Olive Schreiner

On this date in 1855, Olive Schreiner was born in Basutoland (now Lesotho), Africa, the daughter of a German father and an English mother, both working for the London Missionary Society. She was ninth of 12 children. Olive began working at age 13 as a governess, often in primitive conditions. She educated herself, reading scientists and freethinkers, and had saved enough money for passage for England within 10 years.

Her novel, The Story of an African Farm, about two children growing up in the African veldt, was written before she was 20 and published in 1883 under the pen name Ralph Iron. It has been called a “South African Wuthering Heights.” The sections detailing the internal struggle of the character Waldo (whose name was a nod at Ralph Waldo Emerson) poignantly describe the struggles she went through over her loss of faith after being raised in strict Calvinism. The novel, where nonbelief runs as a constant thread, caught the eye of reader George Meredith and was highly acclaimed upon publication and remains in circulation. Schreiner also wrote Dreams (1891), Trooper Peter Halket (1897) and Woman and Labour (1911).

In 1894 she married S.C. Cronwright. In England, she became friends with radicals such as Eleanor Marx and had a long-term correspondence with Havelock Ellis. After returning to Africa, she was at one time subject to martial law and her home was burned down by whites incensed over her position on race. A feminist and suffragist, she was a pacifist during World War I. (D. 1920)

Freedom From Religion Foundation