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Olive Schreiner, Born Branded and Too Soon


Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner (March 24, 1855 – December 11, 1920) lived with rare courage in a world where women were born into acquiescence. As the daughter of British missionaries to South Africa, she was also born into Empire, the Victorian Era, and racism. At the age of 18, Schreiner spoke with a native black woman who made an indelible impression on her. Decades later, Schreiner wrote,

In language more eloquent and intense than I have ever heard from the lips of any other woman, she painted the condition of the women of her race; the labour of women, the anguish of woman as she grew older, and the limitations of her life closed in about her, her sufferings under the condition of polygamy and subjection.

A passion for the rights and independence of women drove Schreiner; above all, she championed individualism against any of the brutal limitations imposed by society. She rejected the imperialism, wars, and racism that surrounded her; she fought for pacifism and equality even at the risk of her own life.

Schreiner’s political philosophy can be difficult to categorize. Indeed, she was claimed by both socialists and individualists of her day. The quintessential 19th-century libertarian Benjamin Tucker enthusiastically promoted Schreiner, selling her books through his periodical Liberty and in his bookshop; Liberty associate Sarah E. Holmes proudly republished Schreiner’s book of allegories, Three Dreams in a Desert. The political confusion came partly from Schreiner herself. She preferred to express herself through fiction and allegorical writings that were suffused with emotion but thin on hard political detail. Even her non-fiction works favored emotional appeals. Moreover, an appetite for life led her to serially consume the new trends of her time, from vegetarianism to socialism. And so, it is to the constants in her life and to her own autobiographical sketches that readers must turn to understand this unique spirit who burnt so brightly that, upon her death, thousands trekked to stand by the South African railroad tracks down which her body would travel.

Born into Empire and acquiescence

Benjamin Tucker proclaimed Schreiner’s best-known novel, The Story of an African Farm, to be “one of the finest and most artistic works of fiction that has seen the light in many a day … so radical is it, especially in its attitude toward love and marriage, that I have determined to include it in Liberty’s propaganda….” He described the book as a “romance … of the intellectual life” that pictured “the mental struggles” through which three characters passed “in their evolution through orthodoxy to rationalism.”

The semi-autobiographical novel paralleled Schreiner’s own intellectual development.

Schreiner’s mother and father married in 1837, the same year Queen Victoria assumed the British throne. The British Rebecca Lyndall was a well-educated woman from a Dissenting family — a nonconforming religious tradition from which many classical liberals sprang. Described as “brilliant,” Rebecca longed to become a doctor, but no university or hospital would accept a woman for training. Instead, Rebecca sought escape as a missionary with her German husband, Gottlob Schreiner, in exotic South Africa, which was then a British possession.

The feminist scholar Anne McClintock wrote, “From the moment of beaching at the wind-tossed Cape, until she died a rancorous and destitute invalid in a convent, Rebecca’s life was an inclement round of woe.” South African life was the antithesis of Victorian gentility, a social ideal Rebecca had embodied and one which her daughter vigorously denounced in her future works. From earliest awareness, Olive Schreiner realized the secondary status of women. Indeed, she owed her very name to three older brothers who had died before her birth: Oliver, Emile, and Albert. One biographer commented, “Her identity thus took its first shape around a female grief [her mother’s] and the mourning of a lost male identity.”

As missionaries, the Schreiners assumed a well-defined role in the building of Empire. South Africa had been discovered in 1487 by the Portuguese. In 1652, on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, a provisioning station was established at the Cape of Good Hope; the station became Cape Town. Gradually colonists arrived and spread, coming into conflict over land and livestock with indigenous native groups, who were often either enslaved or eliminated.

In 1806, Britain claimed Cape Town. In 1820, it settled thousands of British colonists around the Eastern Cape to consolidate its claim. When expansion brought the British into conflict with the Boers (the original European settlers and their descendants), the latter responded with “The Great Trek” of the 1830s and 1840s. The Boers migrated away and formed their own republics. During that period, Britain encouraged missionaries to entrench British culture into South Africa. Christianity also alleviated a newly evolved “native problem.”

The British had been instrumental in the “Atlantic Trade,” by which black slaves were transported from Africa to the New World colonies. But under intense public pressure, the British Parliament eliminated the trade in 1807. In 1833, slavery itself was abolished within the Empire. British political and economic interests now adopted two basic strategies toward Africa. First, they focused on other “goods,” especially the minerals in which South Africa was so rich. Second, they attempted to “Christianize” and, so, tame the remaining natives.

Into that context, the Schreiners arrived. Olive became the ninth of their twelve children.

Flight from South Africa and childhood

In 1867, owing to her parents’ descent into poverty, Schreiner went to live with a brother who was headmaster at a school, where a formal education supplemented her childhood of avid reading. Although now able to work as a governess, the sexual advances of male employers drove her back to her parents’ home. There she worked on three novels: The Story of an African Farm, Undine, and Man to Man (both of the latter published posthumously). The rigors of writing apparently convinced her to pursue medicine, as her mother had once dreamed. Effectively barred from becoming a doctor, the 26-year-old Schreiner journeyed to Britain in 1881 to learn nursing at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, Scotland. Unfortunately, the health problems that plagued her life prevented her from completing the rigorous training. Instead, she settled in London and returned to writing.

