“The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted karoo bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.” Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm.
On departing from the Realm of the Fairies, we took the N10 to Cradock. One winds down from the emerald forests into the dusty Karoo. Cradock is a delightful little Karoo town, in which Olive Schreiner once lived. The Story of an African Farm is one of her most successful novels, and the quote above is my personal favourite. Evocative and descriptive, it creates a visual in your mind of the environment in which the story is set. There is a strong sense of place throughout the book, and that place is the lonely Karoo. It is interesting to note how Schreiner’s life, which was full of paradox, contributed to her views on life and consequently the books she wrote.
Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner (1855-1920) was named after her three older brothers Oliver (1848-1854), Albert (1843-1843) and Emile (1852-1852) – who all died before she was born. Which tells you something about how precarious life was in those days. Her parents, Gottlob Schreiner and Rebecca Lyndall, were a missionary couple and Olive Schreiner was the ninth of twelve children. Born in a mud-floored house at the Wesleyan Missionary Society station at Wittebergen (near Lady Grey) in the Eastern Cape, her childhood was harsh, in all likelihood forcing her to grow up way before her time. Her father was loving and gentle, though unpractical, whereas her mother was intent on teaching her children the same restraint and self-discipline that had been a part of her upbringing. Virtually all of Olive’s initial education came from her mother, who was very well-read. By the age of six, her father was insolvent, and the family lived in abject poverty.
When she was nine years old, Olive’s younger sister, Ellie, only two years old, died. This incident helped make Schreiner a ‘freethinker’ (a person who forms opinions about religion on the basis of reason, independently of tradition, authority, or established belief), rejecting formal religion for what we, today, would call agnosticism. Which is in and of itself not so unusual, except that it was in one so very young – who was raised in a very religious, isolated environment. ‘Freethinkers’ were not that unusual in England at the time, but they were generally at least in their 30s and 40s. Olive was barely an adolescent.
Schreiner went to Cradock in 1867 at the age of twelve, in the wake of the collapse of her parental home after her father became insolvent. When Theophilus (her older brother) was appointed headmaster there, she decided to live with him along with two of her siblings. She also attended his school and received a formal education for the first time. At this stage she was still unhappy and had already rejected the Christianity of her parents as baseless, which was the cause of many arguments with her family.
In 1870, when her brother left Cradock for the diamond fields of Griqualand West, she chose to become a governess at the tender age of fifteen. On the way to her first post at Barkly East, she met Willie Bertram, who shared her views of religion and who lent her a copy of Herbert Spencer’s ‘First Principles’. This book had a profound impact on her. Whilst it rejected religious creeds and doctrine, it also argued for a belief in an Absolute that lay beyond the scope of human knowledge and conception. This belief was founded in the unity of nature and a teleological universe. Both of these concepts were appropriated by Olive in her efforts to create a morality free of organized religion.
Schreiner had always wanted to be a doctor but never had enough money to pay for the training. She subsequently decided to be a nurse – which did not require her to pay anything. In 1880, she had saved enough money for an overseas trip, and applied to the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in Scotland. In 1881 she travelled to Southampton in England. Sadly, her dream of becoming a nurse was never to be, as her ill-health prevented her from completing any form of training or studying. At this time, she was forced to concede that writing would and could be her only work in life.
In 1886, she set out for Continental Europe, travelling between Switzerland, France, and Italy, writing all the while, before returning to England. She eventually chose to return to South Africa, sailing back to Cape Town in 1889. Schreiner eventually returned to the Cradock area some years later, during which time that she started to write ‘The Story of an African Farm’. Her ties with Cradock were strengthened in 1894 when she married Samuel “Cron” Cronwright who, at the time, farmed Krantzplaas. The years ahead held many trips to and from England. By 1913, Schreiner was severely ill, with her asthma aggravated by attacks of angina. She sailed alone to England for treatment but was trapped there by the outbreak of World War I. Her primary driving force at this time was pacifism, and she was in touch with the likes of Gandhi and Emily Hobhouse. During this time, she started a book on war, which was abbreviated and published as The Dawn of Civilisation – the last book she ever wrote. After the war, she returned home to the Cape, dying in her sleep in a boarding house in 1920. She was originally buried in Kimberley, and after the death of her husband, Samuel Cronwright, her body was exhumed, and along with her baby, dog and husband, she was reburied atop Buffelskop mountain, on the farm known as Buffelshoek, near Cradock.
Her intellectually illustrious life cannot be covered in a newsletter of this length. She dealt with racism, feminism and the lot of women. She explored agnosticism, existential independence, individualism, and the elemental nature of life on the colonial frontier. She was an advocate for groups who were excluded from political power for decades. She showed interest in socialism, pacifism, and vegetarianism. Her writing promoted implicit values such as moderation, friendship, and understanding amongst all peoples, and avoiding the pitfalls of political radicalism – which she consciously eschewed. She was known as a lifelong freethinker. However, despite the apparent paradoxes, she adhered to the spirit of the Christian Bible, developing a secular version of the worldview of her missionary parents, with mystical elements. I encourage you to read a little more, explore a little further – Olive Schreiner was an incredible human, with a fascinating set of beliefs!
Olive Schreiner House is located at 9 Cross Street. This house where she lived is one of the oldest dwellings still standing in Cradock. It was bought by A.A. Mutual life and restored as a joint project with the town council. It was donated to National English Literary Museum and was declared a National Monument in 1986. The exhibits explore Schreiner’s life and work, lauding her significance as a writer, a feminist and a champion of human rights.
Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team
OLIVE SCHREINER HOUSE MUSEUM:
Curator: Leon van Wyk
9 Cross Street, Cradock, Eastern Cape
Hours: Weekdays 8.30-13.00 and 14.00-16.30.
Weekends and public holidays by appointment.
ADMISSION IS FREE.
Info correct at time of going to press.
A site about The Story of an African Farm: