Schreiner rose to international fame as the first major
South African writer of fiction, as an eloquent advocate
of feminism, socialism, pacifism and free thought, as a
trenchant critic of British imperialism and racism.
Perhaps best known for her novel 'The Story of an
African Farm', Schreiner wrote political and social
treatises as well as allegories and short stories.
She was born into a poor family of a Boer father and
English mother, the ninth of 12 children. She lived a
life of incredible hardship: her father was a missionary
of implacable religious zeal and her mother aggressively
attempted to maintain a European sensibility as the
family nomadically wandered from mission to mission
throughout the Transvaal. Schreiner was self-educated;
her early influences included the philosophers Herbert
Spencer and John Stuart Mill, and the naturalist Charles
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
Following the critical acclaim for her book, Schreiner
was quickly absorbed into the company of several
prominent young socialists including Eleanor Marx - the
daughter of Karl 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. She initially became
a passionate acolyte of Cecil Rhodes. However, Rhodes'
imperialistic convictions led to a bitter dispute with
Olive Schreiner. The predatory aspects of Rhodes'
imperialist philosophy - his most famous statement was,
"I prefer land to niggers" - totally disenchanted her.
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
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.
When the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) broke out, the
English burned her house with all her manuscripts
(including the first, long version of 'Women and
Labour'), and sent her to a concentration camp for
several years, because of her public support of the
Afrikaner cause. After the war, she formed the Women's
Enfranchisement League in Cape Town in 1908 and
reconstructed the book that would make her
internationally famous, 'Women and Labour', in 1911.
This book became the bible of the women's emancipation
movement in England and America in the 1910's, 1920's,
and 1930's. Schreiner, however, never really lived to
see the immense influence she would have.
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.
"I wish to have buried with me in the same grave
the bodies of my little daughter and my dog
Nita, the most faithful friend a human being
A few months later
she died quietly in a hotel bedroom in Wynberg, Cape
Town, 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
Dream Life and Real Life, 1893
The Political Situation (with S C Cronwright-Schreiner),
Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, 1897
An English South African's View of the
Women and Labour, 1911
Stories, Dreams and Allegories, 1923
From Man To Man, 1926