Schreiner fit well into London radical society. A few years earlier, a chance encounter had changed her life. Despite being raised in a religiously devout family — or, perhaps, because of it — she had become deeply skeptical about organized religion. When a stranger on a train lent Schreiner a copy of Herbert Spencer’s First Principles, the book galvanized her.

The 19th-century Spencer was one of the most prominent classical liberals of his day. He was highly critical of religious organizations and doctrine. Because man grasped only the empirical, he argued, man could not know whether God existed or what his nature might be. Accused of atheism, Spencer was actually an agnostic who sought a closer union between religion and science. Schreiner enthusiastically embraced Spencer’s views. To them, she intellectually added an enthusiasm for the naturalist Charles Darwin and the moral and political philosopher John Stuart Mill.

In 1883, The Story of an African Farm was published in Britain and immediately was acclaimed as the first great novel to come out of South Africa and one of the first feminist, or “New Woman,” works. It issued from the prestigious Chapman and Hall, who also published the leading British libertarian of the day, Auberon Herbert. Although no stranger to controversy, the publisher demanded that Schreiner’s novel appear under the pseudonym “Ralph Irons” to overcome bias against women authors. The pseudonym may have been particularly prudent because of the novel’s content, which includes a minor character who is a transvestite.

The Story of an African Farm chronicles the journey of two girls from childhood into adulthood. Em is a traditional 19th-century woman; Lyndall embodies a rebellious “New Woman.” (The main male character, Waldo, also journeys from avid Christianity to explicit atheism.) Lyndall reflects Schreiner: disobedient to authority and a thorough skeptic, she rejects the limitations of 19th-century womanhood. At one point the novel pauses for what has been justly called a “feminist manifesto.” Lyndall presents a lengthy tirade about her frustrating school experiences and the barriers raised against her sex. She declares, “But this one thought stands, never goes — If I might but be one of those born in the future, then perhaps to be born a woman will not be to be born branded.”

“Ralph Irons” stirred debate throughout Europe and America. It would be eight years before Schreiner’s name was publicly revealed in a second edition (1891), but, within the circle of London intellectuals, Schreiner’s authorship was well known. It offered her entry into an elite group: The Fellowship of the New Life.

The Fellowship was founded in 1883 by the Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson, who drew on the Transcendentalism of American libertarians Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to develop what he called Apeirotheism. The core of his philosophy was defined as “a theory of Gods infinite in number.” He meant, in part, that each human being could become divine through moral association with others. In terms of social theory, Apeirotheism led to advocating an equality of rights and a belief in the perfectability of man. Davidson dismissed most utopian experiments of his day because their collectivism consumed individuality. His biographer, James A. Good, reported his view: “You ask for a free man and these Utopias give you an interchangeable part, with a fixed number, in a rule-bound social organism.” Davidson was “indifferent … to socialisms.”

The Fellowship is sometimes inaccurately called “New Fellowship socialism,” perhaps because some members splintered away to form the Fabian society, the most famous socialist organization in British history. They splintered in order to pursue politics. Undoubtedly, Schreiner’s personal association with Fabians contributes to her also being often labeled “a socialist” despite her extremely individualistic views. Her companions included prominent socialist authors Edward Carpenter and George Bernard Shaw, as well as the notorious “sexologist” Havelock Ellis, whom she met through the Progressive Organisation, a free-thought group that explored philosophy and politics. Another luminary included in her circle was the classical liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, then in his second term.

What were Schreiner’s own economic views? Again, she addressed economics through emotional appeals that dwelt on the need for women to be independent. Her most explicit plunge into economic theory was Woman and Labour (1911). Assessing her economic views from this work is problematic, however. The book is a fragment of a more extensive work that was destroyed, and the preface warns against judging her on its contents. The one chapter she expanded to fill most of the book is a polemic against the industrial world and particularly against the type of useless modern woman whom she viewed as a “parasite” usurping the “place of the active labouring woman.” The economic theory of Woman and Labour fits into several political and economic systems, and the book is most sympathetically read as a ringing call for women’s independence through productive labor.

In Woman and Labour Schreiner wrote, “When all the branches of productive labor be considered, the value of the labor of the two halves of humanity will be found so identical and so closely to balance that no superiority can possibly be asserted….” For such statements and for championing female suffrage, the book was widely acclaimed by radical reformers.

A return to South Africa

In 1889, perhaps to alleviate her crippling asthma, Schreiner returned home as a celebrated author. Much in South Africa remained the same; for example, the deep theme of racism toward natives. Much had changed, especially in its relationship to Britain.

