Harkive: Margaret Harkness and Olive Schreiner

220px-Olive_SchreinerThe sources in this post relate to Harkness’s relationship with Olive Schreiner in the 1880s, and includes an early article by Harkness on Schreiner and her work, published in the Novel Review, as well as an experimental short story published by Harkness in the socialist periodical To-day, dedicated to Schreiner and deliberately mimicking her storytelling style. Further interesting material on the relationship between the two authors is provided by the Olive Schreiner Letters Online, on which the text of letters addressed to and mentioning Harkness are available.

Source: The Novel Review, 2 (1882), p. 112–116.

Note: Although no author appears on the article, the table of contents lists the author of this article as ‘John Law’.

Olive Schreiner

Olive Schreiner’s admirers will have read “Stray Thoughts on South Africa, by a Re-turned South African” with much interest, for South Africa has “shaped all her experiences; it has lain as the background to all her consciousness, it has modified her sensations and emotions.” She is as much a child of South Africa as Mr. Kipling is an Anglo-Indian.

Miss Schreiner was like a caged bird in England, and Europe seemed to her little better than a bandbox. Born in an African mission house, under the warm sun, where her eyes travelled from childhood over magnificent scenery, she could not endure London fogs or enjoy herself as a tourist. Her first book, “The Story of an African Farm,” was written in the wilds of Africa, and after trying in vain to finish another book in Europe she went back to “my old country and my old people.” She was like a tropical bird when here – trying to sing, but beating her wings against the bars of a cage. A few short allegories are all she accomplished in Europe, and none of these are equal to those of her first book. Will she ever paint anything more perfect than the picture of the man who set free the “Single Feather” which fell from heaven?

The person who first perceived the worth of “The Story of an African Farm” was Mr. George Meredith. The book had been read by several publishers before it reached his hands. One publisher had said that he appreciated the work, but dared not publish it unless the author made the heroine, Lyndal, into “a respectable married woman.” Other publishers had raised similar objections. It was Mr. George Meredith (then reader to Messers. Chapman and Hall) who recognised “The Story of an African Farm” as a work of genius, and recommended his firm to introduce Miss Schreiner to the public.

After the book appeared Olive Schreiner became the fashion. She is no respecter of persons, and is just as happy talking to an East-End flower-girl as conversing with Mr. Gladstone, so the homage she received did not affect her character. Whether it was good for her work is another question. There is nothing the public likes so much as a comet, but woe betide the comet that fails to shine with all the light the fickle public demands of it. The public is a mere will-o’-the-wisp playing around that holy of holies, that innermost circle of thought that sits in judgement on what shall live in literature and what shall perish. The public is led by reviewers and interviewers, and these cannot add an inch to an author’s height, or take the twelfth part of a foot from it. Look at Mr. George Meredith. His reputation has come very late, but now he is recognised as the only great novelist in England. He has never been “the fashion.”

Miss Schreiner has genius, accompanied by its curse — restlessness. Shall we say that she is to curb this, and try to write like George Eliot, a woman of no genius but grand talents? Alfieri lived to a ripe old age, and he could only compose when driving at full speed in his carriage.

She did well to leave Europe and return to her own land. However, if people try to shackle her in South Africa – to draw her away from the Ideal to the Practical – she will either fall bruised and crushed, or spread her wings and fly into the wilderness.

“Nothing will satisfy me but God Almighty,” she said one day when travelling through Switzerland. Above her towered snow-clad mountains, icicles hung from trees and rocks, and as far as the eye could reach stretched a pure white wilderness.

“I do not know what she wants; I do not think she knows herself,” remarked a well-known London physician who died last year. “I have been reading her ‘Dreams,’ and I am very puzzled. She is seeking after something – something great; what is it?”

It must be remembered that Miss Schreiner is the coping stone of a very religious family. Her father was a missionary, her brother preaches the Gospel in South Africa, her sister is an Evangelist. She is saturated with the Christian faith, although she has renounced its shibboleths. These things account for her earnestness, for the mission she feels towards her fellow-creatures, and also for the want of humour traceable in her writings. Religious people only too often teach their children that all mirth is of the devil, so if Miss Schreiner ever brings a smile to the lips of her readers it is by accident. She is a moral teacher – a prophetess. Her chief prophecy is that the reign of Love will one day begin on earth, and that men will then live together in amity, making this world a heaven. Certainly she practices her precepts, for no unkind word ever falls from her lips, and love surrounds her like an atmosphere. Her nature is pure as snow, clear as crystal; the words she says come straight from her heart, and she never seems to have an arriere pensee on any subject.

“It is terrible to see so much goodness without religion,” remarked the prioress of a Catholic convent where Miss Schreiner stayed for six months.

