Posted by: zhiv | June 10, 2008

Olive Schreiner, by Ruth First and Ann Scott

It turned out to be pretty easy for me to finally finish this book.  The problem is that it was sitting on the shelf for too long, and now the last two or three chapters, which I read last week, are fairly clear in my head, while the meat of the book is rather vague.  I did the heavy lifting on this book back in February when I was writing up a connection between Schreiner and Virginia Woolf, and I might have started it before that.  At any rate, Schreiner’s life itself is somewhat abbreviated, so that in the part I just read the book moves briskly towards its conclusion.  I think I had just passed through the tougher, reading the details of her life from the onset of the Boer War (called something else now?  see, I don’t even remember that) to WWI, all of it more political and feminist that literary.  It would have been better to have finished the book and written about it a few months ago, just as I wish I had written a post about African Farm even though I read it just before I started the blog, but I’ll leave all that aside.

But at least it’s very timely within the context of my last post, about reading the biographies of woman authors.  Olive Schreiner is in many ways a fantastic test case.  But let me go back towards the beginning.  My blog here needs to be better organized, but I’ve just gone back to read my earlier post, and I might as well link to it:  Can’t say that I’m very happy with that post, which does more than its share of meandering.  At the time “The Story of an African Farm” was fresher in my head, and you do get some sense of the impact it had.  Today, I would leave it at the fact that I heartily recommended the book, and point out its special status as a touchstone for South African literature, a great introductory text to reading Gordimer, for instance.

Olive Schreiner was an extraordinary woman and writer.  She wrote her great book at a very early age, and it’s as if she was possessed by a literary spirit.  She grew up isolated and friendless, sent to foster families and school and separated from her impoverished missionary parents, losing her faith and becoming an ardent freethinker at a young age.  It was a rich late Victorian mixture, very much a singular literary flower blooming in the vast and trackless bush.  Schreiner saved her money and scraped by, while her beauty and vivacity made her life romantic, colorful, and complicated.  While still a 19-year-old, for instance, she was living in a tent at the diamond fields with her brother, and finishing a draft of her novel.  Schreiner finally made it to England some years later, and she was 26 when her book was published and she became a sensation.   She took the occasion to make political connections with socialists and freethinkers who were sympathetic to the progressive and feminist themes of her book.

I’m remembering all of this off the top of my head.  The gist of it is that Schreiner managed a magnificent accomplishment, became a minor celebrity, and she was a passionate and influential figure in an early period of socialism and feminism.  And as much as she had ample charisma and was a strong, original thinker, she simply wasn’t able to exist very comfortably in society and she was never able to fulfill the promise of her early work.  Stuff I’ve been looking at recently, the examples of Richard Yates and F. Scott Fitzgerald, infamously squandering early talent in alcoholism and dissipation (whenever I see the word “dissipation,” I think of FSF and reading about him almost 30 years ago), is very similar, but Schreiner presents a different, and specifically female case.  She was faced with trying to figure out how to live and work and find someone to love, and her commitment to being self-supporting made her personal life more complex.  She ultimately married a rather rugged South African, Samuel Cronright, who published a biography and edition of her letters after her death, and she also lost a baby.  She had periods of happiness and influence, but she was asthmatic and nervous and sickly, and she never came close to building a sustained literary career.  Nevertheless, she seems to have understood the world, the role of women, and the complex political evolution of South Africa in a prescient way.  She was a radical, but in the last chapters of this biography, the authors do a good job of connecting her feminism to labor questions and race relations in South Africa, and it sometimes seems as if Schreiner, with the deep socialist connections she made in England, virtually stood alone as she watched South Africa move in exactly the opposite direction of her own convictions, and her sympathy for the native Africans and understanding of their political role grew and grew over time.

This biography isn’t so extraordinary in its writing, but that’s somewhat deceptive.  In some ways it’s a great work because it combines literary, historical, political, and feminist elements so well.  Part of this is the natural interest of the life of Schreiner herself, who is truly one of a kind, and an important writer in the English literary canon who is completely instinctual and self-taught, creating a colonial and provincial feminist voice all on her own.  The book already takes on added dimension of importance when one remembers what late-70s South Africa was like, as First and Scott were writing it.  This book becomes a truly extraordinary work when one learns about the co-author Ruth First, and the study of First’s life can unfold in a similar fashion to learning about Schreiner.

When I first brought home this book, probably in November, just after reading African Farm, I showed it to my daughter, deep into her South Africa studies, who immediately said “Ruth First?!  She was married to Joe Slovo, they were in law school with Mandela.  She was killed by a letter bomb!”  First was a critical figure in South African politics from the early 50s.  She had already written a number of books and she and her husband were living with their family in exile in London when she teamed up with feminist scholar Ann Scott.  The biography was published in 1980, and two years later First moved to Mozambique, where she was indeed killed by a letter bomb.  Her daughter Shawn Slovo told her version of growing up with her mother, the revolutionary activist, in the film “A World Apart,” directed by Chris Menges. 

There’s some more digging to be done here, and I’d like to watch the movie.  First and Scott aren’t especially present in the text, but you can understand the fascination with Schreiner.  As there’s no mention of the Schreiner biography in brief netbios of First, and as some one who had Barbara Hershey playing her in a movie, she’ll be remembered for her own place in South African history, not for her work on Schreiner.  You just don’t see this type of confluence in literary history, but I’ve found that South Africa and its literature are full of surprises.  The fact that this extraordinary woman was able to write such a solid and insightful biography of Schreiner, bringing her accomplishments and story to light, says a lot in itself.  African Farm is well worth reading, and First and Scott’s biography of Schreiner is a great, valuable book for all sorts of different reasons. 

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