In late 1880, the first of two wars erupted between the British and the Boers or “farmers.” Eager to dominate trade around the Cape and to reap the wealth from newly discovered gold and diamond fields, the British attempted to dominate the Transvaal, a key area of South Africa. The fiercely independent Boers rebelled. Using guerrilla tactics, they besieged British installations across the Transvaal, inflicting high casualties while suffering few. In early 1881, the British government under Gladstone agreed to de facto Boer self-government under nominal British oversight.

In 1886, however, the world’s largest gold deposit was discovered near the Boer capital of Pretoria. British business interests and workers poured into the region and began to outnumber the Boers. British expansionists looked not merely to the Transvaal but also to the neighboring Orange Free State. Tension mounted. As Schreiner stepped off the ship, however, the Second Boer War was years in the future. She quickly managed to enrage both sides in the tension: the British by supporting the Boers, and the Boers by defending the natives.

As alienated as Schreiner was from political factions, however, she felt a deep affinity with the land. Becoming active in local affairs, she wrote a series of articles about South African life that became the book Thoughts on South Africa, published posthumously. She began to lecture and write articles against the swelling British jingoism.

Through her brother, then attorney general of the Cape Colony, Schreiner became close friends with the prime minister, Cecil Rhodes. The friendship did not last long. Rhodes disagreed with the independent Transvaal (Boer) government and favored British imperial policies instead. When he supported the “strop bill,” which allowed the flogging of black servants for trivial offenses, Schreiner broke off the friendship.

Convinced that Rhodes was pushing South Africa into war with the Boers, she wrote a scathing anti-war allegory, Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland (1897) that satirized and attacked him. She followed up with a passionate plea against war entitled “An English South African’s View of the Situation.” In newspapers and from podiums, she campaigned for peace even while she supported the Boer cause.

Meanwhile, in campaigning against the “strop bill,” Schrein-er had met a like-minded farmer named Samuel Cronwright, whom she married. As a sign of her independence, Schreiner kept her own name; “Cron” changed his last name to Cronwright-Schreiner. Unhappily, their only child, a daughter, died shortly after birth.

The Second Boer War erupted in 1899, with British troops directly fighting against Boers in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. The bloody upheaval lasted until 1902. This time, in response to guerrilla tactics, the British pursued a “scorched earth” policy that included interning Boer women and children in camps where they suffered terribly from exposure, disease, and hunger. As a pacifist, Schreiner continued to argue vigorously against both the British invasion and the Boer uprising. But it was clear that she was sympathetic to the cause of Boer independence. For that sympathy, Schreiner was detained by the British in miserable circumstances for more than a year. Her house was burned to the ground along with her manuscripts, including the original draft of Woman and Labour.

British “victory” brought Schreiner’s release but her always-fragile health had deteriorated badly. She set about rewriting her nonfiction magnum opus but soon concluded, “Life is short; and I have found that not only shall I never rewrite the book, but I shall not have the health even to fill out and harmonise this little remembrance from it. It is therefore with considerable pain that I give out this fragment.” That fragment was the existing Woman and Labour.

Schreiner poured her remaining health into political causes, especially into advocating equality for women and blacks.

Schreiner poured her remaining health into political causes, especially into advocating equality for women and blacks. She was instrumental in founding the Women’s Enfranchisement League in Cape Town, becoming vice president of that chapter. When other branches excluded black women, however, Schreiner withdrew. A new constitution evolved in the wake of war and she determined to affect it. She spoke from podiums and penned essays such as “Closer Union: A Letter on South African Union and the Principles of Government” (1909) in order to plead for the rights of blacks and women. But it was too soon for such change. Even though she remained South Africa’s most prominent female writer, the frail Schreiner became increasingly discouraged and isolated.

Final years

In 1913, Schreiner returned to England to receive medical treatment for her asthma. Trapped in England by World War I (1914–1918), she immediately turned her energies to anti-war activism, making contact with other prominent pacifists, including Mohandas Gandhi. During her years in exile, she poured herself into organizations such as the Non-Conscription Fellowship and the Union of Democratic Control. In a March 1916 speech delivered at the latter, she declared the main goal of the Union was “to draw together into an organised body those English men and women … who are determined that when the peace comes it shall be a reality, and not a hotbed for the raising of future wars. We feel that the Governments have made the wars — the peoples themselves must make the peace!” Predictably, she began an ambitious book on the evils of war but, again, ill health forced her to publish an abbreviated version.

After the war, Schreiner returned to the Cape where she died in her sleep on December 11, 1920.

She once declared, “What I aspired to be, and was not, comforts me.” Mainstream history remembers Schreiner primarily as the author of The Story of an African Farm, but her truest contribution to liberty may well have been as a political trailblazer, as someone who assiduously aspired. Someone must always be the first to stand up and accept the crippling blows that seem to greet all calls for freedom. In many ways, Schreiner was that person. The first renowned female writer from South Africa, she argued fervidly against racism and discrimination against women. A child of Empire, she risked her safety to openly oppose both imperialism and war. The daughter of missionaries, she questioned institutions sacred to her time. The ideal she pursued most intensely, however, was individualism itself: the right of every person to live in accordance with his own inner truth.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of Future of Freedom. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).