Olive Schreiner: Charlotte Brontë of South Africa, 19th-Century Celebrity
On Compassion and Dissent in an Outpost of Empire
In a bare room, a woman prods memory with her pen. The shutters are closed against the sun and by night against the voices of the guards under her window. It was “so dark that even the physical act of writing was difficult.” Future readers will know how she has to “crush down indignation” if she is to write.
Constrained under martial law, she means to remake a book that took many years and now has been burnt by troops looting her home in Johannesburg. Report has reached her that the manuscript cannot be salvaged: the first half burnt away; the rest charred—the pages crumbled when touched. For nine months she has put it from her mind, but isolated as she is now in March 1901, regrets for her lost work stir. What memory can retrieve for a short book—she will call it Woman and Labour—can occupy this time of confinement and darkness by night when the law forbids a candle and even to strike a match. A resolve firms to rescue her challenge to authority from the ashes.
Twenty years ago she’d sat alone in another room with miles of veld stretching to the horizon. There too, filled with purpose, her pen had traveled over the page as she finished her novel The Story of an African Farm. She’d carried it to London and, pressing her manuscript under her waterproof, trod from one London publisher to another. Chapman & Hall, who had turned down another of her novels, accepted the African Farm on the advice of their reader, the novelist George Meredith. The publisher of Dickens, Thackeray and Anthony Trollope, they paid this unknown colonial only 18 pounds, in contrast with the hundreds of pounds that George Henry Lewes had secured for each of the Scenes by the unknown George Eliot.
Chapman & Hall’s sole editorial suggestion was that the heroine marry her seducer, otherwise “Smith’s, the railway booksellers, would not put it on their stalls.”
The author refused. And she was right, for political and literary figures like Gladstone, Wilde and Shaw had only praise for the African Farm. Workers liked its care for obscure lives, and women its outrage over subjection. Its moral vision had the appeal of scripture. The uneducated shepherd boy Waldo and the orphan girl Lyndall, whose souls are awake, continue to suffer: Waldo in silence; Lyndall compelled to raise a voice not heard before. This is no counseling angel. She becomes a fearless speaker, defying authority and refusing to marry an unworthy man even though he has fathered her child.
For all its courage, the novel came out under a man’s name, Ralph Iron. As with Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell, and of course George Eliot, a woman publishing in 1883 still had to conceal her gender if she was to secure unbiased reading of her work. The African Farm sold 97,000 copies, followed by the feminist Dreams (1890), which sold almost as many and was widely translated. The pseudonym did not hold for long, however, and the author’s female identity became, if anything, an asset with the rise of the New Woman in the 1890s.
The woman writing in the dark years later, back home in a British-held dorp or hamlet in the northern reaches of the Cape Colony, is a world-wide celebrity. When imperial troops come upon her in this remote place, they telegraph their Commander, Lord Kitchener, “Have got Olive Schreiner here.”
Whatever happened to her was bound to be reported in the British press. He telegraphs back, “Leave the woman alone.”
Native ground was, at first, a mission station, Wittebergen, on the border of Basutoland. Like Emily Brontë, Olive Schreiner was a creature of her terrain and also the daughter of an evangelical preacher who was a stranger in a strange land.
A German, his name Gottlob—lover of God—marked him out for a different course from his shoemaking origins. He trained as a missionary, first in Basel, then with the Church Missionary Society in London. There was obstinacy, arguments, fallings out, and at the age of 22, Gottlob Schreiner joined the London Missionary Society.
Two further moves secured his future: he was naturalized as a British citizen, and in 1837 married an accomplished London girl from the Lyndall family of doctors and clerics. Rebekah Blom Lyndall was too young, at 18, to know what she was taking on in marrying this penniless foreigner with gray-blue eyes, broad shoulders and curls clustering on his forehead, whose angelic singing voice may have suggested more than he could be. A shared religious language elided whatever was lost in translation.
Rebekah’s late father had been the charismatic Reverend Samuel Lyndall, a Nonconformist with Calvinist leanings, who had led a chapel in Old Jewry in the City of London. He was said to be eccentric, with an eye full of fire and given to “strong truths, strongly spoken.” This was a different sort of dissenter from George Eliot’s preacher aunt who spread a spirit of love. The Calvinism left its mark: a fixation on sin, guilt, denial of pleasure and a belief that depravity had to be beaten out of children. Olive Schreiner’s writings speak of this or that “little” child who is subjected to righteous sadism. The father of Samuel Lyndall had flogged him for riding a donkey on a Sunday. This image of her great-grandfather, “cane in hand,” was all Olive knew of him. As a child throbbing with rage, she made up stories about “Poor Uncle James,” her grandfather’s eldest brother, flogged at school and flogged when he came home, so that he ran away to sea, never to be heard of again.
