Biographical Overview

Image by Paul Venter/Public Domain
Image by Paul Venter/Public Domain

On March 24, 1855, Olive Emilie Albertina was born the ninth of twelve 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. Gottlob Schreiner’s failures in mission work as well as a number of businesses prompted chronic financial insecurity which led to the family’s eventual disunion and, significantly, Schreiner’s separation from her parents at the age of twelve. After studying at her brother’s school in Cradock for three years, Schreiner began working as a governess, an occupation she pursued for eleven years. As a child, she exhibited her precocity, challenging her parents’ deep religious devotion and the family’s deep religious roots. Her intellect was further developed during her tenure as a governess, as 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 revolutionist. During her eight-year period as a governess, Schreiner saved enough to buy herself passage to England, where she hoped to study medicine.

In 1881 Schreiner arrived in England, abandoned her initial aspirations of becoming a medical doctor because of her own poor health, and, for the second time, 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 Schreiner’s career as a novelist and later as a social activist. The novel’s immediate success, which persisted throughout her lifetime, provided her acceptance among a group of revolutionary and, at the time, infamous thinkers. Thereafter, Schreiner began to associate with a distinguished group of intellectuals, not only exposing herself to England’s literary and intellectual elite, but introducing and expounding her own social ideas as well.

She returned to South Africa in 1889 and met her husband, Samuel Cronwright, three years later. After meeting Cronwright and 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) and published a considerable number of fictional pieces as well as political essays. Schreiner’s intellectual role escalated to that of an outspoken, often revolutionary political leader. Her political and literary work included tracts opposing Cecil Rhodes‘ colonialist activities in Africa as well as England’s involvement in the Anglo-Boer War. Her political activism in the twentieth century included further polemical writing, her participation in women’s suffrage groups, and a stalwart pacifistic stance against the outbreak of World War I.

Undoubtedly, scholarly treatment of Schreiner’s fiction during the last twenty years has undermined her political writings considerably. Quite simply, Schreiner’s fiction lacks the straightforwardness of her political writing and reveals her own ambivalence towards native South Africans. As a result, criticism of her fiction ranges from sympathy to disdain. Whereas critics such as Joyce Avrech Berkman in The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner provide relatively sympathetic frameworks, emphasizing the revolutionary and anti-imperialist nature of Schreiner’s fiction, critics such as Anne McClintock in Imperial Leather underscore Schreiner’s negative representation of natives as indicative of an inherent contradiction, which blemishes the novelist’s work. Regardless of such critical discourse, Schreiner’s life and writing provide invaluable exposure to both the latter stages of the colonialist movement in South Africa and one vigilant woman’s discourse, however ambivalent, against late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century imperialism, war, and oppression of women.

A Chronology of Olive Schreiner

1855 24 March: born at Wittebergen, Basutoland. Christened Olive Emilie Albertina, the ninth child of Gottlob Schreiner and Rebecca Schreiner née Lyndall, missionaries first sponsored in South Africa by the London Missionary Society.

1866 Gottlob Schreiner declared insolvent. Family disperses.

1867 Joins older brother Theo and attends his school at Cradock.

1870 Works for cousin at Lily Hope, Avoca, in first position as a governess.

1871 Meets free-thinking Willie Bertram at Hermon mission station. Reads his copy of Herbert Spencer’s First Principles which confirms her agnosticism. Her asthma attacks begin at around this time. Schreiner announces that she is to be called “Olive,” not “Emilie” any more.

1872 Briefly engaged to Julius Gau, a representative of a Swiss insurance company, whom Schreiner met through the Robinsons’ network of free-thinkers. Joins her older brother Theo and older sister Ettie at the diamond-fields at New Rush (later know as Kimberley). Teaches children of local diggers. Starts Undine and short stories.

1874 Purchases Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays.

1875 Undine nearly completed. Reading John Stuart Mill’s Logic. Teaching at the Fouches at Klein Ganna Hoek farm near Cradock.

1876 Father dies. Based at Ratel Hoek near Tarkastad. Reading Goethe and Montaigne.

1879 Works for the Cawoods at Ganna Hoek. Early version of African Farm complete.

1880 Sends manuscript of African Farm to the Browns in England. Publisher turns it down. Works on suggested revisions.

1881 Travels to England. Enrolls as a nurse at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary but has to give up after several days because of ill-health. Seeks publisher for African Farm.

1883 Chapman and Hall accept African Farm on the recommendation of a reader’s report by the eminent novelist, George Meredith. Published in two volumes in January, the novel proves as immediate success, and a second edition quickly follows. Fifteen editions will appear in Schreiner’s lifetime.

