Olive Schreiner, Author of The Story of an African Farm

Olive Schreiner, South African author

Olive Schreiner (March 24, 1855 – December 11, 1920) was a South African author and activist best known for her debut novel The Story of an African Farm, first published in 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. It later appeared in 1891, credited to the author’s real name.

The Story of an African Farm dealt with themes like feminism, family life, and Victorian culture. Olive drew from personal experience, having worked as a governess on several South African farms. The book became notable (and controversial) for rejecting traditional values and was an immediate bestseller.

She was also a prolific letter-writer, corresponding with many great minds like Emily Hobhouse. Olive remained involved in many political and social causes of the time, including the right to vote for South African women.

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Olive Schreiner as a young woman
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Early life, youth, and education

Olive Schreiner was born in Wittebergen, Eastern Cape, South Africa. She was one of twelve children born to missionary parents Gottlob and Rebecca Schreiner.

Olive credited the death of her sister, Helen, as her first revelation. She questioned values and doctrines at nine, largely as the result of her sister’s death.

Olive lived with one of her brothers, a headmaster in Cradock, from 1867. After becoming dissatisfied with Cradock, she worked as a governess for several Cape households. This period served as part of the inspiration for The Story of an African Farm.

For most of her life, Olive was disillusioned with traditional Victorian culture. Her critical, anti-establishment views meant she clashed with many employers.

Olive traveled to Southampton, England, to pursue medical studies in 1881. She was unable to continue these studies, partially due to worsening respiratory health. The sudden change led her to pursue being a writer.

Her romances were mostly brief: she refused a proposal from Bryan Donkin, her doctor. Another brief engagement before this period ended for unknown reasons.

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The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner

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The Story of an African Farm (1883)

Olive Schreiner’s first novel has remained her best known. The description from the 2008 reprint from Oxford University Press:

“Lyndall, Schreiner’s articulate young feminist, marks the entry of the controversial New Woman into nineteenth-century fiction. Raised as an orphan amid a makeshift family, she witnesses an intolerable world of colonial exploitation.

Desiring a formal education, she leaves the isolated farm for boarding school in her early teens, only to return four years later from an unhappy relationship.

Unable to meet the demands of her mysterious lover, Lyndall retires to a house in Bloemfontein, where, delirious with exhaustion, she is unknowingly tended by an English farmer disguised as her female nurse. This is the devoted Gregory Rose, Schreiner’s daring embodiment of the sensitive New Man.

cause célèbre when it appeared in London, The Story of an African Farm transformed the shape and course of the late-Victorian novel. From the haunting plains of South Africa’s high Karoo, Schreiner boldly addresses her society’s greatest fears — the loss of faith, the dissolution of marriage, and women’s social and political independence.”

Writing as “Ralph Iron” in the Preface to the first edition, she wrote:

“Human life may be painted according to two methods. There is the stage method. According to that each character is duly marshaled at first, and ticketed; we know with an immutable certainty that at the right crises each one will reappear and act his part, and, when the curtain falls, all will stand before it bowing.

There is a sense of satisfaction in this, and of completeness. But there is another method—the method of the life we all lead. Here nothing can be prophesied. There is a strange coming and going of feet. Men appear, act and re-act upon each other, and pass away. When the crisis comes the man who would fit it does not return.

When the curtain falls no one is ready. When the footlights are brightest they are blown out; and what the name of the play is no one knows. If there sits a spectator who knows, he sits so high that the players in the gaslight cannot hear his breathing.

Life may be painted according to either method; but the methods are different. The canons of criticism that bear upon the one cut cruelly upon the other.”


Return to South Africa & Writings

Olive returned to Southern Africa in 1889. She continued writing about South Africa, becoming involved as an activist for local causes (her posthumous work, Thoughts on South Africa (1923) contains some of the essays from this time).

Her second novel, Dreams, was published in 1890. This collection of short stories deals with dreams from her time in South Africa. Among the stories collected are “The Lost Joy,” “The Hunter,” and “In a Far-Off World.”

In 1891, the second edition of The Story of an African Farm appeared with her real name. Dream Life and Real Life followed in 1893.

Olive corresponded with others, including Emily Hobhouse and Havelock Ellis. More than 5,000 letters between Schreiner and others are collected at Olive Schreiner Letters Online.

Human rights activism was also part of her life’s work. She was conflicted with politician Cecil John Rhodes over laws dictating racially-based punishment under his rule. Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897) was a harsh criticism of Rhodes and the time’s racial policies.

She married Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner in 1894, co-authoring The Political Situation in Cape Colony (1895) with her new husband. Their marriage faced difficulty, including a lawsuit against Cronwright-Schreiner claiming then-£1,000 in libel damages. Of Samuel, she wrote: “He will always be in trouble.” 

Olive continued as a writer and activist despite ill health. She became vice-president of the Women’s Enfranchisement League in the Cape in 1907. The Women’s Enfranchisement Act was only introduced in 1930, allowing women over twenty-one to vote and join office.

Women and Labour (1911) was her next work, apparently published after an earlier manuscript was destroyed during the looting of her home by British soldiers.

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Olive Schreiner, author of The Story of an African Farm; South African author and activist

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Olive Schreiner’s last years and legacy

With her health still declining, she returned to England for treatment in 1913. World War I (starting in 1914) prevented her immediate return to South Africa.

She finally returned to South Africa in 1920 and died from chronic respiratory disease in Wynberg the same year. Her last work, The Dawn of Civilisation, was published after her death.

Olive was originally buried in Kimberley, South Africa. Her gravesite was later moved to Cradock in 1921, when Cronwright-Schreiner returned to Southern Africa.

Her posthumous legacy includes a residence at Rhodes University named in her honor. The Oliver Schreiner Prize has also existed since 1961, given to works of exceptional poetry, prose, or drama.

The Story of an African Farm was adapted to film in 2004, though it was generally not favorably reviewed.

Today, Olive Schreiner is considered one of the most influential South African writers of the 19th century.

Contributed by Alex J. Coyne, a journalist, author and proofreader. He has written for a variety of publications and websites, with a radar calibrated for gothic, gonzo, and the weird. His features, posts, articles and interviews have been published in People MagazineATKV Taalgenoot, LitNet, The Citizen, Funds for Writers, and The South African, among other publications.

More about Olive Schreiner

On this site

Major Works

  • The Story of an African Farm (1883)
  • Dreams (1890)
  • Dream Life and Real Life (1893)
  • The Political Situation in Cape Colony  with Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner (1895)
  • Thoughts on South Africa (1923)

More Information and sources

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