The hand of Cronwright-Schreiner

The hand of Cronwright-Schreiner

In the last few days, something interesting about one of Olive Schreiner‘s letters has cropped up, courtesy of a very helpful researcher working on the Gilbert Murray papers in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, UK, to whom many thanks. It throws confirmatory light on Cronwright-Schreiner’s intrusive – perhaps uncaring, perhaps careless, perhaps negatively disposed – editing practices in preparing The Letters of Olive Schreiner for publication.

The Murray collection holds a typescript copy of one of Schreiner’s letters, which is in part about Murray rather than addressed to him. The recipient was Schreiner‘s old friend, Caroline Rhys Davids, and the letter is dated 13 April 1913. A part of it is concerned with Schreiner ruminating on her Woman & Labour. In the published book version, reproduced on the Olive Schreiner Letters Online website, she writes as follows:

“In a way my little book Woman and Labour is very sad to me. I shall never look at it or touch it again. Only that little verse of Tennyson’s in my dedication to Constance Lytton is one to me always beautiful and fresh. The book is such a broken fragment. The first part of the whole book, which it seemed to me might have been of a little use, was the part dealing with the new moral code which must come into being if men and women are to associate freely together on equal terms. A “new chivalry,” an unwritten code of honour more binding than any law, must grow, making many things, not deemed criminal now, as criminal as men and women in the past have deemed rape and sedition, and, with the rising up of the new code, the present ethics of the ball-room and the music-hall must slowly fade away. Such works as Wells’s New Machiavelli illustrate the ghastly condition which arises where the old laws of relation between the sexes are broken down and a high code of perfect Truth, openness and loyalty in all sex relations has not taken its place. But one need not grieve that one’s own little world has been lost, because such a law is writing, and will and must write, itself in the hearts of the noblest men and women and spread slowly from them to others.”

The origin of the typescript in the Murray archive is unknown, but is likely to have been signed off by Cronwright-Schreiner and may have been actually typed by Schreiner‘s friend Anna Purcell. Notably a climber in his approach to the famous and important, it is possible that he sent this to Murray for such purposes, or perhaps Caroline Rhys David had sent it on. It has a variant text, with many small and in themselves incidental differences from the version that was published, but which cumulatively add up to the typescript having a different feel to it. What is involved can be indicated by comparing one passage in particular, part of Schreiner‘s comments about Woman & Labour and drawn to my attention by the colleague researching in the Murray collection.

The Murray typescript reads:

“Such books as Wells’ Anne Veronica and the New Macchiavelli illustrate the ghastly condition which arises where the old laws of relation between the sexes are broken down and no higher code a perfect truth openness and loyalty in all sex relations has not taken its place (SIC)”.

Compare this with what appears in The Letters of Olive Schreiner:

“Such works as Wells’s New Machiavelli illustrate the ghastly condition which arises where the old laws of relation between the sexes are broken down and a high code of perfect Truth, openness and loyalty in all sex relations has not taken its place.”

The typescript uses the word ‘books’ rather than ‘works’. It names two novels by Wells, with an unjustified emphasis on the The New Machiavelli in Cronwright-Schreiner’s published version, which omits Wells’ more overtly pro-feminist Ann Veronica, a book in which its New Woman protagonist, to put it baldly, takes on the patriarchy. The typescript is also missing some punctuation and has some grammatical errors or omissions, so the last sentence here is rather convoluted, with the “SIC” suggesting that the copyist either found the final sentence’s handwriting difficult to read or thought it did not make ‘proper sense‘. What appears in the published version has been cleaned up, smoothed out, its hastily written infelicities of a ‘thinking it out as I go along writing‘ kind removed, and grammatical order imposed rather than restored.

Some readers may interject at this point, does it really matter, for after all the changes are quite small? The answer is as follows. Yes, it does matter because the published letter purports to be by Olive Schreiner, and these changes take it away from this. It also matters because his comments elsewhere indicate that Cronwright-Schreiner saw himself as meticulous and an arbiter of what was factually true and so on about his estranged wife, so the existence of such changes give the lie to this, and confirm (for there are many more similar examples) that at the very least he was consistently inaccurate as well as intrusive. And it matters in addition because, for anyone who is interested in Olive Schreiner’s thinking, reading and theorising, what she was reading and how she was naming this in relation to her own work is important stuff. It matters that she was taking into account not just the novel that Cronwright-Schreiner approved of, The New Machiavelli, which is about state-craft, but also Wells’ Ann Veronica, which concerns the New Woman, and she could in a sense take for granted that Caroline Rhys Davids would appreciate why she had done so, given that this paragraph in her letter is concerned with Woman & Labour and her reflections on it.

The full letter, a rather long one, can be read on the Olive Schreiner Letters Online, at

Last updated:  25 March 2021