Olive Schreiner, the ninth of the twelve children of Rebecca Lyndall (1818–1903) and her husband, Gottlob Schreiner (1814–1876), a German-born missionary sent to South Africa in 1837 by the London Missionary Society, was born in Basutoland on 24th March, 1855. Only six of Olive's brothers and sisters survived childhood.
According to her biographer, Joyce Avrech Berkman: "The loss of her one younger sister, Ellie, when Schreiner was nine, shaped her rebellious temperament and unconventional outlook... For much of her adult life bouts of asthma and angina spasms afflicted her. When she was eleven her parents' poverty, worsened by her father's expulsion from his missionary post for private trading to supplement his meagre salary."
Olive and her younger brother, William Schreiner (1857–1919), was sent to live with two older siblings in Cradock in the Eastern Cape Province. Attempts by her father to start his own business ended in failure and he died a broken man in 1876. Olive found work as a governess and then taught at the Kimberley New School. In her free time she began work on a novel about her experiences in South Africa.
When Olive had saved enough money she travelled to Britain with the objective of becoming a doctor. While working at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh Olive heard about the Women's Medical School that had been established by Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake. Olive moved to London where she began attending lectures at the Medical School. Olive also began going to socialist meetings and during this time became friends with leading radicals such as Edward Carpenter, Eleanor Marx and Bruce Glasier.
Schreiner's novel was rejected by several publishers. In 1883 she was introduced to George Meredith who worked as a reader for the publishers, Chapman & Hall. She showed him the novel about life in South Africa. He was very impressed and the Story of an African Farm was published later that year. The novel tells the story of Lyndall, a woman living on an isolated ostrich farm. The book was praised by feminists who approved of the strong heroine who controls her own destiny. Acclaimed by the critics, the book sold well in both Britain and America. W.T. Stead, the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, claimed that Schreiner was "the only woman of genius South Africa has ever produced".
Her biographer, Joyce Avrech Berkman, has argued: "The Story of an African Farm wrestles with her most painful childhood and adolescent experiences. Focused on two primary figures, the novel mingles linear sequences, flashbacks, extended allegories, authorial moralizing, comic and introspective passages, and haunting descriptions of the South African Karoo... Through the poetic spirit of Waldo the novel depicts the terrifying stages of a young person's loss of Christian faith and his search for spiritual and moral direction within a world of natural and human cruelty inseparable from goodness and beauty."
Havelock Ellis read the Story of an African Farm at the beginning of 1884. He wrote in his autobiography, My Life (1940): "What delighted me in The African Farm was, in part, the touch of genius, the freshness of its outlook, the firm splendor of its style, the penetration of its insight into the core of things." Ellis wrote to Olive and she replied on 25th February 1884: "The book was written in an upcountry farm in the Karoo and it gives me great pleasure to think that other hearts find it real."
Phyllis Grosskurth, the author of Havelock Ellis (1980), has argued: "Ellis and Olive were completely devoted to each other. They went to meetings and lectures together; they wandered through art galleries; late at night after the theatre they would stroll along the street, the tall, lean youth and the short, squat girl holding hands and chattering endlessly in a carefree way." They both shared the same views on sexuality, free love, marriage, the emancipation of women, sexual equality and birth control.
Havelock Ellis later wrote in his autobiography, My Life (1940): "She was in some respects the most wonderful woman of her time, as well as its chief woman-artist in language, and that such a woman should be the first woman in the world I was to know by intimate revelation was an overwhelming fact. It might well have disturbed my mental balance, and for a while I was almost intoxicated by the experience." However, he added: "We were not what can be technically, or even ordinarily, called lovers. But the relationship of affectionate friendship which was really established meant more for both of us, and was even more intimate, than is often and relationship between those who technically and ordinarily are lovers."
According to Jeffrey Weeks: "Olive was a forceful and passionate woman, though prone to ill health, and the two writers quickly established a fervent relationship. It is not clear whether it was conventionally consummated. Ellis himself appears not to have been strongly drawn to heterosexual intercourse, and had a lifelong interest in urolagnia, a delight in seeing women urinate."
