Dear Mrs Schreiner, Dear Olive Schreiner…

Dear Mrs Schreiner, Dear Olive Schreiner…

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Yes, this paraphrase of the opening of Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities perfectly describes the start of the academic year in Edinburgh. It is the best of times because of the arrival of students, many of them new, all of them excited and energetic, most of them charming, interesting and enlivening those of us who are staff members. It is the worst of times because the technology collapses, there is the annual jamming of software systems, breaking of lifts, unaccountable absences of colleagues and administrators who ought to be more on the ball than they are. My brain is as a consequence fit for nothing apart from whether I can do what I need to do for students X and Y or will the computer system collapse on us. In the idle moments before going to sleep, which in my case are about 2 1/2 minutes after putting my book down, I have been planning a letter to Olive Schreiner. Yes I know she’s dead, yes I know that! But it’s interesting to contemplate in a mild way what such a letter might look like. In some respects I know her and her life and her views and her opinions and her writing practices intimately, having researched her writings including her letters for so long. In other respects she is of course a stranger to me and a stranger from another time with very different conventions and expectations for proper behaviour, including the writing of letters. This ‘how would I write it?’ has been going on for about a week now, and I never get past the start of the letter! What to call the woman, how to address her? The boldness of Dear Olive is obviously not on, if I did I’m sure one fierce look would turn me to stone. Dear Olive Schreiner would be a way of doing it, but it conveys a relationship of equality and requires a companion sign off Sincerely Liz Stanley, And I know she always stood on her dignity with regards to such things and it might be going a touch too far in the familiarity direction received from a perfect strange. I balk at addressing her as Dear Mrs Schreiner, for I haven’t called any woman  that that for about 40 years! And so my letter in the mind stalls, and then I am asleep, and return to the same thing the next night.

Last updated:  13 September 2019


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