Last week I finally found the time to have a look at the Great Writers Inspire podcasts. There’s such a varied selection, from famous writers such as Dickens and Shakespeare, to lesser known authors such as Stephen Duck, J.M. Coetzee, and Olive Schreiner. I was particularly interested in the Schreiner podcast, presented by Professor Elleke Boehmer. Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) was a South African novelist, pioneering feminist, and anti-imperialist polemicist. Despite all of Schreiner’s great contributions to literature and theory, I must confess that I had never heard of her before.
You can view the Schreiner podcast here: http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/olive-schreiner-video
For Boehmer, Schreiner is not ‘great’ in the conventional sense (she did not possess the great literary brain of George Eliot, for example), but she is a great inspiration in many spheres: she influenced other writers (fellow South African J.M. Coetzee, in particular); other critical thinkers and activists (including John A. Hobson and Vladimir Lenin); and general trends in feminism, gender studies, and postcolonialism.
As Boehmer explains, Schreiner’s greatness is to be found in her flaws and failures. Under the pseudonym ‘Ralph Iron’, Schreiner published one critically acclaimed book – The Story of an African Farm (1883) – and was highly praised in London literary circles. However, she failed to publish any more novels; she wrote two draft manuscripts but was never completely satisfied with them, so never sought publication. Schreiner suffered writer’s block and several episodes of illness (both physical and psychosomatic). These struggles produced inspiring, yet never fully formed, treatises on South Africa, racism, imperialism, capitalism, gender, and other material and power relations. Indeed, it is Schreiner’s struggles – her constant revisions and enduring attempts to give a formative shape to world – which make her the embodiment of modern life, of a world in constant flux. She was a Modernist ahead of time. Schreiner died in 1920, two years before one of the most significant years for Modernist literature (1922 saw the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room), but her innovative attempts to change the way the world was perceived make her a truly Modern writer.
Boehmer ends her talk with a brief insight into Schreiner’s biography and work. Schreiner was brought up by missionary parents but went on to denounce religion. She worked as a governess, before moving to the UK to begin (but never complete) medical school. Her choice of reading matter was varied, but she was particularly taken with J. S. Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Finally, Boehmer reads a couple of extracts from The Story of an African Farm, asking us to pay particular attention to the masterful ways in which Schreiner gives aesthetic form to her native South Africa through shifting between macrocosm and microcosm, between the country itself and detailed descriptions of single flowers.