But Samuel Lyndall grew up to be as stern as his father. A child would be marched to the top of the gloomy house in Hoxton to pass the day on bread and water for as little as laughing on Sunday. Yet Samuel softened to his daughter Rebekah, a child of his old age. Seated behind him on the pulpit as he preached, she dared to tickle his long silk stockings. She tucked her uneaten crusts under his plate. He warmed to this child who had his face, with large, dark eyes.
Before he landed in England, Gottlob had seen in a dream the face of a beautiful woman with large, dark eyes. The widow of Samuel Lyndall sometimes invited foreign students to dine, Gottlob amongst them, and there on the wall was a portrait of Samuel. Gottlob was stunned to see the very face in his dream. Rebekah happened to be away that night, and on her return Gottlob was ready to marry her. She was short, with those dark eyes, and dark hair scooped to one side of a cocked head and looped in modish ringlets. She loved reading, music and flower-painting.
For her wedding she wore dove-gray satin and pinned a bride’s customary flowers under her bonnet. When they were signing their names in the vestry of Moorfields Tabernacle, the minister saw fit to tear the wreath out. Flowers were “frivolities,” not for a missionary’s wife.
Rebekah left England with an album full of farewells, and no notion of what awaited her on an African frontier. There, at the age of 20, among bush-covered mountains along the Kat River, she gave birth to her first child. They were far from a doctor. Her ignorant husband, assisting at the birth, sent for an untrained tribal midwife. The experience taught Rebekah never to repeat this situation.
Before Olive was born, the family trundled northward in an ox-wagon, which came to a stop on a treeless plain between stony hills. Why were they stopping? Rebekah asked. The answer was that her husband had taken it into his head to start a mission in the wilderness.
Rebekah wept when she saw this spot, which Gottlob blithely named Basel in memory of his joy in Swiss walks and flowers. The reality of a dry, sandy plain might do for a hermit, but Gottlob had a wife and children. He built them a house of sticks tied together at the top, Olive heard from her older brothers and sisters. The cover was so low it looked like a roof standing on the ground. Naked men danced near by. A lion chose this spot to doze with his head on his paws.
The Schreiners moved on; three children died: Albert soon after birth, Oliver at five, Emile aged two—the last two within six months of each other in 1854. Emile’s death happened while Rebekah was pregnant with her ninth child. She walked up and down, up and down, and when the baby was born on March 24, 1855 she named the new child after her lost ones: Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner. Her three-fold name was freighted with the Schreiners’ grief, and they seem to have distanced her, as though she could not replace her brothers. As she grew older she found it in her to pity her parents.
Her father, to her, was a holy innocent whose “child’s heart” unfitted him for adult existence. He moved from one position to another, switched from employment under the London Missionary Society to the Wesleyan Missionary Society, and traded when the rules of his post forbade it, and then when he lost that post he failed in business. While his wife regretted the absence of learning in his sermons, Olive saw him as an unworldly dreamer (fictionalized as Otto in the African Farm). When it came to converts Gottlob did stress attendance and ritual: baptism, confirmation and Christian marriage. He ticked off these outward markers of faith—the numbers game a missionary had to play.
Apart from his child’s heart, what mattered most to his daughter was Gottlob’s moral courage. When a runaway slave, bleeding and mutilated, turned up, he refused to return her to her master, who came to claim his property, pointed his rifle at Gottlob’s chest and threatened to shoot. Gottlob at length paid for Sarah, the sum eked out with sheep, and she remained with the family.
Discipline lay with Rebekah.
Swinging on the door one fine day, Olive said, “Ag, it’s so nice outside.” The local “Ag,” open-mouthed with the “g” sounded as a fricative far back in the throat, was a forbidden way to say “oh.” Rebekah thought it proper to speak with lips almost closed. (At exactly this time, Dickens has Little Dorrit, in training to be a lady, taught to repeat words that will bring her lips into a rosebud: papa, prunes, prism, potatoes.) For uttering an unmannerly sound—a sign of the girl’s adaptation to a colonial norm—her mother beat Olive with her switch of twigs tied together. This beating the child never forgot. It filled her with hate, extended to God. Ever after, she made up scenes where a child’s innocence meets with thrashing. Abusers in her fictions take out their inadequacy or degradation on their dependents: children, wives and dark-skinned workers.