The nun appreciated the transparency of Olive Schreiner’s character and the charm of her un-self-conscious goodness, but trembled to see a sensitive, delicate woman wrestling with the problems of existence instead of humbly kissing the crucifix.

The life of a woman of genius is beset with difficulties from the time of her birth to the day when she is buried. A man of genius can cut the delicate threads that gather round him and march proudly on, thanks to his egoism; but a woman’s whole bent is different, and genius only augments the idiosyncrasies of her sex. Genius does not make her less feminine because it enables her to understand both men and women.

“The Woman Question” interested Miss Schreiner more than anything else while she was in Europe. When asked what first drew her attention to the subject, she said:

“I was only ten when I heard my mother argue with a working-man about his vote, and I thought it a shame that my mother should be obliged to make her opinions known through a man who was not even educated.”

But Miss Schreiner’s views on the subject underwent much change before she returned to Africa, and her allegories show what she now thinks about the Woman Question. It is her social creed that every man and every woman should earn his or her own living. She makes her own clothes, and has a pious horror of living upon invested capital. In politics she is an anarchist, looking forward to the day when law shall be put aside like a worn-out garment, and love shall rule over perfect men and perfect women.

Source: To-day: A Monthly Magazine of Scientific Socialism, 52 (1888), p. 83.

The Gospel of Getting On

(To Olive Schreiner)

I saw a mother teaching her little son. Two books lay open on her knee. The one was the Gospel of Christ, the other was the Gospel of Getting On.

She read from the Gospel of Christ the following lesson. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. This is the whole law and the prophets.”

She closed that book and read from the Gospel of Getting On. “Thou shalt get fame, and heap up riches. This is the law of the Nineteenth Century and the Political Economist.”

I saw the boy leave home for school, carrying with him the two gospels. “Be a good boy,” his father said, “and get on.”

“Don’t forget to say your prayers,” whispered his mother, “and get on.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

The boy came home for the holidays, bringing a prize with him. He had got on. And his friend, Lord Tom Noddy, was made much of by his father and mother; for Lord Tom Noddy could by-and-bye help him to get on. Smith and Jones, who had won no prizes, were quite forgotten; although they were poor, and had no homes to go to. But Lord Tom Noddy was introduced to everyone as “such a good friend for our son.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

I saw him at college, getting on. Sometimes he fell asleep in chapel, while a Don read “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; this is the whole law and the prophets.” But out of chapel he carried everything before him; he got on.

One evening I saw him rowing on the Cam. He looked full of hope, young, handsome! And with him was one who could never get on; a little thing, weighted by ignorance, tethered by poverty, with just enough sense to love and worship.

She was singing a song, and this was the chorus.

“Oh talk not to me of a name great in story.

The days of our youth, are the days of our glory.”

The waters rippled the music. The girl’s voice had a sickening sound of pain in it. His face was full of eagerness. He rested on his oars; and I watched the boat – drifting.

*      *          *          *          *          *          *          *

He left college, and entered his father’s business. Every morning he went to the office; and people said the junior partner was sure to get on. He gave donations to charities, money made by the long hours and low wages of men and women who worked on his premises. He read the lessons in Church, the Gospel according to Jesus of Nazareth.

Later on he married.

“My dear” his wife said, “you must be a Member of the Parliament. I will start a new charity, with a Royal Princess as President. A charitable institution helps a man to get on.”

*      *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Then I lost sight of him

But one night I saw him again.

He was standing by a grave near the Cam.

A voice asked, “Who murdered this woman?”

Answer came, “This man.”

“Why did he do it?”

“To get on.”

“Who taught him that doctrine?”

“His mother.”

“Where did she find it?”

“In a spurious gospel.”

“What is it called?”

“Getting On.”

“How old is it?”

“One hundred and fifty years old.”

“Who are its priests?”

“The political Economists.”

The voice said:

“Bring that gospel, and spread it out before me.”

A roll fell from the man’s hand. The pages were covered with black letters. The capitals were written in blood. The stops were curses. There was the trail of a dying crofter’s finger upon it, and blots – the sweat of Irish peasants. Strong men weeping because they had no bread to give their children were drawn upon it, also pale-faced girls, and mothers groaning over their stunted babies.

It lay open on the grave by the Cam.

The voice asked, “are there none left that follow Jesus of Nazarath?”

Answer came, “A few Socialists.”

Then I saw a small group of men and women. They had crowns of thorns on their foreheads; and they pressed the thorns down into their flesh.


“Love thy neighbour as thyself. This is the whole law, and the prophets.”

John Law.


2 comments on “Harkive: Margaret Harkness and Olive Schreiner

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