The epistolarium reloaded: Olive Schreiner’s letters

The epistolarium reloaded: Olive Schreiner’s letters

Introduction: reloading
Tidying my study has led to a massive sorting through of piles of paper covered with words, some of which consists of copies of articles etc printed out to read, but much of which was written for a variety of purposes, including as an administrative duty, in response to inquiries, to try out ideas, as drafts of longer pieces of writing, and it also includes detritus left over from previous spring cleanings. A number of things lurking in these piles are concerned with the concept of the epistolarium, an idea I first developed a good few years ago now and have re-thought or expanded aspects of it at a number of junctures (see the references at the end). Reflecting on these scribbles, it occurs to me that there are some useful extensions and revisions to can be made now, including because there is an extensive five year engagement with many South African letter-writings to draw on.

First, in this blog some of my present thoughts about how to think about and theorise the epistolarium are referred to, and what Olive Schreiner’s letters in epistolarium terms are like is discussed. Then, in the next blog, what is added through drawing into the equation the diverse letter-writings represented in the Whites Writing Whiteness collections is considered.

Initially, I envisaged an epistolarium as (a) all the letters written by someone that are now extant, or (b) all those that were written and therefore including those no longer surviving but the number and content of which can be guesstimated, or (c) one of these and also all the letters to them that were received. Later I came to appreciate there was an issue here. Letters are written in order to be dispersed, this is a fundamental aspects of their ontological status, and it means that the writer would never have seen them in their entirety and probably never thought about them like this either. Also, letters are ordinarily lost, mislaid, destroyed, and this too is part of the ontological dimensions of letter-writing; and while there may be the occasional person who has kept every single letter sent to them, these are so incredibly rare that no one who writes on letters seems ever to have come across such a thing. Therefore trying to piece together absolutely everything is based on misinterpreting, not only letters, but also what the characteristics of an epistolarium are.

Nevertheless, even with these complexities in mind, it still seems helpful to think about the relationship between letters that are extant and letters that are known to have existed but are missing or destroyed. And it still seems essential to recognise that letters are usually in a very direct sense recipient-designed: they are written in a response mode, taking into account the person addressed, their relationship with the letter-writer, and any prior letters from them. These two issues form the backcloth to the rest of this discussion.

Regarding the writing of Schreiner’s letters
In what ways would I now use these and related ideas about the epistolarium in connection with the approximately 5000 letters written by Olive Schreiner? Transcriptions of them in their entirety with her amendments and mistakes can be found at Certainly there are some characteristic features of her letter-writing that add up to something distinctive and, for those familiar with her letters, immediately recognisable. There is a recognisable shape or structure to the letters that are extant, and also some palimpsest features of those now missing or destroyed can be dimly perceived through mentions in what remains. Thinking about it now, it is the pattern of her letters overall, the ways in which these are shaped for particular addressees, the specifics of their content, and the characteristic letter-writing practices discernible on her pages, that stand out.

When reading Schreiner’s letters, it is easy to forget – but is essential to keep in mind – that these were in fact written to be dispatched and dispersed, not collected together as a set like ‘the letters of Olive Schreiner’, or even as a sub-set like ‘the letters to WT Stead’. They were written and addressed in the moment, and this was the particular moment of their inscription then being sent elsewhere to be read in an elsewhen. And, also important to keep in mind, she never saw them again and certainly had no copies of any of them bar a very small number of ‘business letters’ primarily to do with publishing. In the case of long-term correspondence, which many of her letters were written as part of, there were many such moments of writing and these were not conceived as serial with other letters, but were related to things going on in that moment of writing, rather than harking back to the previous  letter-writing circumstance that had existed a week or month or longer before. In addition, and unlike for the present-day reader, there could be no foresight involved, for she could not have known how any particular exchange of letters would end and why. She never had the possibility of referring back to things she had written earlier, nor unlike the present-day reader of skipping forward to things she would write months or years later.

Many of her European contemporaries commented on Schreiner’s free and easy ways of addressing and treating people, erroneously supposing that these were a South African trait whereas they are more accurately to be seen as a Schreiner one. And they are mirrored in what was for the times her often familiar ways of addressing correspondents and informal ways of writing. The sense of boundaries and conventions being stretched extends into other aspects of her letters as well, such as her typical use of the paper and all the paper, starting with writing ‘normally’ with margins at the sides and top and bottom, but then filling these with smaller writing, then finishing at the top margin on the first of what is often several sheets of paper. The PS plays an important part as well, for often Schreiner’s letters sign off, then continue for sometimes numerous and often extensive additions under the sign of a PS, PPS and so on. A Schreiner letter that finishes long after its formal ending and in a different place on the paper from this formal ending is, if not the rule, then still something that occurs frequently and is highly distinctive.