Olive did not dwell on her mother’s harshness. Instead she thought of her as a “genius” thwarted by marriage. Rebekah might have been an advocate, cleric or doctor, her daughter thought. She observed how keenly her mother read medical books. Olive likened her to a grand piano locked before it’s ever played and used instead as a dining table. Throughout its existence it has a sense of another use it might have had. Emily Dickinson distills such a fate in a single line: “Born— Bridalled— Shrouded— in a Day.” It’s a narrative Olive meant to resist.
As a child, Olive asked a Basuto woman if she believed in God.
She’d heard of the white men’s God, the woman replied, but she did not believe in him.
“Because they say he is good, and if he were good, would he have made woman?” She then poured out her bitterness at her subjection.
Olive watched another tribal woman be beaten by her husband—her legitimate owner, who had bought her with cattle—then silently pick up her baby and, tying it to her bleeding back, return to work. Such women were fatalistic—this was the way the world was.As a child, sympathy came to her as a renegade emotion that could not accommodate a God who determines the undeserved death of innocents.
The immediate catalyst for her early loss of faith was the death of her baby sister Ellie (Helen) in 1864.
Olive and baby Ellie had a special bond, common in big families where a mother’s attention is stretched thin. Olive would look back on this child as proof that perfection did exist. She slept with the body before Ellie was buried. She dedicated her unfinished novel From Man to Man to “MY SISTER LITTLE ELLIE WHO DIED, AGED EIGHTEEN MONTHS, WHEN I WAS NINE YEARS OLD ‘Nor knowest thou what argument / Thy life to thy neighbour’s creed hath lent.”
In “The Child’s Day,” a “prelude” to this novel, a Karoo child of five called Rebekah—an “incarnation” of Olive herself—comes upon the body of a new-born sister (one of twins) in a back room, and finds the baby’s hand cold. Little Rebekah is treated with impatience by a servant who can’t take in the child’s feeling, similar to that of the philosophic child Waldo in The Story of an African Farm, when he awakens to mortality.
Where George Eliot, in her outcast years, had developed a rational kind of sympathy (requiring, she tells us, a hard-won justness towards people like Maggie Tulliver’s repressive aunts or Dorothea Casaubon’s unresponsive husband), Olive Schreiner came to sympathy as a child; she felt spontaneous compassion for victims. In this, she herself bears out the belief, put to the test in Frankenstein and Wüthering Heights, that human nature is wholesome until it is corrupted.
As a child, sympathy came to her as a renegade emotion that could not accommodate a God who determines the undeserved death of innocents. She also deplored Christianity’s lack of concern for animals as sentient creatures. When Olive was losing her faith at the precocious age of 10, she could still take comfort in the non-violent message of the Sermon on the Mount. But her mother was not pleased.
At 12, when her parents could not afford to keep her, she was sent to live in Kruis [Cross] Street, Cradock (a Karoo town in the dry interior of the eastern Cape) with her older brother Theo. The house had a dung floor and a yellow-wood ceiling, and the kitchen, according to rural custom, was painted turquoise to repel flies. An older sister, Ettie (Henrietta), kept house. Physically, Ettie and Olive manifest the difference of their parents: Ettie fair, broad-faced, rather Wagnerian; Olive, five years younger, small and glowingly dark like their mother.
Theo (Theophilus Lyndall Schreiner) was in the mold of the stern Lyndalls, with a face as hard as the stones where he was born—so Olive thought. He saw no obstacle in the path of duty. Olive refused to go to church, to the fury of her uncomprehending brother and sister. Olive stood her ground, as Mary Ann Evans had done in Coventry, and then Olive too relented for the sake of family peace. To pass the time in church, she would look at her hand in the way a child might look at a leaf as something new and strange. She called this “looking at things really,” as a child might, without the interference of “a few preconceived ideas hang[ing] like a veil between the child and the outer world.” Her reading of Shelley would later confirm this for her: “that men of genius are always childlike,” and that “Genius does not invent, it perceives!”
Theo was principal of the government-aided school in Cradock, while Ettie started a school for girls. So Olive may have had some schooling between the ages of 12 and 15. It’s conceivable because it would have cost her parents nothing. She said later that not sixpence was spent on her education—not as a girl, she meant, in contrast to the education of her brothers. Her eldest brother, Fred, was sent to boarding school in England. Her youngest brother, Will, was with her in Cradock but then was sent away to school and eventually to Cambridge University.
