English and Drama blog

23 June 2021

Olive Schreiner: Feminism from the Cape Colony

By Jessica Gregory, Curatorial Support Officer for Modern Manuscripts, 1601 – 1950. The British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, explores the history of women’s rights activism and is open now.

Olive Schreiner first visited Britain from the Cape Colony in 1881 with a manuscript of her first novel, Story of an African Farm, tucked in her suitcase. Her novel would mark her out as one of the leading literary feminists of her time. Her tempestuous relationship with writing would mean that she would struggle to produce another finished novel, but she did manage to capture her passionate views on the rights of women in a non-fiction work called, Woman and Labour. The theories and thoughts laid out in both her fiction and non-fiction texts outline both a pioneering and contradictory vision of women’s place in the world.


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Portrait of Olive Schreiner Schreiner, Olive, The Story of an African Farm ... New edition, etc, ([London; Nimeguen [printed]: Hutchinson & Co, 1896), British Library: 012621.g.39.

Olive Schreiner had travelled to Edinburgh with the aim of training as a doctor, before then swapping to train as a nurse at the Royal Infirmary. The Royal Infirmary had been the site of a recent infamous battle for access to medical education by seven pioneering female reformists. Schreiner, at the age of twenty-six, had already abandoned an engagement and a job as a governess in search of greater independence. In seeking a medical career, Schreiner was already engaging with one of the prominent feminist battles of the time: the provision of higher education to women. However, her health would restrict her from her chosen career and instead she would chose writing as the means by which she would seek to critique the position of women in the world.

The Story of an African Farm was published in England in 1883 under her pseudonym, Ralph Irons. Through the publication, Schreiner became an instant literary success. She would come to be acquainted with many of England’s famous cultural figures including Oscar Wilde, Havelock Ellis, Eleanor Marx and Edward Carpenter. She would also join various groups such as the Progressive Organisation and the Men and Women’s Club where she engaged in debates on issues such as gender relations, free love, marriage and sexuality.


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Olive Schreiner’s entry in Constance Wilde’s Guestbook, Add MS 81755, f.17.

The Story of an African Farm was based on the lives of three children growing up on a farm in the Karoo desert of the Cape Colony. It explored themes of love, marriage, race, empire and the role of women. Schreiner’s character Lyndall, is commonly considered as a pre-emptive example of the archetypal ‘new woman’ – a free-thinking, independent woman who challenged the traditional role of women in relations and in society. In fact, Lyndall’s refusal to marry the father of her child was pointed out by her publisher, Chapman & Hall, as perhaps a step too far and they suggested that she edit the storyline out (which of course, she didn’t).

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Title Page of 1896 edition. Schreiner, Olive, The Story of an African Farm ... New edition, etc, ([London; Nimeguen [printed]: Hutchinson & Co, 1896), British Library: 012621.g.39.

African Farm, with its contrasting progressive and conservative protagonists, its multiple narrative modes, as well as its conflict between the local setting of the rural homestead against the globalist, imperialist empire that overhangs the narrative, mirrors the contradictions of the era - one in which the protagonists are only present because of the whims and desires of empire. The bubble-like remoteness of the farm cannot escape the encroachment of world politics. Here, the role of women is explored through the contrasting characters of Em and Lyndall; Em encapsulating the traditional Victorian ideal of womanhood, whilst Lyndall represents an alternative as a feminist heroine. he Karoo, seemingly quiet and static is actually a site of imperialist contention. There is passing reference to the Boer War, which rages beyond the Colony. The characters also farm ostriches reflecting their part in a growing colonial market. This is because the British had recently enshrined in law that the birds couldn’t be hunted, thereby denying the local people of their centuries long tradition of hunting ostrich for food (Ostrich feathers were one the colony’s biggest exports, providing British Victorian women with hat decoration and Victorian funerals with black feathered horses). As well as this, the book hints at those excluded entirely, those who were resident on the African long farm before the white setters took over: peoples denied voice and referenced only in the traces they left behind on the landscape. The apparent localised focus of the plot is actually the means by which Schreiner explores wider issues; here in the Karoo the personal is political.

Just what political outlook Schreiner was hoping to convey was lost on some of her Victorian readership. Lyndall’s fate was ultimately a tragic one, and her death outside of the farm and out of wedlock was easily confused with the popular moralistic tales that populated the Victorian literary scene at the time. In fact, Prime Minister, William Gladstone seems to have picked out some quotes he found favourable at the time, isolating stirring passages and not quite realising that Olive’s sympathies lay with the born-again atheist, Waldo, and the doomed, but free-thinking, feminist, Lyndall.

