A new Schreiner publication?

A new Olive Schreiner publication?

Before anyone gets excited, the answer to the question is alas no. There is NOT a new Olive Schreiner publication to announce. What has happened in the last few days to raise hopes about it is as follows.

Some years ago when the Olive Schreiner Letters Online project was very much in research mode, all of Schreiner’s magazine and journal publications in so far as possible were traced during a period of concentrated work on British Library collections. One of the possibilities we considered for an ‘unknown Schreiner’ appeared in the March 1896 issue of the Review of Reviews, edited by crusading Christian journalist WT Stead. He and she were friends of a kind, although Schreiner found some of his journalistic sharp practices unacceptable. Reviewing this short essay, although it was headed ‘by Olive Schreiner’, we concluded it was by Stead rather than by her, because of its arrangement of subheadings and its rather bombastic tone. This short essay has recently resurfaced in a soon to be published new edition of Dreams with appendices containing short selections from a number of Schreiner publications, to be published by Broadview Press. This short essay is among them them as ‘by Schreiner’.

To cut a long story short, in a way we were wrong to conclude that it was not by Olive Schreiner, and the present editor of the new Dreams, Barbara Black, was right to consider it was. But it was not as Schreiner wrote it and is in a major way marked by a large input from Stead, so in this sense we were (sort of) right. Solving the puzzle involved chasing up Schreiner’s essays in numerous original magazine publications and cross-checking them with the versions that appeared in books posthumously. What had happened to produce this curious piece of writing that is both by and not by Olive Schreiner is this.

One of Olive Schreiner’s essays that later appeared in Thoughts on South Africa had originally been published in the Fortnightly Review in January/February 1896. In the Review of Reviews in March 1896, Stead publish the short essay referred to above, referring to the Fortnightly Review piece. Cross-checking this Review of Reviews item with Schreiner’s known publications produced nothing, including checking through the essays that later appeared in books and particularly in her Thoughts on South Africa. But then, eventually, it was my cross-checking it with the original Fortnightly Review version that produced a match.

What Stead had done was to take some sentences from some paragraphs fairly near the end of this essay, and use them to produce a statement on the writer, language and the world. However, Schreiner‘s original text was actually about the homely everyday patois known then as the Taal that farming people spoke in South Africa at the time, and arguing that it cut people off from the mainstream of writing and ideas if they had no other language base to draw on.

The reason why this source for what Stead had done  took so long to trace was that at a later point, in the 1900s, Schreiner had edited and in some quite significant ways changed all of her South African essays that had originally appeared in journals. She was intending to publish a book from them, but a major problem with the US publisher meant that it never appeared. It was these edited versions that Cronwright-Schreiner had published after Olive Schreiner died as her Thoughts on South Africa. And it was this edited version that I had originally cross-checked with the Review of Reviews piece.

Stead was a piece of work alright. A South African argument about language groups was turned by him into an abstract and so rather bombastic statement about the writer and language. This, then, is not a new publication by Olive Schreiner, but a truncated and changed version by Stead of something that appeared in her original 1896 ‘Thoughts’ essay. Its authorship is best thought of as hybridic.

Last updated: 27 August 2020


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