The informalities continue regarding Schreiner’s immediately recognisable hand-writing. Most people who have seen it find it difficult or even impossible to read. She wrote sometimes in pencil, often in a dip pen, mainly in huge sprawling writing, because she frequently read and wrote letters while lying down and also most probably needed glasses. Also, her letter-writing tended to be done in batches, when particular posts arrived or were due to be collected (if, for example, the post was about to leave, or a mail boat had arrived and letters been sent on by train). Consequently she wrote rapidly, and also in an unstudied way. There was no revision or making a ‘fair copy’ involved; instead, amendments, additions and omissions were made as she speedily wrote and were part of the writing as it unfolded on the paper. This too is very distinctive and it conveys in a literally graphic way the ‘bird in flight’ mode of her letter-writing.

In Schreiner’s first extant letter, written to her eldest sister Katie, a very direct form of address is used –‘ Dear Katie!’. Its emphatic form is studied – she is showing off – and repeated across letters to Katie over a number of years. It conveys the youth of the writer, but over time melds into a less artful but still direct and familiar way of opening letters more generally, as both an unusual and an engaging feature of them. Her letters quickly came to develop in ways that encompassed and de-formalised other formal letter-writing conventions too. Schreiner’s way of writing the sign off at the end of her letters and also her signature provide examples here, being equally direct but quite spare. Instead of layers of formal winding down (‘I am your humble, devoted’ etc, ‘I beg leave to’ etc), and with a formalised signature even in familiar letters (as her mother also did, with an R. Schreiner to all her children). There is instead a final informal comment, statement or question, a brief ‘yours sincerely’ and, nearly always, ‘Olive Schreiner’ for most of her addressees, and ‘Olive’ for the familiar few. Such things are unremarkable now or might even be thought rather conventional, for informality in epistolary style slowly became more general and has in the sense now caught up with her.

Not quite so early a presence in Schreiner’s letters but resonant with meaning is her frequent use of ‘one’. This is the impersonal third person removed, but which she used in an unconventional way to write about things that were extremely important or utterly personal. ‘One’ is used in this way, for instance, when she writes about awe-inspiring landscape, hurtful family matters, deeply held political convictions. Her use of it is always an indication of something significant involving considerable emotion, and acts as a kind of epistolary geiger-counter for detecting strong but submerged, restrained and elliptically referred to feeling. Its use seems to have started after her marriage and with the sense that there were things both personal and political happening that were best not spoken of openly, but could be intimated to close friends. It continues thereafter.

In the period from Schreiner’s late-1889 return to South Africa up to the ‘after the war’ period around 1902 to 1904, an interesting use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ developed in her letters, was used extensively, but then with some fits and starts ended. Its use identifies a group or collectivity of belonging and distinguishes these people from the implicit ‘they’ who are Other. It also locates Schreiner herself, not so much in commenting on ‘we’ and ‘us’ as staking claim to be part of them. Typically, this concerns how she positions herself politically, by aligning herself with the person she is writing to and through them to groups or views with which she, or rather people of her general kind, were not usually associated.

Specifically, in the early part of this period ‘we’ and ‘us’ is prototypically people of Boer/Afrikaner heritage facing the might of the British Imperial presence, especially in the Transvaal. That Schreiner wrote in these terms has the effect of associating her politically with what she saw as a David and Goliath situation, and thereby also placed her among the members of its political elite she was corresponding with and who provided her with direct channels of political information and opportunity. However, at the end of the ‘after the war’ period, there is an almost disbelieving realisation conveyed in Schreiner’s letters that her feeling of belonging to this community through conviction and paying political dues, and over the wartime period living the same oppressed daily life, was actually not accepted by its members.

