Olive Schreiner

“We are a race of women that of old knew no fear and feared no death, and lived great lives and hoped great hopes; and if today some of us have fallen on evil and degenerate times, there moves in us yet the throb of the old blood.” Olive Schreiner

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Olive Schreiner

Most people, when they think of Olive Schreiner, remember her classic novel The Story of an African Farm. (Originally published in 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron). I was scratching through my Long Drawer and came across the quotation cited above. According to my notes I originally found the quote in Mary Daly’s Pure Lust.

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Olive Schreiner was born in 1855, the twelfth child of missionary parents, with more children to follow. Olive Schreiner’s mother appears to have abused her children, thrashing them for the smallest misdemenour. One such sin that earned five-year-old Olive fifty lashes was hanging on the door handle and saying “Ach!” a Dutch word and speaking Dutch was forbidden in the Schreiner household. It seems the injustice of the many vicious beatings was the main reason Olive, at as an eight year old, rejected the religion of her parents and refused to go to church. Nevertheless, she inherited her mother’s intellect, her ethical fervour and her longing for the infinite. Perhaps, in the shocking abuse of her childhood, Olive subliminally received the secret, ambiguous knowledge of the power of women?

When Olive was nine, her beloved baby sister, Ellie, died. This was seen as punishment for Olive repudiating her parents’ faith. She was devastated and cradled Ellie’s tiny corpse in her arms all day and into the night. After Ellie was buried, she stayed near the grave and talked passionately into the tiny mound of earth. In later years, Schreiner said that the death of her baby sister was the most important event of her childhood: it was to Ellie that she owed her lifelong love for women, her mystic faith in the unity of the cosmos, her pacifism, and her desire to be a doctor (Letters, 29 October 1892).

Her rebellion against Victorian and parental mores saw her become a feminist, a best-selling writer and intellectual, philosopher and a celebrity of her time.

The first time I read anything by Olive Schreiner was in an anthology of South African stories Veld Trails and Pavements given to me by a friend of the family. I was a teenager and didn’t have much understanding. I can’t remember Olive Schreiner’s stories very clearly but I do remember that they haunted me for a long time and I had to return to it again and again. I didn’t know you could write sad stories that did not have a happy ending. I didn’t know you could fit an enormous amount of emotion into a one or two page story. I don’t have the book anymore although I can see it in my mind’s eye and I found this image on the Internet. I don’t remember any of the other stories in the anthology, not even the H. C. Bosman.

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I have borrowed quite considerably from Anne McClintock’s paper Olive (Emilie Albertina) Schreiner for this blog post. The original paper can be accessed here.

Reference: *Anne McClintock. “Olive (Emilie Albertina) Schreiner.” British Writers. Ed. George Stade.: Supplement 2: Kingsley Amis to J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992. Literature Resource Center. Web. 4 May 2010.

*Anne McClintock was born in Harare in 1954. She is a writer, feminist scholar and public intellectual who has published widely on issues of sexuality, race, imperialism, and nationalism; popular and visual culture, photography, advertising and cultural theory.

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Olive Schreiner