Olive Schreiner
Olive Schreiner; drawing by David Levine

The women’s movement has been reclaiming biography as an account of a single human life that can illuminate its times and teach a moral and political example. The effect is to return to the evangelical roots of biography, to the spirit of, say, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or the Puritan journals which petered out in sanctimonious Victorian lives or the consciously archaic biographies of Scottish nineteenth-century divines.

Lay biography inevitably tended to concentrate on “great men,” on personalities so prominent that their lives were in themselves public history. This has produced recent mighty works—Margery Perham’s life of Lugard, Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky. But this tendency also generated a vast quantity of merely civil and unambitious books, like the innumerable biographies of statesmen, generals, and other public figures written by well-educated politicians or busy academics, books to “fill in” gaps in historical narrative. Of this kind of lay biography even the best work has something essentially secondary about it, of a contribution which must one day be subsumed in some greater general work of historical analysis.

Feminist intellectuals believed that biography was a primary form, that the struggles of a woman, not only to act but to be, revealed her society. The qualifications of power and worldly success for a biography could be pushed aside; it was in the nature of society that women who struggled were not likely to have provided success stories in their public or private lives. But the fervent new historical analysis provided by feminism, enriched by the movement’s use of psychoanalysis, demands that individual and subjective experience should be put back at the very center of the writing of history. It is in this spirit that Ruth First and Ann Scott have achieved this biography of Olive Schreiner, as a key to understanding late Victorian culture but also as a moral and political tract from which their sisters should learn.

“The bulky parcel was sewn up in a piece of coarse cotton cloth to keep its pages together, and then in brown paper…. The manuscript was very indifferently written; many blots, many erasions were on almost every page, and here and there a grease mark as though the tallow candle, by which she probably wrote, had dropped a tear.” In this package from South Africa, still smelling of the woodsmoke of the Karoo back country, was the first version of The Story of an African Farm. It was 1880; Olive Schreiner, governess in a remote Afrikaner farm, was only twenty-five years old. She had written one of the most extraordinary novels of the century. To describe it as a Bildungsroman, the tale of a young girl’s search for truth and independence, is to evade its lonely originality. The Story of an African Farm is an orphan without close relations in literature and defies classification. Olive Schreiner herself never wrote anything else to compare with it in quality, during the remaining forty years of her life. Today she is remembered almost exclusively for African Farm, and First and Scott, though they will convince every reader of this biography that this is unfair, sadly concede in their final sentence that “perhaps she will always be discovered” through that early novel.

African Farm was a work of marvelous precocity. Olive Schreiner was doomed from then on to consider herself a writer of fiction, but the rest of her fiction was never more than distinguished and sometimes just mawkish, and her strongest achievements were in social and political polemic. The novel Undine, a Queer Little Child, written at about the same time as African Farm but published only after her death, was a shrewd but melodramatic work about man’s techniques of degrading woman. From Man to Man, which she hoped would be her major novel, was tinkered with through most of her life but never completed: these biographers report that the manuscript is interesting but indigestible. Dreams, a collection of allegories written in a vague, luxuriant style, was something of a popular success before the war, especially with radically minded women, but, to judge by the extracts here, is hardly readable today. African Farm overshadows everything.

Olive Schreiner was the daughter of a Swabian missionary who worked in the remote districts of Cape Colony. Her upbringing was pious and harsh; a wink in church was a great scandal and her English mother once gave her fifty strokes of the birch for using the Afrikaner exclamation “Agh!” Olive recalled: “The bitter wild fierce agony in my heart was against God and man.” As a very small girl, she was committed to a desperate struggle for personal independence and justification, and to a hatred of injustice which she was able to transfer to the cause of all women and, intermittently, to all oppressed people. It was this gift for externalizing her personal agonies which formed her personality.