Later and for a number of years, a strong ‘we’ and ‘us’ returns. At this period it is associated with Schreiner’s involvement with women’s suffrage and the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League. It was ended this time by Schreiner herself, doing so in around 1909 concerning not so much a disagreement concerning the tactics of suffrage campaigning, and more regarding what this meant in the South African context in terms of the WEL adopting a racial basis for women’s enfranchisement. Starting in the same time-period, two other characteristic terms come into use and which also have strong relationship to the political context and matters of race and racism. ‘Silence’ and ‘great is silence’ come into play concerning the 1906 Natal Bambatha uprising and Schreiner’s concern that well-meaning commentary about this by her correspondents might actually increase the slaughter going on of members of the black community. In addition, ‘alles ten besten’, meaning approximately all is for the good or all’s for the best, comes into play with a kind of metaphorical shrug, signifying making the best of what was awkward or horrible when it was not possible to change circumstances.

In recognising that many of Schreiner’s letters have strongly political concerns, another aspect of their writing comes into frame. Many of them have strongly performative aspects. They are both about bridging absence in time and space when she and a friend or close family member were apart from each other, and about doing things. They are concerned with doing things in the sense of activities being planned or reported on, but also doing things in the JL Austin sense of performativity, that a letter does the thing that it is about. This is so about Schreiner expediting her many political concerns through her letters, for example in continuing a correspondence with Jan Smuts in hope of him changing his racial views. It is also about the relationship between her letters and her close friendships, for by and large and with some exceptions those closest to her shared many of her views on the political questions of the day, so there is no easy distinction to be made between their correspondence with each other and their political concerns.

Regarding what is written
Obviously it is not possible to fully cover the typical or characteristic regarding the specific content of Olive Schreiner’s letters. However, there are some more structural concerns that appear across many and add up to a combination of an analytics and an ethics. Those that can be helpfully commented on here are: how she writes about change, the idea of the ‘far future’ and a just and equal society, her sense that enclave capitalism as represented by the mushrooming growth of Johannesburg represented a vision of hell in the sense of replacing other values with monetary ones, the ‘after the war’ idea already introduced, and her analysis of the ’world’s great question’ of race intersected by the questions of labour and women.

Unusually among social commentators and theorists, from an early stage in her career Olive Schreiner had her eye on where the present and its events would take humanity in the future, something that is also strongly featured in her letters. There are many instances of her thinking about this in which she picks out the complexities involved, that there are backwards and forwards, upwards and downwards, movements that result in uncertain change. For her, there are no sudden and unheralded movements but that these are over the longer term matched by contrary forces and movements. This signals another strong conviction, that if a real change for the better is finally to result then it is essential to ‘bring up your rears’, by which Schreiner means that those who are seen as the least and the lowest need to be as well catered for as presumed elites.

This connects with another feature, Schreiner’s ideas about the ‘far, far future’ and the eventual achievement of a just and equal society. This idea circulates in letters, also appears in a book dedication and marks a number of her political allegories; it was clearly something she felt strongly about. A metaphor she used to convey its meaning conjures up migrating animals who arrive at a great watercourse; some depart, some drown, their bodies start to build a bridge that others who arrive later can eventually cross on. There is the sense conveyed that her concerns, including her letter-writing, were all conducted in the light of this idea, that as her allegory ‘Workers’ implies, the future and its achievements consists of many small tasks carried out with this in mind. The two ethereal figures in the allegory on opposite sides of a mountain pick away at its surface to make a way through; this continues for aeons; eventually each hears the other; one dies but it does not matter, the job will be done.

On one level having a more limited remit than the overarching themes discussed so far is Schreiner’s sharp analysis of the ethical aspects of the impact of mining in resulting in the mushroom growth of Johannesburg. But this is actually a critique of monopoly capital as it produced an enclave economy in which everything was reduced to profit and loss and with profits siphoned off and returned as dividends to European financiers. Some of this comes through in early letters when she was living in Kimberley as a young woman in the very early days of diamond-mining. However, in its most powerful form it is found in many letters after she moved to Johannesburg in the late 1890s. ‘City of Dreadful Night’ and ‘Johannesburg is Hell’ are phrases that occur and recur when she comments on the everyday and in effect typical occurrence of drunkenness, violence, prostitution, theft, that characterised life there. An evocative image in one letter on this comments on the brashly ornate new house of a wealthy mining magnet, with close by it a remaining humble velt-flower.

Regarding the South African War and as noted earlier, Schreiner’s use of the ‘after the war’ idea stops in around 1904. However it returned and with a vengeance when Schreiner was living again in Britain (late in 1913 to later 1920). When World War I had nominally ended, she had the very clear sense that things had not finished because a war economy linked with other war economies was still dominating social life. Her analysis was that structural forces had been set in motion that would continue a downward economic and political spiral and eventuate in another world war (a prognostication from late 1913).

