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.
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.