She was not yet nine years old when she underwent a sort of conversion experience. Bewildered and miserable, the little girl sat on the veld and watched the sun rise. “And, as I looked at that almost intolerable beauty, a curious feeling came over me. It was not what I thought put into exact words, but I seemed to see a world in which creatures no more hated and crushed [one another], in which the strong helped the weak, and men forgave each other and did not try to crush others but to help. I did not think of it as something to be in a distant future; it was there, about me, and I was in it, a part of it.” The “vision of the veld” stayed with her for the rest of her life, both an assurance of grace (as her parents might have put it) and an imperative to bring to reality this immanent world of justice. Olive Schreiner was very much a late-Victorian with her belief in inevitable progress and the force of will power, and the vision—in itself one of those revelations of unio mystica which are given to a few in all ages—came in retrospect to be a message about cooperation, pacifism, socialism. The meaning she decided to extract from the vision was not mystical but in the end political.

At fifteen, Olive Schreiner took up the first of her posts as a governess in isolated farms in the northeastern Cape. Among the scattered white families of the enormous landscape, the Great Karoo, she was already identified as a powerful, eccentric character. Christian faith she had rejected as a child; now a passing colonial official showed her Spencer’s First Principles and made her a convert to Spencerian freethinking. Olive fascinated and frightened her employers during these seven peripatetic years, and her first friend Erilda Cawood turned on her, accusing Olive of being “God’s enemy” and exploiting the love and trust of the Cawood family. As First and Scott note, there is a sharp contrast between the vulnerable, tormented little Olive recorded in her diaries and letters and “other people’s perception of her as almost uncannily powerful.” All this time, she was writing and revising her novels, corresponding with friends in South Africa and Britain, and preparing her escape into a wider intellectual world. In 1881, Olive Schreiner arrived in Britain for what was to be a stay of eight years.

African Farm was published the following year, an immediate success both of scandal and esteem. Olive Schreiner entered the turbulent, iconoclastic world of the late-Victorian intellectuals. A new heaven and a new earth were eagerly being prepared; early socialism had all the millennial promise of the vision on the veld, offering not only the end of selfish capitalism and imperialism but a total revolution in human relations, including the relations between the sexes. The passionate feminism of her novels was now put to the test. But Olive, well known as she soon became in all these progressive groups, was by nature not a “joiner.” She contributed her ideas and her friendship, but was never committed to any one movement, party, or force.

The same deep-rooted hesitancy afflicted her personal relationships. Two intense and fruitful intimacies, with Havelock Ellis and with Karl Pearson, the dominant figure in the Men and Women’s Club and another early pioneer of sexual revolution, stopped short of physical love. Ellis noted her tendency to masochism, the way in which her sexual drive was obstructed by her vigilant desire to remain “whole,” and recorded that “she feels that she has something of a man in her nature.” But he overlooked the fact that her decision to take up “male pursuits” made her feel all the more a deviant in that male world. First and Scott put emphasis on this: Ellis missed the element of sheer power politics implicit in feminism. It was the part of her which asserted “its individuality and its right to experience” which neither he nor indeed Olive herself could fit into their joint picture of her.

With Havelock Ellis, a full heterosexual relationship was not on offer. But her love for Karl Pearson brought into the open the tangle of Olive’s conflicting desires and inhibitions. He proposed a “free open friendship of man to man” rather than the “danger, perhaps evil” of a man to woman association. Olive welcomed this intellectually, yet seems to have wanted more. She asked: “Is there not always a possibility of the consciousness of sex difference and the desires which spring from it creeping in, and soiling the beautiful free frank friendship? No, not when the friendship is true….” But she went on, in the same letter to Pearson, to say that the best man-woman friendship was one in which the woman feels “that she is to him also sexually perfect.”


Her fear for her independence won, and the relationship with Pearson broke down painfully. First and Scott observe solemnly that Olive Schreiner “typified to the point of neurosis the condition of the Victorian woman seeking a sort of sexual freedom by denying her sexuality.” Her terrible asthma, which harassed her throughout adult life and eventually killed her, may have been a psychosomatic symptom. It’s a pity that the authors can say almost nothing about her experience of sex, before or after her late marriage at the age of thirty-eight, but there seems to be little direct evidence and they prefer not to speculate. (They angrily reject Yvonne Kapp’s suggestion, in her life of Eleanor Marx, that Olive was a lesbian.)