1884 Meets the sexologist Havelock Ellis and forms a very close friendship with him.

1885 Participates in the radical Men and Women’s Club convened by the free-thinking Karl Pearson, to whom Schreiner is strongly drawn. Meets the radical socialist and homosexual emancipationist Edward Carpenter through the Fellowship of the New Life. George Moore, Irish exponent of naturalism in the novel, proposes to her; Schreiner declines him.

1886 Intellectual relationship with Pearson breaks down. Suffers mental and physical collapse. Leaves England for Europe. Still working on From Man to Man. Bryan Donkin, physician to many radical intellectuals, proposes to her; Schreiner declines him.

1887 Seeks publisher for her collection of allegorical and visionary writings.

1889 Meets the “decadent” and “symbolist” poet and critic Arthur Symons. Returns to South Africa in October.

1890 Begins series of periodical essays on South Africa (collected posthumously in 1923). Meets Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town.

1891 Dreams published.

1892 Meets Samuel “Cron” Cronwright, an ostrich farmer. Working on further allegories, including “The Buddhist Priest’s Wife.”

1893 Visits friends and family in England. Dream Life and Real Life published.

1894 Marries Cronwright. He, unusually, takes her name. Asthma attacks severe during summer months, forcing the newly-weds to leave for the better climate of Kimberley.

1895 Baby dies shortly after birth. No less than six miscarriages will follow.

1896 Publishes (with Cronwright-Schreiner) The Political Situation.

1897 Travels to England to publish fictional attack on Rhodes, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland.

1898 Moves to Johannesburg.

1899 Outbreak of second Anglo-Boer War. Publishes her pro-Boer anti-war tract, An English South African’s View of the Situation, causing offense to her brother Will, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.

1900 Prominent in the women’s protest movement in the Cape. Living under martial law in Hanover.

1902 Working on Woman and LabourFrom Man to Man, and several stories, including “Eighteen -Ninety-Nine.”

1903 Her mother, a Roman Catholic convert, dies.

1906 Publishes pamphlet, Letter on the Jew.

1908 Supports South African federation. Letter on women’s suffrage appears in Cape Times.

1909 Publishes Closer Union in London. Supports Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha movement.

1911 Publishes Woman and Labour in London.

1913 Vice-President of Women’s Enfranchisement League at Kalk Bay. Resigns because the League wants only white women to vote. Sails for England.

1914 Schreiner traveling in Germany at the outbreak of the First World War. Goes to London. Begins work on pacifist tract, The Dawn of Civilisation (fragments published posthumously in Stories, Dreams, and Allegories.

1916 Publishes pacifist propaganda in Labour Leader.

1919 Suffering from depression.

1920 Cronwright-Schreiner travels to England after separation of five years. Returns to South Africa. Olive dies of heart failure on 10 December at Wynberg.

1923 Stories, Dreams, and Allegories and Thoughts on South Africa published.

1924 Cronwright-Schreiner edits The Life of Olive Schreiner and The Letters of Olive Schreiner 1870-1920.

1926 From Man to Man published.

1929 Undine published.


Primary Texts

  • Barash, Carol L., ed. An Olive Schreiner Reader. London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1987.
  • Draznin, Yaffa Claire, ed. My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.
  • Krige, Uys, ed. Olive Schreiner: A Selection. New York: Oxford UP, 1968.
  • Schreiner, Olive. A Track to the Water’s Edge. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
  • —. Dream Life and Real Life. London: T. F. Unwin, 1893.
  • —. Dreams. Boston: Little, 1910.
  • —. Letters. 5 vols. Ed. Richard Rive. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
  • —. The Letters of Olive Schreiner. Ed. S. C. Cronwright- Schreiner. Westport: Hyperion Press, 1976.
  • —. From Man to Man. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927.
  • —. So Then There Are Dreams. New York: The Roycroft Shop, 1901.
  • —. Thoughts on South Africa. New York: F. A. Stokes, 1923.
  • —. Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1897.
  • —. Undine. New York: Johnson Reprint Company, 1972.
  • —. Woman and Labor. New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1911.