From a very early age in her letter-writing career, what Schreiner was later to term ‘the world’s great question’ appears in her letters. This is the question of race and racism and it was a central motif for her, with many of the other characteristic themes just discussed arising around it. Indeed, there were three great questions that preoccupied her, of race, labour and the woman question, with few letters to the people she was closest to not concerned with aspects of these and their interconnections. Relatedly, mainly these people themselves took strongly liberal views in respect of race; and those who did not, like Schreiner’s younger brother the lawyer and politician Will Schreiner, eventually adopted the same viewpoint. The letters also show there were exceptions, which in a sense she accepted because these views were held honestly and the people concerned were willing to debate them, with her women’s suffrage friend Caroline Murray a case in point. Over time, Schreiner came to view race as the single most important question or problem that faces human societies.

The relationship with ‘my writing’
At a number of points in the discussion so far, reference has been made to various of Schreiner’s writings as well as some of her thousands of letters. While an epistolarium is composed by letters, at the same time for Schreiner as a social commentator and professional writer there was no sharp divide between letters and other writings. Themes in her letters appear in her other writings, letters comment on some of her writings, and some of her characteristic letter-writing practices are also practices deployed in her fictional or analytical writing, in particular that she wrote in a way that encompassed editing within the writing process (Stanley 2018). There were other points of connection and aspects of relationship involved as well. Writing letters was a rest from writing as work; letter-writing was something that she could write when she couldn’t write her more creative or more analytical work. And also, as shown in the discussion earlier, topics and concerns that structured her letters provided unsynthesised grist to the mill of the kind of quotidian social theorising she produced.

Finally on this question, it is crucially important to recognise writing as an activity ­– representing people and activities and places in the imperfect medium of writing – not only had great importance for Olive Schreiner, it also had symbolic force. It was central to her life and provided its mainspring, it was what she was, as well as what she did. Towards the end of her life when she was severely incapacitated by heart disease, she wrote sadly that she was no longer herself person because she had lost the ability to write.

Assemblages and the shape of things
At this point it is helpful briefly to return to the conundrum introduced at the start of this discussion, that modelling an epistolarium by giving expression to its key facets requires giving shape and presence to things that were amorphous and absent. What is left, the mountains of paper, has discernible shape and presence; but as it was for Olive Schreiner herself, her letter-writing was an activity done in fragmentary bursts, characterised by dispersal, and was never seen as an assemblage. It was the doing of it, that in being done it helped bind together people in relationships with each other, and that the letters did things and had impact, that mattered, not that this made ‘a collection’ or whether all of it was extant.

However, for anyone not Olive Schreiner, and who is interested in her and/or the things that she was interested in, there is much virtue in letter collections as assemblages, so long as the problematics are recognised and that these are indeed problematics. That is, that they are questions to be explored and ways found through the issues they raise, rather than problems to be solved and removed.

Some references on the idea of the epistolarium

Liz Stanley (2018, under consideration) “Ordinary letter-writing and the ‘actual course of things’: doing the business, helping the world go round” in (eds) Anne Chappell and Julie Parsons The Palgrave Handbook of Auto/Biography Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Liz Stanley and Margaretta Jolly (2017) “Epistolarity: life after death of the letter?” a/b: Auto/Biographical Studies 32. 2: 229-33.

Liz Stanley (2015) “The scriptural economy, the Forbes figuration and the racial order” Sociology 49: 5, 837-52

Liz Stanley (2015) “The death of the letter? Epistolary intent, letterness and the many ends of letter-writing” Cultural Sociology 9: 2, 240-55.

Liz Stanley, Andrea Salter & Helen Dampier (2012) “The epistolary pact, letterness and the Schreiner epistolarium” a/b: Auto/Biographical Studies 27: 262-93.

Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier (2012) “‘I just express my views & leave them to work’: Olive Schreiner as a feminist protagonist in a masculine political landscape with figures and letters” Gender and History 24: 3, pp.677-700.

Liz Stanley (2011) “The Epistolary Gift: The Editorial Third Party, Counter-Epistolaria: Rethinking the Epistolarium” Life Writing 8: 3, pp.137-54.

Liz Stanley and Margaretta Jolly (2005) “Letters as / not a genre” Life Writing 2: 75-101 . 

Liz Stanley (2004) “The epistolarium: on theorising letters and correspondences” Auto/Biography 12: 216-50.

Last updated:  1 March 2018