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Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner

The first South African novelist of consequence

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Photo credit: The Life of Olive Schreiner by S. C. Cronwright-Schreiner

Photo credit: The Life of Olive Schreiner by S. C. Cronwright-Schreiner published by Fisher Unwin, 1924.

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Olive Schreiner achieved international fame with her book The Story of an African Farm. She was also an outspoken advocate of feminism, socialism, and pacifism, and a critic of European imperialism. Her published works include social and political treatises, allegorical tales and short stories, as well as the (once) famous feminist credo Women and Labour.

Date of birth: 24 March 1855, Wittenbergen, Basutoland (Lesotho)
Date of death: 11 December 1920,

Schreiner was born into a poor missionary family, the ninth of 12 children. Her father, Gottlob, was of German decent and her mother, Rebecca Lyndall, English. Schreiner was self-educated; her early influences included the philosophers Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, and the naturalist Charles Darwin. It was through such reading that Schreiner developed her progressive outlook on life - she rejected the accepted stereotypical gender roles and espoused an equality of shared labour between men and women. She also, at 15, rejected her family's religion. The conflict between her convictions and beliefs was also a major factor in the onset of severe depression which badgered Schreiner throughout her life.

In 1874 Schreiner started working full time as a governess - she wrote during her free time. For the next seven years she worked for five different wealthy Afrikaner families in the Cape Colony. Eventually, with the help of her friend Mary Brown (an active British liberal-feminist), she set sail for England to fulfil her dreams of training as a nurse and getting her novels published. Unfortunately, the asthma she had developed during time spent on the Kimberley diamond fields became chronic in England and was too debilitating for her to enter medical training.

In 1882, publishers Chapman and Hall accepted the semi-autobiographical novel Story of an African Farm. It was published the following year under a pseudonym, Ralph Irons, because of a contemporary prejudice against women authors. The book won international recognition as the first realistic description of life in South Africa, but there was also significant controversy over its strong, progressive views about marriage and religion. Olive Schreiner was able to reveal her true identity as the book's author in the second edition, published in 1891.

Following the critical acclaim for her book, Schreiner was quickly absorbed into the company of several prominent young socialists including Eleanor Marx, W. E. Gladstone, George Bernard Shaw, and Edward Carpenter.

Due to the increasing chronic state of her asthma Schreiner returned to South Africa in 1889, settling in the clear-aired Karoo at the town of Matjiesfontein. Schreiner's brother, William, was attorney general in Cecil John Rhodes' government (William later became prime minister of the Cape Colony), and through him she developed a friendship with Rhodes. However, Rhodes' imperialistic convictions led to a bitter dispute with Olive Schreiner over the political and social development of South Africa and in 1892 Schreiner and Rhodes broke contact.

On 24 February 1894 Schreiner married Samuel "Cron" Cronwright, a South African ostrich farmer. Cronwright seemed to share her convictions and encouraged her to continue writing. Schreiner retained her maiden name, and Samuel took the joint surname Cronwright-Schreiner. On 30 April 1895 Schreiner gave birth to a daughter who died only a few hours later. As with the death of her younger sister many years before, Schreiner became severely depressed. Her relationship with Cronwright started to deteriorate and they began to spend time apart.

Schreiner's asthma was getting worse and it was decided (by Cronwright) that she should move to Johannesburg - claiming that the increase in altitude (Johannesburg is at approx. 1,763 m) would be good for her health. The Schreiners entered Johannesburg as celebrities, with easy access to public figures including the Boer President Paul Kruger.

The Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) devastated Schreiner: her home was looted, her papers destroyed, and she was interned for a year because of her public support of the Afrikaner cause. When Schreiner was released she set about reconstructing her notes and began writing her feminist credo Women and Labour (published in 1911) – the book became the feminist "bible" of the early twentieth century.

Many years of chronic asthma had resulted in Olive Schreiner developing a heart condition. In 1914 she set out to travel to Italy for medical treatment, but the declaration of war caused her to divert to England. Schreiner remained there throughout the First World War, championing the rights of conscientious objectors and working on a new book which examined pacifism within a developing feminist and socialist moral framework.

In autumn 1920, convinced that her death was imminent, Schreiner returned to South Africa. Within a few months she had died of a heart attack. At her request she was buried with her daughter and dog in a stone tomb on a mountain in the Karoo – she had bought the land at Buffels Hoek, near Cradock, for this purpose. Thousands lined the railway track when her body was taken there for burial.

Olive Schreiner's works include:
The Story of an African Farm as Ralph Iron, 1883
Dreams, 1890
Dream Life and Real Life, 1893
The Political Situation (with S C Cronwright-Schreiner), 1896
Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, 1897
An English South African's View of the Situation, 1899
Women and Labour, 1911
Stories, Dreams and Allegories, 1923
From Man To Man, 1926
Undine, 1928
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