Imperialism, Labour and the New Woman: Olive Schreiner's Social Theory

Liz Stanley
Sociology Press: Durham
1903457041 (pb)
x + 194

Order this book?

Front CoverArt critiques often debate whether it is possible to understand an artwork apart and separate from the artist who created it. It would seem that many scholars who have analysed the works of Olive Schreiner since her death more than 80 years ago have answered clearly that the artist is largely irrelevant in the understanding of their works. Liz Stanley, refreshingly, takes a more holistic approach - looking at Olive Schreiner's life and work from a vantage point above narrow academic disciplines and fashionable analytical models. While others have interpreted and reinterpreted Schreiner's works through Marxist or feminist lenses (First and Scott), or from psychoanalytical positions (Friedmann), few can claim to have tried to understand all of her works and life as one oeuvre. Explaining the enthusiasm she gained by researching Olive's life, Liz Stanley writes that she "developed a stronger interest in the form, as well as the content, of Schreiner's writings and with re-reading these in relation to the contexts of their production" (emphasis added) (p. 10).

The book contains five chapters. The first two combine to provide a detailed account of Schreiner's life. By highlighting the many activities and interests of Schreiner, (for example imperialism, labour, and questions of race and gender) she opens up a wide context in which we are able to understand and place Schreiner's work. By focusing on the entirety of Schreiner's life, she is, unlike other scholars, able to avoid placing Schreiner into a narrow 'feminist' or 'anti-capitalist' pigeon-hole. This allows the reader to more fully appreciate the nuances and changes in Olive's social and political views over the course of her life. "For instance, in relation to Schreiner's views on ethics and war, her thinking moved from emphasising materiality and people's ability to make choices which could radically change the world, to seeing some aspects of social life, particularly regarding aggression, as so deep-seated as to resist volitional change." (p. 135). In this way, Stanley does away with ahistorical arguments, situating Olive's changing opinions within a nineteenth century South Africa that was also experiencing deep intellectual and political changes.

The last two chapters focus on interpretations. Chapter four sees an analysis of previous work by other scholars about Schreiner. With fairness and respect, Liz Stanley questions the simplistic conclusions arrived at by some of those who preceded her: while some have relegated Schreiner to the ranks of a 'damaged genius', others have surmised that she was a social Darwinist, or even a woman hater. While these conclusions may well be valid for some specific points during Schreiner's life, they tend to rely on single works or letters for their evidence. But, as Liz Stanley shows, by taking all of the works and letters together, these crude inferences have difficulty standing up.

The fifth and final chapter allows her to put forward some of Stanley's own analyses of Schreiner in a book concerned mainly with Schreiner's own writing and works done about her. Stanley unites Schreiner's ideas on depersonalisation, capitalism, 'the woman question', 'the man question', imperialism, sex parasitism and the social labour theory of value. Putting down the book at the end of this chapter though, one can't help but think that this whirlwind tour through Olive's life may have benefited from a more lengthy discussion of such complex issues. Even though the book is not short on detail, it only manages to briefly look at many aspects of Olive's life and work. That is to say, while Liz Stanley may have wished to provide the all- embracing account of Schreiner's work, this ambition proved too much in parts, leaving the reader feeling that some issues did not get sufficient attention. Although her analyses of Women and Labour are considered and vast, she dedicates only one page to Olive's essay The Political Situation and only three short pages to her equally important novel Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland. In this sense, Imperialism, Labour and the New Woman reads like an abridged version of a more definitive tome.

Indeed, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of the thousands of letters Schreiner wrote were destroyed after her death, and that some of her manuscripts were posthumously altered by her husband. Liz Stanley does not attempt to second guess what was in these valuable primary sources. Instead, she draws on those sources that have survived, and equally valuable secondary sources found in libraries and collections on three continents. Because of its incredibly thorough research and comprehensive range, Imperialism, Labour and the New Woman will be an invaluable resource for those wishing to study Olive Schreiner, fin-de- siècle South Africa, or the development of feminist, political and social theories.

Julian Robert
Australian National University


Ruth First and Ann Scott (1980) Olive Schreiner: A biography London: Andre Deutch.

Marion Friedmann (1955) Olive Schreiner, A Study in Latent Meanings Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand.