Victorian Literature Olive Schreiner
Melissa Free
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0178


Olive Schreiner (b. 1855–d. 1920) was the first internationally successful South African writer. She was also the author of the first New Woman novel, The Story of an African Farm (1883). Born in the eastern Cape Colony (modern day South Africa), she was the ninth of twelve children. Her father was a German missionary, her mother was English, and the family struggled financially. Though Schreiner received no formal education, she read widely and began writing her first novel (the posthumously published From Man to Man or Perhaps Only, which she never completed) while still in her teens. Before she left South Africa for Britain in 1881, she had completed two novels, Undine (also published posthumously) and The Story of an African Farm. Though Schreiner went to Britain to pursue a medical education, her asthma compelled her to abandon that goal. Instead, she sought and eventually found a publisher for The Story of an African Farm. Published under the pseudonym Ralph Iron, the novel was an immediate success. Her real identity soon became known and Schreiner, now something of a celebrity, stayed in England (with some travel in Europe), mixing with other progressive thinkers, for several more years. She spent the decade before and after the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) in South Africa. During these years, she published allegories, short fiction, and political writing, including Woman and Labour (1911), which historicizes, theorizes, and asserts the social value of women’s productive labor and explodes the separate spheres ideology. She married, had a child (who lived for less than twenty-four hours), and, in 1913, went back to England (without her husband). In 1920, not long after returning (again) to South Africa, Schreiner died of heart disease. Her reputation has endured in South Africa, but in the half century between her death and the rise of Second Wave feminism, she received little attention elsewhere. Feminist and postcolonial scholarship has given her reputation new life, and if she began the turn of the twenty-first century “poised on the cusp of canonicity” (Patricia Murphy, “Dissolving the Boundaries: Temporal Subversion in The Story of an African Farm,” p. 253 n. 3, cited under The Story of an African Farm: Genre and Form), she has since crossed its threshold.

General Overviews

To varying degrees, Barash 1989, Berkman 1989, Burdett 2001, Clayton 1983, McClintock 1995, Monsman 1991, Rive 1972, Showalter 1977, and Stanley 2013 all include biographical information, historical context, and some discussion of Schreiner’s fiction and nonfiction (though Monsman mentions the latter only in passing). Showalter 1977, an influential early piece, Rive 1972, and McClintock 1995 are useful starting points. Snyman 1952 provides concise summaries of the major fiction from a mid-century perspective. Berkman 1989, Burdett 2001, and Monsman 1991 offer more in-depth analysis. For those particularly interested in Schreiner’s heroines, see Barash 1989; her use of form, see Ong 2018; and her social theories, see Stanley 2013. Clayton 1983, which compiles a range of material, is a terrific resource for any Schreiner student or scholar.

  • Barash, Carol L. “Virile Womanhood: Olive Schreiner’s Narratives of a Master Race.” In Speaking of Gender. Edited by Elaine Showalter, 269–281. New York: Routledge, 1989.

    A short, careful summary of the novels and Woman and Labour, whose “New Women are like all of Schreiner’s heroines: they speak passionately for a vision that will somebody come, but they and their creations are imperfect, arrested, dwarfed” (p. 278).

  • Berkman, Joyce Avrech. The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

    Argues that Schreiner challenged Victorian dualistic thinking and offered organic, symbiotic alternatives.

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

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230598973

    Treats all of Schreiner’s major and much of her minor work. Interprets her as “a critic of progress who never abandoned her commitment to it” (p. 7), “a profoundly colonial proto-modernist, [who] unsettl[ed] spaces and temporalities in her bid to [create work] that might make lives better” (p. 9).

  • Clayton, Cherry, ed. Olive Schreiner. Southern African Literature. Johannesburg: McGraw-Hill, 1983.

    A real treat. In addition to a substantial chronology, an introduction, a considerable bibliography, and a number of photos, includes sections titled “Literary Background,” “Contemporaneous Reviews”—with eighteen entries!—“Journals and Letters,” and “Symposium” (criticism by a number of prominent South African scholars). “Literary Background” contains some gems, such as “An Interview with Olive Schreiner” from the Sydney Morning Herald (1900) and “A South African Rebel” (1955), written by Schreiner’s godchild.

  • McClintock, Anne. “Olive Schreiner: The Limits of Colonial Feminism.” In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. By Anne McClintock, 258–295. London: Routledge, 1995.

    Part biography, part colonial history, part summary of Schreiner’s major works, with a focus on gender, labor, and race.

  • Monsman, Gerald. Olive Schreiner’s Fiction: Landscape and Power. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

    The only book-length study entirely devoted to Schreiner’s fiction. Combining “historical and formalist approaches,” Monsman focuses on her ideology and imagery (p. xii). His engagement with other criticism is extremely limited and the book lacks a bibliography.

  • Ong, Jade Munslow. Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: Allegory, Empire and Postcolonial Writing. London: Routledge, 2018.

    Reads Schreiner as a postcolonial and incipiently modernist writer, who uses allegory, formal experimentation, and primitivism to critique imperialism. The first chapter, which sets up Ong’s theoretical approach, is followed by chapters on each of the novels (see also Ong 2017 [cited under Undine) and a concluding chapter on “Olive Schreiner’s Afterlives.”

  • Rive, Richard M. “Olive Schreiner: A Critical Study and a Checklist.” Studies in the Novel 4.2 (1972): 231–251.

    A well-written, accessible, rich summary of Schreiner’s life, “her works of imagination” (and to a lesser extent “her polemical writings”), her writing style and thematic interests, and her influence on South African writers (p. 233). Also includes a one and a half-page chronology of her life and publications. Available online by subscription or for purchase.

  • Showalter, Elaine. “The Feminist Novelists.” In A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. By Elaine Showalter, 189–215. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691221960

    Showalter famously describes Lyndall as “the first wholly serious feminist heroine in the English novel” (p. 199). Eloquently argues that “Schreiner’s fictional world is obsessed with a femaleness grown monstrous in confinement—a world full of Bertha Masons” (p. 197). Draws a parallel between Schreiner’s depiction of “the barren Karoo and the claustrophobic, inner landscape of the new woman” (p. 204). Most of her discussion of Schreiner is on pp. 197–204.

  • Snyman, J. P. L. “Olive Schreiner.” In The South African Novel in English, 1880–1930: A Critical Study. By J. P. L. Snyman, 1–27. U Lig. Potchefstroom, South Africa: University of Potchefstroom for C.H.E., 1952.

    Useful as a mid-century assessment of Schreiner from a South African perspective. Of the book’s seven chapters, only one other is dedicated to a single writer (Gertrude Millin), which is not surprising given Snyman’s statement that The Story of an African Farm is “the most famous book in South African English fiction” (p. 10). Provides summaries of it, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, From Man to Man or Perhaps Only, and Undine. Also includes some limited biography, largely based on Cronwright-Schreiner 1924 and Buchanan-Gould 1948 (both cited under Biographies and Reminiscences).

  • Stanley, Liz. Imperialism, Labour and the New Woman: Olive Schreiner’s Social Theory. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

    Originally published in 2002 by Sociology Press. A detailed examination of Schreiner’s progressive social theories—of gender, politics, race, ethics, and other topics—in her fiction, nonfiction, and personal writing. Traces her influences and the development of her ideas. Appendix includes a briefly annotated list of archival collections.

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