Olive Schreiner’s ‘sex book’ – news!

Olive Schreiner’s ‘sex book’ – news!

The fate of Olive Schreiner’s destroyed ‘sex book’, a fuller earlier exposition of the ideas that later appeared in Woman & Labour of 1911, has puzzled many Schreiner scholars over the years. At the start of Woman & Labour there is an account of a manuscript having been written and revised, left in Johannesburg when she and her husband Cronwright left in a rush just before the start of the South African War, and destroyed with other things when the house was ransacked and either set on fire or bombed by British troops. Later, after Schreiner’s death, and with them having become estranged by the 1900s, Cronwright-Schreiner suggested that such a thing was never written. However, in letters written at the time he certainly wrote in terms that make clear he thought there was indeed such a manuscript. Why should she lie? After all, two linked articles in The Cosmopolitan in 1899 and the book in 1911 were published. It is clear why Cronwright-Schreiner might misrepresent, for he had an annoyed resentment that shines through the various posthumous Schreiner publications he produced after she died.

A small piece of evidence has recently come to attention which throws a bit more light on these tangled matters. As is the usual way with such things, it started with something very mundane. A private collector, who wishes to remain private, bought a book to add to a small collection of first editions of Schreiner’s work. Puzzled by what was inscribed inside the cover, a request for help and information was made to me (Liz Stanley). What transpired from the inscription and tracing its references is this.

When Woman & Labour was published, Schreiner sent a copy, inscribed by her on 12 April 1911, to a long-standing friend in Britain, Havelock Ellis. At some point later, Ellis added in his distinctive handwriting what he refers to as an ‘Original Dedication’, and an Original Preface’, both dated 19th October 1901. These are both shown below.

For Havelock
His little friend
April 12th 1911
De Aar
Cape of Good Hope

[The inscription above is in Olive Schreiner’s distinctive handwriting and in ink. The so-called original dedication and original preface below are in Havelock Ellis’s equally distinctive handwriting.]

^(Original Dedication)^

IP [? Isaline Philpot]
HHE [Henry Havelock Ellis]
AC [Alice Corthorn]
EdC [Edward Carpenter]
CW [? Charlotte Wilson]
JHP [J Henry Philpot]
MB [Mary Brown]
IOF [Isabella O Ford]
JB [John Brown]
RM [Robert Muirhead]
HD [Horatio [Bryan] Donkin]
EM [Eleanor Marx]
KS [Kate Salt] &
FS [Fred Schreiner]

The men & women
Who made beautiful
The ten years of my life in England.
Olive Cronwright Schreiner
Hanover, South Africa.
19th October 1901.

^(Original Preface)^
These musings on the problem which will largely occupy the Twentieth Century are given in a rough & and unrevised form.
Repetition may be found in them, & much would have been condensed & much added had my health allowed of my revising them. Especially I should have wished to deal at length with the most important of all women’s labours, that of mother & trainer of the races but more especially to how dealt with that intense longing for motherhood, which, with a strongly increased sense of its responsibilities, mark the New Woman.
This is now impossible, & I find I must give these musings as they are or not at all.
Olive Cronwright Schreiner
Hanover, South Africa.
19 October 1901.

NB. In what appears in the ‘original’ dedication, there are just initials, with the names in square brackets having been provided by me.

There is the strong implication made in what is given above that Ellis had simply copied Olive Schreiner’s words as she had written them, although there are things which suggest possibly otherwise. Firstly, it was only very very rarely that she called herself Olive Cronwright Schreiner with regards to her writing, so this looks odd rather than just unusual. Secondly, there is a mistake in the preface, which it is unlikely she would have let pass. Thirdly, her usual practice was to put the month after the day and preceding the year, as her handwritten inscription to Ellis demonstrates. And fourthly, there are things about two inclusions in the list of initials in the so-called ‘original dedication’ as given by Ellis that raise suspicion. In Schreiner’s letters and related material there is just one person with the initials JHP, which is J Henry Philpot; and it is a reasonable supposition that IP refers to his wife, Isaline Philpot. The problem is that, while Olive Schreiner was friendly with them in the 1880s, she was not that friendly; and later she had a strong suspicion that her husband when away lecturing in Britain had become sexually involved with Isaline Philpot and this was the source of their estrangement. As any reader of Cronwright-Schreiner’s 1924 edition of her letters will realise, he has included many utterly tedious snippets of letters to the Philpots in it as part of covering his tracks retrospectively. And after Olive Schreiner’s death, Ellis and Cronwright-Schreiner worked together in editing and often changing the remaining manuscripts.

So what to make of the ‘original dedication’ and ‘original preface’, so-called? It would seem likely that these are Olive Schreiner’s words, but probably not wholly and entirely her words, and they have very likely been changed in small but perhaps consequential ways. It would also seem that, in the wake of the house destruction in Johannesburg, a number of manuscripts were sent to friends for safe-keeping (something mentioned elsewhere), and that Ellis was the recipient of an earlier version of what later became Woman & Labour.

But at this point the mystery thickens. In letters and diary-entries Ellis and Cronwright-Schreiner list the manuscripts they had and were working on, and there is no mention of any version of the ‘sex book’. And it is very unlikely, if there was such thing, that they would not have mentioned and/or sought publication for it. It also seems most unlikely that Ellis would have completely made up what he has added inside the covers of the copy of Woman & Labour Olive Schreiner sent to him. Amendment and modification were more his style. So was there a ‘sex book’ manuscript? If there was, what happened to it? And if there wasn’t, where did the ‘original dedication’ and ‘original preface’ come from?

One possibility to consider is that Ellis retained such a manuscript and did not mention it to Cronwright-Schreiner, perhaps because in the mountain of paper in his house he overlooked it. However, the sales of Ellis’s papers after his death do not mention such thing, and also interviews with and letters from François Lafitte – son of Françoise Lafitte, who lived with Ellis for many years until his death – never mentioned such a thing to me. Ellis’s papers were sold by Lafitte via an auction house and went to HRC Texas. The saleroom invoices for its acquisitions are presently at HRC Texas and confirm this. And it would seem that the book that started off this set of enquiries was part of the collections that went to sale and was purchased by someone before the HRC obtained its acquisitions, and many years later turned up in yet another saleroom and was bought by the person who contacted me.

And there the matter presently rests. It’s a mystery and likely to remain so. I am extremely grateful to Paul Walters and Jeremy Fogg for being able to draw on their expertise regarding the letters and diaries of Cronwright-Schreiner and for sharing this mystery.


Last updated: 1 October 2020