Secondary Materials

  • Albinski, Nan Bowman. “‘The Law of Justice, of Nature, and of Right: ‘Victorian Feminist Utopias.” Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative. Ed. Libby Falk Jones, et al. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1990.
  • Barash, Carol L. “Virile Womanhood: Olive Schreiner’s Narratives ofa Master Race.” Speaking of Gender. Ed. Elain Showalter. New York: Routledge, 1989.
  • Barsby, Christine. “Olive Schreiner: Towards a Redefinition of Culture.”Pretexts 1.1 (1989): 18-39.
  • Beeton, D. R. Facets of Olive Schreiner. Craighall: Donker, 1987.
  • Berkman, Joyce Avrech. The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989.
  • Bolin, Bill. “Olive Schreiner and the Status Quo.” Unisa English Studies 31.1 (1993): 4-8.
  • Bradford, Helen. “Olive Schreiner’s Hidden Agony: Fact, Fiction and Teenage Abortion.” Journal of South African Studies 21.4 (1995):623-41.
  • Burdett, Carolyn. Olive Schreiner: Hidden Motives. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1995.
  • Clayton, Cherry. “Forms of Dependence and Control in Olive Schreiner’s Fiction.” Olive Schreiner and After. Ed. Malvern vanWyk Smith, et al. Capetown: David Philip, 1983.
  • —. “Olive Schreiner: Life into Fiction.” English in Africa 12.1 (1985): 29-39.
  • —. “Olive Schreiner: Paradoxical Pioneer.” Women and Writing in South Africa: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Cherry Clayton. Marshalltown: Heinemann Southern Africa, 1989.
  • —. “Women Writers and the Law of the Father: Race and Gender in the Fiction of Olive Schreiner, Pauline Smith and Sarah Gertrude Millin.” English Academy Review 7 (1990): 99-117.
  • Coetzee, J. M. “Farm Novel and Plaasroman in South Africa.” English in Africa 13.2 (1986): 1-19.
  • Cronwright-Schreiner, S. C. The Life of Olive Schreiner. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1924.
  • Davenport, Rodney. “Olive Schreiner and South African Politics.”Olive Schreiner and After. Ed. Malvern van Wyk Smith, et al. Capetown: David Philip, 1983.
  • Donaldson, Laura E. “(ex)Changing (wo)Man: Towards a Materialist-Feminist Semiotics. Cultural Critique 11 (1988- 89): 5-23.
  • First, Ruth. Olive Schreiner. New York: Schocken Books, 1980.
  • Gorak, Irene E. “Olive Schreiner’s Colonial Allegory: The Story of an African Farm.” Ariel 23.4 (1992): 53-72.
  • Horton, Susan R. Difficult Women, Artful Lives: Olive Schreiner and Isak Dinesen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995.
  • Jacob, Susan. “Sharers in a Common Hell: The Colonial Text in Schreiner, Conrad, and Lessing.” The Literary Criterion 23.4 (1988): 84-92.
  • Lenta, Margaret. “Racism, Sexism, and Olive Schreiner’s Fiction.”Theoria 70 (1987): 15-30.
  • Lerner, Laurence. “Olive Schreiner and the Feminists.” Olive Schreiner and After. Ed. Malvern van Wyk Smith, et al. Capetown: David Philip, 1983.
  • McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather. New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • McMurry, Andrew. “Figures in a Ground: An Ecofeminist Study of Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.” English Studies in Canada 20.4 (1994): 431-48.
  • Monsman, Gerald. “Olive Schreiner’s Allegorical Vision.” Victorian Review 18.2 (1992): 49-62.
  • —. “Olive Schreiner: Literature and the Politics of Power.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30.4 (1988): 583- 610.
  • —. Olive Schreiner’s Fiction: Landscape and Power. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1991.
  • —. “Writing the Self on the Imperial Frontier: Olive Schreiner and the Stories of Africa.” Bucknell Review 37.1 (1993): 134-55.
  • Paxton, Nancy L. “The Story of an African Farm and the Dynamics of Woman-to-Woman Influences.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 30.4 (1988): 562-82.
  • Pechey, Graham. “The Story of an African Farm: Colonial History and the Discontinuous Text.” Critical Arts 3.1 (1983): 65- 78.
  • Scherzinger, Karen. “The Problem of the Pure Woman: South African Pastorialism and Female Rites of Passage.” Unisa English Studies 29.2 (1991): 29-35.
  • Steele, Murray. “A Humanist Bible: Gender Roles, Sexuality and Race in Olive Schreiner’s From Man to Man.” Gender Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Literature.Ed. Christopher Parker. Hants: Scolar, 1995.
  • Winkler, Barbara Scott. “Victorian Daughters: The Lives and Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Olive Schreiner.” Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Ed. Joanne B. Karpinski. New York: G.R. Hall, 1992.

Author: Daniel Alig, Fall 1996
Last edited: May 2017

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