreiner returned to South Africa. Four months later she died suddenly on 10th December, 1920. She was buried without religious ceremony next to her daughter at Buffels Kop outside Cradock in the Eastern Cape, overlooking the Karoo.


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