Authors: Olive Schreiner

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

South African novelist

March 24, 1855

Wittebergen Mission Station, Cape Colony (now in South Africa)

December 11, 1920

Cape Town, South Africa


Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner, born at the Wittebergen Mission Station in Cape Province, was the daughter of a Methodist missionary of German descent and English background. She was largely self-educated, for her family lived far from any schools. At the age of fifteen she became a governess for a Boer family living on the edge of the Karoo Desert, and while still in her teens she began working on what was to be her best-known novel, The Story of an African Farm. When it was completed she invested her limited savings in a trip to England to find a publisher. The book appeared in 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron, but the author’s true identity soon became known. In 1894 Schreiner married Samuel Cron Cronwright (who later added Schreiner to his name), a Boer farmer and lawyer, with whom she collaborated in writing The Political Situation. Their one child, a daughter, died in infancy.

Olive Schreiner.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the Boer War Olive Schreiner was strongly pro-Boer (in her second novel, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, she satirized Cecil Rhodes), but during World War I she was heavily involved in pacifist political work. During those years she separated from her husband, lived a peripatetic, boardinghouse life, and was tormented by what she felt was her failure as a writer. Although she wrote much, relatively little was published during her lifetime. After her death her husband, who was her literary executor, oversaw the posthumous publication of several of her books, including two novels, a collection of short fiction, and an edition of her letters.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Story of an African Farm, 1883 Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, 1897 From Man to Man, 1926 Undine, 1928 Diamond Fields: Only a Story of Course, 1974 Short Fiction: Dreams, 1891 Dream Life and Real Life, 1893 Stories, Dream, and Allegories, 1923 Nonfiction: The Political Situation, 1896 (with Samuel Cron Cronwright) An English South African's View of the Situation, 1899 A Letter on the Jew, 1906 Closer Union, 1909 Woman and Labour, 1911 Thoughts on South Africa, 1923 The Letters of Olive Schreiner, 1924 My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884–1920, 1992 (Yaffa Claire Draznin, editor) Bibliography Banerjee, Jacqueline. “Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.” Explicator 48, no. 1 (Fall, 1989). One of several essays that deal specifically with Schreiner’s best-known work. Burdett, Carolyn. Olive Schreiner and the Progress of Feminism: Evolution, Gender, Empire. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Explores two areas: the debates taking place in England during the last two decades of the nineteenth century about the position of women and the volatile events of the 1890s in South Africa, which culminated in war between the British Empire and the Boer republics in 1899. Through a detailed reading of Schreiner’s writings, the book traces the complex relations between gender and empire in a modern world. Cronwright-Schreiner, S. C. The Life of Olive Schreiner. 1924. Reprint. New York: Haskell House, 1973. Biography written by Schreiner’s husband. Gregg, Lyndall Schreiner. Memories of Olive Schreiner. London: W. & R. Chambers, 1957. Excellent source of biographical information. Monsman, Gerald. “Olive Schreiner’s Allegorical Vision.” Victorian Review 18, no. 2 (Winter, 1992). Provides an overview of the allegorical elements Schreiner frequently employed in her works. Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Knopf, 2000. Contains discussion of Schreiner's influence as a female writer. Winkler, Barbra Scott. “Victorian Daughters: The Lives and Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Olive Schreiner.” In Critical Essays on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, edited by Joanne B. Karpinski. New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1992. Schreiner became a favorite subject of feminist literary scholars, many of whom examined the feminist implications of her work. This is one good example.

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