Olive’s difficulties about sex were intellectual as well as emotional. As a “free woman,” she wrote voluminously about sex, or rather about the “eternal and blissful union of two souls” in which a physical element was suggested rather than described. She either invented or co-invented that peculiar but immensely popular notion of “sexual intercourse as a sacrament,” something pure and great “to be partaken of between two souls, not only for the production of children, but sometimes going even further and consecrating the two who partake of it to a life…of the highest good and beauty.” Olive’s block, never overcome, was against admitting that sex could be also for women a pleasure to be enjoyed in itself. The Christian guilt of her childhood was involved here; so was her fear of sensual enslavement at the cost of personal independence. The authors of this book put it tersely: “She confused reproduction and pleasure over and over again.” She was a pre-Freudian, for whom the ego and conscious will were free agents, and physical passion their enemy.

In spite of this, Olive Schreiner became in her own time one of the most influential of all feminist writers, and it’s the main achievement of Ruth First and Ann Scott that they have rescued this work from obscurity. Woman and Labour, published in 1911, was described by Vera Brittain as a “bible for the woman’s movement,” with its proclamation: “We take all labor for our province.” Today, the book’s most interesting perception is its account of the damage done to women’s status by the industrial revolution. Olive Schreiner argued that in rural society, based on domestic production, woman had been equal in labor to man, and she wrote of “sexual companionship and equality in duty and labor” under “the banner of the old, free, monogamous laboring woman, which twenty hundred years ago floated over the forests of Europe.” Now the factory system had robbed her of that traditional role, and childbearing itself, in a more civil society, was no longer as vital as it had been in centuries of war and disease. Instead there had arisen, Schreiner claimed, the “sex parasite”: the economically dependent woman condemned to idleness and to “the passive performance of sex functions only.”

This speaks straight across the years to feminist intellectuals today. Of course, as First and Scott point out, Olive Schreiner’s “sex parasite” was middle class, and she missed the way in which the factory system had not only robbed women of old occupations but converted marriage into a new form of servitude in which the wife must service and replenish the working man between shifts. First and Scott also shake their heads over aspects of her obsession with motherhood; she came close to confirming the Victorian idea that the joy of motherhood for women somehow corresponded to the pleasure of sex for men. But her exaltation of the importance of childbearing and child rearing (in a memorable image, Schreiner presented women as the moral cervix which shaped the emerging character of the human race) gave women a few years later an arsenal of pacifist arguments against the First World War. It was Olive Schreiner who wrote: “No woman says of a human body: ‘It is nothing.”‘

She returned many times to South Africa. She married Samuel Cronwright, “ostrich farmer and freethinker,” in 1894, and before and during the Boer War they worked and agitated together for peace. Ruth First, herself a South African, is perceptive about Olive Schreiner in that crisis of her own country. She fitted in nowhere. She opposed her own British community, its capitalist aspirations and greed, its imperial plot to take over the small Afrikaner republics. She spoke up for the Boers as a naïve but essentially innocent and democratic people, culturally hindered by their primitive language. Not only did this earn her no gratitude from Afrikaner nationalists, who had seen in African Farm no more than a condescending satire on their own people, but it ignored the pitiless racial bigotry of the Boers.

Olive Schreiner’s attitude toward the blacks had been benevolent, but remote. After the war, as it became clear that peace between the two white races was to be founded on a rigorous color bar against the blacks, she became much more concerned. She broke with the local women’s movement because it ignored all but whites, and wrote prescient (but ineffective) warnings. “The capitalists and the retrograde Boers are going to dominate the country,” she lamented, and “our working class is the natives themselves who will have no votes and who, if they strike or move in any way, will be shot down like dogs.”

She died in 1920, and was buried on a hill overlooking the Karoo. Not long before, she had said that she was “only a broken and untried possibility.” Ruth First and Ann Scott sensibly retort: broken, perhaps, but hardly untried. African Farm, as the story of a girl who would follow her own chosen destiny at the cost of loneliness and even death, was a sort of program for Olive Schreiner’s life. “She made important claims for herself,” the biographers comment, “and in her struggles to reach them she savaged herself.” She never reconciled “her needs and her sense of self as a woman with those of her work as a writer.” The woman suffered, and so did the writing. But First and Scott would not, as some psychoanalysts might, write “failure” under this unresolved, unhappy life. These are evangelical biographers, and for them the life of Olive Schreiner is not a defeat but a successful martyrdom.

This Issue

December 18, 1980