Over the next few years Olive was dispatched from one to another of her older siblings. She hardly lived with her parents again. Her earliest surviving letters are to her eldest, married sister, Catherine Findlay, in Fraserburg, a country town towards the western Cape. For the most part, these are carefully untroubled letters, offering affection and asking nothing. A second elder sister, Alice, also in Fraserburg and married to wealthy Mr. Hemming, did have Olive to stay from time to time, but never for long. These two sisters were always pregnant and a frightful number of their children died. Alice gave birth to sixteen, and only four survived childhood. Not surprisingly, Alice was dead by her forties, and Catherine ended her life in an asylum, maddened by grief. These eldest sisters did not offer Olive a home.
In Fraserburg, this girl with black hair down her back was seen pacing up and down the Hemmings’ long stoep. She always looked for a “walking up and down place,” whether as a child of three, pacing the coconut matting of the mission-house passage while she made up stories, or as a young woman of eighteen, her hands clenched behind her back, treading out silent ambitions in that small-town setting. The movement between two points, not restless but measured, forms the intellectual pattern of her life.
The mental isolation of a thinking girl was as extreme in the sleepy provinces of a colony, as it had been for Mary Ann Evans in the English Midlands a generation before. Olive recognized herself in George Eliot’s autobiographical novel: “I love The Mill on the Floss,” she said. During the years when she was moved around and deprived of formal education, she was reading Darwin (The Descent of Man), Mill (Principles of Political Economy) and the life of Jesus (translated from the German by the unnamed Mary Ann Evans), which drew her to Jesus as a “loving human soul” who was “so tender to others.”
In June 1871, when she was staying with an aunt in Basutoland, 50 miles from anywhere, a stranger knocked at the door one rainy winter night and had to be given shelter. It was Willie Bertram, whose father had preceded Gottlob Schreiner at the Wittebergen mission. Bertram lent her Herbert Spencer’s First Principles and Olive lay all night in front of the fire, reading avidly about the idea of evolution.
“I always think that when Christianity burst on the dark Roman world it was what that book was to me,” she said later when she identified this as the book a stranger gives the young boy Waldo in the African Farm. Such encounters are indeed like the biblical meetings of strangers in the wilderness. Her mother had taught her to read, but she craved knowledge.
At 16 Olive joined Theo and Ettie at the diamond fields of New Rush (later Kimberley). This rough spot was her base for the next two years: a mining camp with jostling “digs” and “claims,” racist clashes, drink and disease. One New Year’s Day, with the harsh sun trained on the trampled ground, Olive boasts to be one of a minority not sick in bed. Dysentery raged, but these unsanitary conditions did not deter her. For New Rush was where she began to write. Prostitutes and violence: with such material to hand, she was taking in raw life where, strange though it may seem, it was not threatening for her and her sister Ettie to lose their way at night in the sprawl of dusty tents. Their ladylike appearance and manner sufficed for protection, in the same way that Mary Kingsley’s corsetry and full-skirted Victorian dress kept her safe throughout her travels in West Africa.
Theo meant to find a great big diamond that would change the family fortunes. If it came his way, he told Olive kindly, he would send her to America, to study at a women’s college. Olive decided that she wished to study medicine, a fulfillment of her mother’s unused bent. “It is the great wish of my life,” Olive confided to her eldest sister, “and I hope that it is destined to be realized one of these days, and not like so many of our hopes to come to nothing.” While Cecil John Rhodes, there at the same time, laid hands on enough diamonds to take over the De Beers mining company and kick-start the fortune that would make him one of the richest men in the world, for Olive’s family the dig did come to nothing.
Needing to earn her keep, Olive began to work as a governess. She was still only 16 when she negotiated a salary from the Robinson family in Dordrecht. “They wished me to live with them just as one of the family but I preferred coming to some definite arrangement,” she said. “I think it is always best.” She insisted on 30 pounds a year, a meagre sum in 1871. A century earlier Mary Wollstonecraft had earned 40 pounds a year as a governess in County Cork.
Though the Robinsons were kind enough, she felt useless and longed to leave, “but where to go to I don’t see just at present,” she burst out to her sister Catherine. “I feel so anxious, miserable and distracted just now . . . I am thoroughly sick of this life always having to move on and never knowing where to move on to.” She could not turn to her indigent parents, and neither of her eldest sisters responded to this cry.
From Outsiders. Used with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press. Copyright © 2019 by Lyndall Gordon.
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