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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Schreiner, Olive (1862-1920)
"Now we have no God. We have had two: the old God that our fathers handed down to us, that we hated, and never liked; the new one that we made for ourselves, that we loved; but now he has flitted away from us, and we see what he was made of -- the shadow of our highest ideal, crowned and throned. Now we have no God."

-- Olive Schreiner


Olive Schreiner was a South African writer. She was born in Wittebergen, South Africa, the ninth child of Gottlob and Rebecca Schreiner. Her German father and English mother, both missionaries in South Africa, provided a household grounded in a strict Calvinist tradition.

Despite this rigid structure, however, Schreiner's upbringing was tumultuous at best. Gottlob Schreiner's failures in mission work as well as a number of businesses prompted chronic financial insecurity, catalyzing the family's disarray, eventual disunion and, significantly, Schreiner's separation from her parents at the age of twelve. After studying at a brother's school in Cradock for three years, Schreiner began working as a governess, an occupation she pursued for eleven years.

As a child, she exhibited her precocity, challenging her parents' deep religious devotion and the family's deep religious roots. Such precocity again surfaced during her tenure as a governess, as she studied the works of a wide array of prominent Victorian intellectuals, wrote a considerable number of her own short stories, and began to develop her own social ideas -- ideas that would eventually brand her as a Victorian revolutionist.

Olive found work as a governess and then taught at the Kimberley New School. In her free time she began work on a novel about her experiences in South Africa. When Olive had saved enough money she travelled to Britain in 1881 with the objective of becoming a doctor. While working at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary Olive heard about the Women's Medical School that had been established by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake. Olive moved to London where she began attending lectures at the Medical School, although she subsequently abandoned her initial aspirations of becoming a medical doctor because of her own poor health.

For the second time, sought publication of her book, The Story of an African Farm. Chapman and Hall's acceptance of the novel in 1883 marked a landmark in Schreiner's career as a novelist and later, as a social activist. The novel's immediate success, which persisted throughout her lifetime, provided her acceptance among a group of revolutionary and, at the time, infamous thinkers.

Thereafter, Schreiner began to associate with a distinguished group of intellectuals, not only exposing herself to England's literary and intellectual élite, but introducing and expounding her own social ideas as well. She began going to socialist meetings and during this time became friends with leading radicals such as Edward Carpenter, Eleanor Marx and Bruce Glasier.

She returned to South Africa in 1889 and met her husband, Samuel Cronwright, three years later. After meeting Cronwright and before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in 1899, Schreiner suffered the loss of her first child (a tragedy that emerges prominently in her later fiction) and published a considerable number of fictional pieces as well as political essays. Schreiner's intellectual role escalated to that of an outspoken, oftentimes revolutionary political leader.

Her political and literary work included tracts opposing Cecil Rhodes' colonialist activities in Africa as well as England's involvement in the Anglo-Boer War. Her political activism in the twentieth century included further polemical writing, her participation in women's suffrage groups, and a stalwart pacifistic stance against the outbreak of World War I.

Schreiner's life and writing provide invaluable exposure to both the latter stages of the colonialist movement in South Africa and one vigilant woman's discourse against late nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century imperialism, war, and oppression of women.

Women and Labour was published in 1911. Although Schreiner was disappointed with the book, it was immediately acclaimed as an important statement on feminism and had a major influence on a large number of young women. A strong supporter of universal suffrage, Schreiner argued that the vote was "a weapon, by which the weak may be able to defend themselves against the strong, the poor against the weak".

On the outbreak of the First World War Schreiner moved back to Britain. Over the next four years she was active in the peace movement and worked closely with organizations such as the Union of Democratic Control and the Non-Conscription Fellowship.

In August 1920 Olive Schreiner returned to South Africa. Four months later she died suddenly on 10th December, 1920. She was buried without religious ceremony next to her daughter at Buffels Kop, overlooking the Karoo Desert.

Her first novel, The Story of an African Farm, was published in 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. It was an immediate success and has become recognised as one of the first feminist novels. Not long after this she met the sexologist Havelock Ellis with whom she had a close friendship up until her death.

In 1891 she published Dreams, a collection of allegorical and visionary writings. The next year she met Samuel Cronwright whom she would later marry in 1894.

Her next novel, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897), was an attack on Cecil Rhodes, whom she had met in 1890.

Her most important political work is Woman and Labour (1911).

 
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