Olive Schreiner is chiefly known to students of modern fiction as the author of The Story of an African Farm. That extraordinary novel, her first publication, appeared in 1883 when Schreiner was not yet thirty. She died in 1920 without having published another full-length novel. Joyce Berkman's intellectual and critical biography shows us that the last forty years of Schreiner's life, although they may not have secured her position in the pantheon of modern novelists, were anything but anti-climactic. Berkman presents a sympathetic, detailed, and acute account of Schreiner's unremitting and productive effort to live seriously and significantly as what we would now call a feminist theorist: a woman who took responsibility both for the meaning of her own life and for the interpretation and future of her world.
Schreiner's fiction (which included two novels published posthumously) was simply part of the work of an influential intellectual who wrote and spoke about women's rights, sex, gender, race, religion, science, and politics. She was interned during the Anglo-Boer war for pro-Boer agitation, an episode in her general campaign against British imperialism; she agitated and wrote prophetically against the constitution of the Union of South Africa and against the dispossession and disenfranchisement of South African blacks which it encouraged. In chapters on Schreiner as religious thinker, as social theorist and condemner of Social Darwinism, as anti-imperialist and anti-racist writer on politics, as acute critic of prevailing [End Page 653] sex-gender relations, as ethical socialist, as pacifist, and finally as writer with an "aesthetic of literary miscegenation," Berkman does justice to Schreiner's multivalent activity, uniting it more or less under the metaphor of "the healing imagination" and linking it thereby to Schreiner's desire as a young woman to become a physician, a desire frustrated by circumstances, sexism, and her own poor health.
Berkman writes explicitly as a feminist historian and implicitly as a social activist on the left. Part of her aim is to rectify earlier accounts of Schreiner by seeing her whole (that is, by concentrating neither on her political work and theoretical writings at the expense of her fiction, nor vice versa) and by seeing her in the context of her time. This second aspiration, which Berkman realizes convincingly (so that a reader gets a thorough and engaging account of the flux of late-Victorian and Edwardian progressive thought on issues close to Schreiner), is particularly important given that Schreiner was a pioneering writer on topics which are matters of intense debate now: the sex-gender system and possible practical or utopian alternatives to it, race in the context of South African politics, the proper relation between feminist progressives, and social violence. Schreiner's stands on some of these issues have, rather anachronistically, been felt to be disappointing by late twentieth-century writers, especially radical white South Africans: her optimism about meliorist solutions, and her occasional maternalist condescension toward Africans, come in for criticism. She is not, or is not consistently, radical enough to meet the expectations of post-Sharpeville white South African intellectuals, who, having repudiated the liberalism of the 1950s (which was sometimes their own), are not disposed to be gentle with anyone else's. Berkman's rich contextualization of Schreiner makes it harder to judge her by anachronistic expectations.
Berkman herself, however, especially in her conclusion and when she discusses contradictions or areas of fuzziness in Schreiner's thought, seems a little prone to wish that Schreiner would more closely approximate the 1980s norms of intellectual and political correctness, to wish she were a demystified poststructuralist performing relendess negative critique rather than an anti-dualist with mystical tendencies who was optimistic about social progress—even though as an intellectual historian Berkman must be aware of how unlikely it would be to find a Kristeva or a Foucault in the late nineteenth-century (and Berkman's social sympathies surely would lie with Schreiner as opposed to, say, Nietzsche). One may suspect that in the course of a...