In March 1885 Havelock Ellis persuaded Olive to join the Fellowship of the New Life, an organisation founded by Thomas Davidson. Other members included Edward Carpenter, Edith Lees, Edith Nesbit, Frank Podmore, Hubert Bland, Edward Pease and Henry Stephens Salt. According to another member, Ramsay MacDonald, the group were influenced by the ideas of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Olive also became friends with Karl Pearson, the Goldsmid Chair of Applied Mathematics and Mechanics at University College. By 1885 she was in love with Pearson and he began to replace Havelock Ellis in the role of confidant. However, he did not feel the same way about her. Olive wrote that while she was desperately in love, he was "too idealistic for anything as earthy as sex." He later married Maria Sharpe and their relationship came to an end.
Another friend during this period was William Gladstone. Her biographer points out: "Throughout the 1880s she met numerous of her prominent admirers, including William Gladstone. After her private midday lunch with the former and future prime minister, she recounted to friends their animated and probing exchange of views. She deemed Gladstone a child of genius, though in later years, according to her husband, she would describe his sly, wary, flashing eyes as evocative of a Bengal tiger."
Olive Schreiner remained close to Havelock Ellis but was upset by his lack of sexual desire. She wrote to Edward Carpenter: "Ellis has a strange reserved spirit. The tragedy of his life is that the outer man gives no expression to the wonderful beautiful soul in him, which now and then flashes out on you when you come near him. In some ways he has the noblest nature of any human being I know."
In 1889 Schreiner returned to South Africa to be with her family. Her brother, William Schreiner, later became prime minister of Cape Colony. Over the next few years she published two collections of short stories, Dreams (1891) and Dream Life and Real Life (1893), but the two novels she was working on at the time, From Man to Man and Undine, were not published until after her death. She also became involved in politics. According to Joyce Avrech Berkman: "By the late 1890s Schreiner's political treatises, polemical fiction, public addresses, and personal advocacy made her South Africa's foremost critic of British imperialism, ethnocentrism, and racism."
In 1894 Schreiner married Samuel Cronwright, a successful cattle breeder. As her biographer points out: "Although Schreiner's marriage initially fulfilled her ideal of marital love as fusing intellectual and political comradeship with emotional and erotic intimacy, difficulties arose. Her asthma necessitated that her husband sell his thriving farm at Krantz Plaats to enable them to move to Kimberley, the first move of a series and wrenching for him." In 1895, her only child, died sixteen hours after being born. Schreiner continued to write and her next book, Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland (1897) was a strong attack on British Imperialism and racism in South Africa. However, as a pacifist, Schreiner was unwilling to give her full support to the armed rising that led to the Boer War in 1899.
Women and Labour was published in 1911. Her chapter, Women and War, offered both biological and cultural reasons for most women's predisposition toward non-violence. Although Schreiner was disappointed with the book, it was immediately acclaimed as an important statement on feminism and had a major influence on a large number of young women. A strong supporter of universal suffrage, Schreiner argued that the vote was "a weapon, by which the weak may be able to defend themselves against the strong, the poor against the weak".
On the outbreak of the First World War Schreiner moved back to Britain. Over the next four years she was active in the peace movement and worked closely with organizations such as the Union of Democratic Control and the Non-Conscription Fellowship. In a speech she gave on 11th March, 1916: "Our Union of Democratic Control has two objects. The one is to draw together into an organised body those English men and women of whom, as in every other country engaged in this war, there are many hundreds of thousands, who have not desired war, and who are determined that when the peace comes it shall be a reality, and not a hotbed for the raising of future wars. We feel that the Governments have made the wars - the peoples themselves must make the peace! We are organizing ourselves, that, when the time comes, we may be able effectively to act. Our second aim is to educate ourselves and others to this end."
Schreiner met Havelock Ellis but it was no longer a romantic relationship.According to Phyllis Grosskurth, the author of Havelock Ellis (1980): "Olive Schreiner... had become grotesquely fat, was obviously seriously ill, and was convinced that she did not have long to live." Sensing that death was imminent she returned to South Africa in August 1920. She died following a heart-attack at her home in Wynberg on 10th December. She was buried without religious ceremony next to her daughter at Buffels Kop, overlooking the Karoo Desert.