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Gladstone Papers, Add MS 44767, f.140.

Schreiner’s focus on her homeland drove most of her creative output. The South African colonies in the late 19th century were subject to on-going campaigns by the British, who sought to consolidate their control of territories to secure the local gold and diamond reserves. These efforts to expand the British territories were the background of Schreiner’s life in South Africa. Schreiner, who was born in the British Cape Colony to German and English parents would have been considered a British colonial subject, but her works explore the complications of identity in the Cape, among a population of disparate cultures, communities and ethnicities.

Schreiner had been hopeful that Cecil Rhodes would be a good Prime Minister to unite the people of the Cape. She wrote to Lady Emilia Dilke - a woman who shared her concern for women’s rights in the labour market – articulating her admiration.


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Letter from Olive Schreiner to Emilia Dilke, 1891. Dilke Papers, Add MS 43908, f.190.

However, it wasn’t long before she changed her mind on Rhodes and became horrified with his actions. She would satirise the actions and crimes of Rhodes and his British South African Company in her novella, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897). It was through a mutual objection to Rhodes that she met her future husband, Samuel Cronwright. He would take her surname in a gesture that reflected their shared feminist concerns.

During the 2nd Boer War, she befriended Emily Hobhouse, executive of the Women’s Industrial Council. Hobhouse had objected to the British actions in the war. Schreiner would correspond with Hobhouse and take part in humanitarian relief efforts. Schreiner would go on to explore the questions of South African identity through a non-fiction title called, Thoughts on South Africa. In this text, she examines the wide-ranging political conflicts present in the South African colonies. Schreiner sympathised with the Boer cause and deplored the behaviour of the British during the war. She had sympathy for the Afrikaans women who became refugees due to the British ‘slash and burn’ military tactics.

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The Karoo, the setting of Schreiner’s novel was a site of important imperial interest in the 1880s, the discovery of diamond fields drove colonial expansion and resulted in conflicts between the British and the Afrikaner and indigenous populations. Photo Jessica Gregory.

Though fervently anti-imperialistic, her opinions to the rights of black women were more contradictory. Schreiner’s writing often cited the unfair treatment of the black communities of the colonies in Southern Africa. She writes in Woman and Labour (1911) that no account of gender oppression could avoid being a critical account of race and racial oppression, whilst also recognising the pattern of white women silencing black women. Indeed, she was concerned enough about such inequalities that she resigned her presidency of the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League on its racially exclusive focus. When the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, she recognised it has the total and long-term disenfranchisement of the black communities. However, as much as Schreiner sympathises with these communities, her black characters read very much as caricatures. In her vision of South African society she included the black communities as members of society who would have the right to citizenship and land, but this vision still supposed that society would be directed by the newly unified Boer and English South African peoples. Her thoughts on race and equality rarely espouse true autonomy and are not yet free from the enduring Social Darwinist ideas prevalent at the time. As conflicting as these thoughts may be, Schreiner stood out in her ability to recognise the limits of her own perception. In a letter to Edward Carpenter, she mentions reading W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Schreiner points out that she and others had projected their own thoughts and feelings onto black people in books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and her own, Trooper Peter Halket, but it was different to read the realities described by someone who lived day to day with persistent racial oppression and humiliation.

Schreiner’s wide-ranging concerns, from the fate of the Boer women refugees, the suffrage of black South Africans and the right of women’s autonomy in work and marriage, marked her out as a first wave feminist whose ideology reached beyond the boundaries of the feminist thought of her age. As a colonial subject who witnessed the struggles over the land, resources, culture and identity that raged in her birthplace, she recognised that self-realisation was inhibited by multiple forces. Her attempts to criticise the forces of imperialism, capitalism and racism are essential to her understanding of feminism and women’s rights. Schreiner’s work turns Victorian idealism back on itself; centering the Victorian novel on colonial subjects, the recently re-coloured parts of the world map and the sites of contention that were hidden from the everyday lives of women in the ‘motherland’. Olive Schreiner would expand the remit of first wave feminism by countering the quest for women’s inclusion into the system with a critique of the system itself. 


Further Reading:

Add MS 43908, Dilke Papers

Add MS 70571 - Add MS 70572, Havelock Ellis Papers

 Irons, Ralph (Schreiner, Olive). Story of an African Farm, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1883)

Schreiner, Olive. Woman and Labour, (London: Unwin, 1911)

Olive Schreiner Letters Online: https://www.oliveschreiner.org/