Schreiner, Olive (Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Schreiner, Olive (Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner)

Schreiner, Olive (Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner) (1855-1920) South African novelist A radical feminist writer, polemist, and pacifist, Olive Schreiner denounced the arrogance of white South African usurpers. The daughter of Gottlob Schreiner, a Wesleyan missionary, she was born one of 12 children in rural Wittebergen, Basutoland, South Africa. She grew up in a background of restrictive Calvinism and received homeschooling from her mother. She fled her father's illusions of righteousness to board with a brother, Theophilus, and to work as a governess. At age 19, she completed Undine, a feminist novel about a rebellious bluestocking that was published posthumously in 1929.

In 1881, Schreiner enrolled in Edinburgh University to study medicine, but asthma forced her to leave. Departure from Africa had enabled the author to view her homeland objectively. After moving to South Kensington, London, in 1882, she sold her autobiographical masterwork, The Story of an African Farm (1883), under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. The book is a settler novel depicting South African colonial life that influenced the themes and motifs of NADINE GORDIMER'S The Conservationist (1974) and the anti-imperial writings of DORIS LESSING. Schreiner's text mocks the attempt of Gregory Rose to attain gentility by naming his colonial farm Rose Manor “in remembrance of the ancestral domain, and the claim of the Roses to noble blood … in their own minds at least” (Schreiner 1888, 203). The illusions of nobility and a family crest characterize the statelessness of settlers who occupy Hottentot territory while theoretically advancing their social status in their mother country.

On her return to South Africa in 1889, Schreiner settled at Winberg outside Cape Town during political upheaval over ethnocentrism, white supremacy, and apartheid. She viewed the British Empire as an unwieldy monster suffocating and poisoning the peoples entangled in its limbs. Her egalitarianism toward Indian residents later won the regard of Mohandas Gandhi, the era's model of pacifist protest against the British raj. Schreiner and her husband, politician Samuel Cronwright, whom she had married in 1894, professed libertarian ideals in The Political Situation in Cape Colony (1895). She continued warring against imperialism with the allegorical fool tale Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897), an expose of child rape, sexual bondage, and flogging as the standard white mistreatment of black Rhodesians. At the root of the title character's dreams lies a sense of entitlement and a belief that all white colonists profit in South Africa. In his description of the despoiling of a black concubine, Halket expresses amazement that the woman would choose a black mate over him: “They've no hearts; they'd rather go back to a black man, however well you've treated them” (Schreiner 1897, 31).

At the onset of the Second Boer War (18991902), Schreiner, like ISAK DINESEN in Kenya during World War I, sharpened her denunciation of colonialism. She abandoned fiction to write The South African Question (1899), a pro-Boer diatribe in which she imagined the British scorched-earth policy as a form of imperial suicide. The treatise allows full range to sarcasm directed at “the greatest empire upon earth, on which the sun never sets” as it “[rises] up in its full majesty of power and glory and [crushes] thirty thousand farmers” (Schreiner 1899, 104). The text charges the empire with the waste of lives and cynicism in replacing their losses with a new influx of unsuspecting settlers and civil servants. At her death from heart disease, Schreiner left unpublished Thoughts on South Africa (1923), which champions multiculturalism and the complex harmony of racial diversity.


Burdett, Carolyn. Olive Schreiner and the Progress of Feminism: Evolution, Gender, Empire. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Schreiner, Olive. The South African Question. Chicago: Charles H. Sergel, 1899.

----- . The Story of an African Farm. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888.

----- . Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1897.