In our third series of ‘Marvellous Matriarchs of Marble Arch’ we focus on Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), a suffragist, author and political activist who campaigned against war, for the professional aspirations of women and supported minority cultures. She is best known for her novel ‘The Story of an African Farm’ (1883). Like all of the influential women in our series, Olive once resided in the Marble Arch area. Whilst that’s a wonderful thing in itself, her accomplishments are far more interesting!
Originally from South Africa to missionary parents, Olive was a true Victorian as she questioned life, religion and societal norms. Upon her travels to begin her role as a governess, Olive read Herbert Spencer’s ‘First Principles’, which rejected religious creeds and doctrine and ultimately had a lasted effect on her. So much so that when the various families Olive worked almost always complained of her renunciation of religion. However, due to financially restraints, Olive continued to governess for years, which ended up as a blessed. During her time acting as governess, particularly for the Fouchés family, Olive gained inspiration for topics of ‘The Story of an African Farm’ and ‘Dream Life and Real Life’, a small collection of stories and metaphors. Unlike many authors, she received much praise for her works during her lifetime!
In 1880, Olive traveled to Southampton, England. It was here that she became a member of various radical discussion groups, including Karl Pearson’s Men and Women’s Club, where she advocated for the importance of woman’s equality and impartiality in gender relationships. Although writting was not her professional aim, Olive began working on on one of her other most noted works during this time, ‘From Man to Man’, published many stories and worked on an introduction to ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ by Mary Wollstonecraft. It was during this time that she lived in the Marble Arch area on Portsea Place – you can see the Blue Plaque there today!
Olive is considered one of the most influential and radical social commentators of her day. In fact, her work ‘Woman and Labour’ (1911) is widely acclaimed as the “bible” of the Women’s Movement during that time. She was also a prolific activist for minority rights penning ‘Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland’ (1897) which criticised racism in South Africa and British imperialism, as well as championed the causes of the Boers. During her life, Olive wrote over 5,000 letters discussing religion, society, feminism, equality and many other topics pertinent of the time and relevant today.