Book review: The World’s Great Question: Olive Schreiner’s South African Letters 1889–1920

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Title: The World’s Great Question: Olive Schreiner’s South African Letters 1889–1920
Edited and Introduced by: Liz Stanley and Andrea Salter
Publisher: Van Riebeeck Society
ISBN: 9780981426457

Olive Schreiner’s Wikipedia entry says that she is “best remembered today for her novel The Story of an African Farm that has been highly acclaimed ever since its first publication in 1883”, but, as the entry goes on to say, in “more recent studies she has also been foregrounded as an apologist for those sidelined by the forces of British Imperialism, such as the Afrikaners, and later other South African groups like Blacks, Jews and Indians”. Wording her claim to our attention more forcefully, the editors of The World’s Great Question say that Schreiner “is one of the most important writers and social commentators South Africa has produced to date” (xii). In her lifetime her works of political commentary, like her fiction, were published internationally and appeared in translations in many languages.

Olive Schreiner (Source:
A page from Olive Schreiner’s letter to Fan Schreiner, 7 June 1920 (Source:

It is as a political and social thinker and visionary that Schreiner emerges most clearly from these letters. “Race” and racism would become for her “the world’s great question” and her ideas seem, over a hundred years later, not only contemporaneous to her time but also prophetic for South Africa and, indeed, for the “world” as the fissures along race and sectarian lines trouble the United States, Europe, the Middle East.

This meticulously edited collection was launched at the Fifth Annual Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival held in July 2014 in Cradock, where the Olive Schreiner House Museum is located. The editors, Liz Stanley and Andrea Salter, both of Edinburgh University, spoke movingly and in detail about their task – an enormous one. As pointed out in the foreword, Schreiner’s poor health forced her to pass much of her life in isolated farms and villages in South Africa, so that letters were her means of communication with her wide circle of friends, acquaintances, political allies and opponents: of the 50 000 to 20 000 she wrote, only about 5 000 are extant. All of these have now been placed on an online website (, while this publication includes over 300 of her key letters. The editors have traced all the remaining letters to their scattered locations and they have remedied some of the harm done by “Cron” Cronwright-Schreiner. Schreiner’s estranged husband burned some of her letters* after her death and cut sections out of others before publishing an edition of her letters in 1924. But he retained the strips he’d cut out and the editors have, painstakingly, matched strips to letters.

The period 1889 to 1920 (Schreiner died in 1920) saw crucial events: the Jameson raid on Kruger’s republic, the violent expansion of De Beers, the Second War of Liberation (Anglo-Boer War, or South African War) and the founding of the Union with its repressive provisions regarding “non-whites”. Schreiner remained passionately concerned with the consequences of all of these and other events that continue to mark Southern Africa’s history. Often she writes to influence and encourage those whom she saw as allies, such as her brother, WP Schreiner, and John X Merriman, both of them strongly opposed to the imperialism of Rhodes and the British government as it affected the Boer republics.

After an introductory chapter, ten chapters contain the letters, which are grouped chronologically and according to theme. For instance, the second of the ten chapters is titled “‘Something in Our Society Has Formed this Matrix’: January 1892 to September 1889”. Writing to Merriman, the Cape liberal, after his powerful speech in 1896 in the Cape parliament urging the revocation of the charter granted the British South African Company founded by Rhodes – a speech that failed – she says,

There are two & only two questions in South Africa, the native [sic] question, & the question – Shall the whole land fall into the hands of a knot of Capitalists ... [These] are in their infancy now [but] will loom right over the land in fifty years time & unless some mighty changes set[s] in, will deluge the land with blood. (63)

More than a century later the massacre at Marikana in August 2012 “loom[s] right over the land”.

In the introduction the editors provide succinct accounts of Schreiner’s life and her ideas. We learn of Schreiner’s missionary family, her friendships, and her trips to England; then, when discussing their subject as “Woman of Ideas”, the editors say, “As a social commentator and theorist, Schreiner was engaged by the immediacy of events and their likely long-term effects.” They add that – and this distinguishes Schreiner from some of her intellectual peers and contemporaries – due to her deep commitment to “an equal and just society”, this incorporated, and recognized, the connections between, her “political commitments to the Boer Republics … in the face of British imperialism, to feminism and enfranchisement, and to “race” and anti-racism” (xxxi, emphasis added).

In addition to the information in the introduction, each of the ten “letter chapters” begins with several pages in which we learn where Schreiner was living, (at times) her living conditions, who her correspondents were and the nature of their connections with Schreiner (the extent of her intellectual and political connections is astonishing), and the historical events that create the context for her current concerns. These chapter-based introductory passages provide threads that bind each group of letters together and they sustain a form of narrative throughout the collection. The result is the addition of clarity and cohesiveness to what might otherwise seem to be fragmented missives. Footnotes add even further information. The overall result is an illuminating embedding of this collection in a wealth of biographical and historical information.

It is fascinating to trace Schreiner’s unfolding critique of Rhodes, whom she at first admired for his energy and intelligence. And impressive is the extent of her grasp of international affairs and her independence of mind. When the Great War broke out she was in London. Writing to a close male friend, Bob Muirhead, in October 1914, she blames the war on “the diplomacy of the last ten years”, especially England’s “mad diplomacy … all covered up by lying and darkness”. She cites the British government’s support of “autocracy” in Russia, its division of Persia into Russian and British spheres of influence in 1907, and, when Afrikaners rebelled at being told to attack “German West Africa”, the report that “our great General de la Ray [sic]”, who opposed the Union’s “attacking German West Africa was shot by accident!” (334–5).

Schreiner was an absolute pacifist, unlike some of her friends, such as Gandhi and Emily Hobhouse, who gave “degrees of assent to the war” (325). To Hermann Kallenbach (a close friend and follower of Gandhi), she wrote,

Thank Mr Ghandi [sic] for the invitation to the meeting but you know I hate war. It is against my religion – whether it is Englishmen travelling thousands of miles to go & kill Indians in India or Indians travelling thousands of miles to kill white men whom they have never seen in Europe. It’s all hateful.

Story of an African Farm had early expressed Schreiner’s convictions that women’s emancipation was central to human progress. She played an influential role in South Africa in pressing for women’s suffrage – for black as well as white women – and had friendships with prominent and like-minded women, including Betty Molteno, Mary Sauer, Jessie Rose Innes and Caroline Murray. Her letters also track connections between white radicals and black political activists, including Gandhi, Sol T Plaatje and Abdullah Abdurahman.

Schreiner had a gift for friendship, with men as well as women: her more personal letters express affection and concern for the well-being of friends and family. Her brother is addressed as “Dear dear old Laddie” or “My old Will”, Mary Sauer as  “My darling Mary”. Betty Molteno is “Dear dear Friend” and is saluted with “Good bye my own darling friend”.

The publishers, the Van Riebeeck Society, have generously supplemented the written text with photographs, a map of “Olive Schreiner’s South Africa”, and “Olive Schreiner’s Family Tree”. They deserve praise and gratitude for producing a volume that provides the reader with a means to appreciate the importance of this remarkable South African.

* The letters destroyed included Schreiner’s letters from Eleanor Marx, who became a close friend during Schreiner’s first visit to London in 1881. Both women were 28 at the time and were like-minded. Rachel Holmes in Eleanor Marx: A Life (2014) quotes several of Schreiner’s letters to and about Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter and an effective socialist activist. The first sentence of Holmes’s biography is “Eleanor Marx changed the world.” For her, as for Schreiner, workers’ rights and women’s rights were part of the same struggle.

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