No one writer can represent, or be the focus, of a whole movement. This is certainly true for first-wave feminism. As it moved from what Jane Rendall (in The Origins of Modern Feminism) called ‘dynamic evangelicalism’ into a more ‘secular and cooperative’ creed, a whole range of overlapping influences be traced: including American Transcendentalism (Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman), British Idealism (especially T.H.Green and also Carlyle and Ruskin), eastern mysticism and theosophy, and the ethical secularism of reformers such as Blatchford and Trevor. Of all the influences on the women’s suffrage movement however, the two great literary prophets were Edward Carpenter and Olive Schreiner. Both threw off the full traditional Christian orthodoxy in which they were raised (in Carpenter’s case, as an erstwhile curate to F.D.Maurice). Yet, in different ways, they strove to articulate a holistic approach to a ‘new life’, drawing on their religious inheritance. As such, they remained inspirations to Christian, as well as other, first-wave feminists…
Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) was a South African author, anti-war campaigner and radical thinker. She is best remembered today for her novel The Story of an African Farm (1883). This handled many of the burning issues of the day, including agnosticism, individualism, the aspirations of women, and life on the colonial frontier. Yet, although she was a freethinker as opposed to a follower of mainstream Christianity, she always remained true to the spirit of the Christian Bible and developed a secular version of the worldview of her missionary parents, with mystical elements. As such she connected with a wide spectrum of first-wave feminists.
For the women’s movement, Olive Schreiner’s collection of short allegories, published in 1890, entitled Dreams, were of great import. Drawing on the South African landscape, these were often full of biblical images and the visualising of a new world. For, as she expressed it:
I dreamed a dream. I dreamed I saw a land. And on the hills walked brave women and brave men, hand in hand. And they looked into each other’s eyes, and they were not afraid. And I saw the women also hold each others hands. And I said to him beside me, ‘What place is this?’ And he said, ‘This is heaven.’ And I said, ‘Where is it?’ And he answered, ‘On earth.’ And I said, ‘When shall these things be?’ And he answered, ‘In the future’.
Such writings were frequently read and discussed at suffrage meetings and Schreiner was held in great esteem across the movement, and in Co-operative and labour circles (cf. J.K.Jerome, who said, in The Vote 2 Jan 1914, that she, with Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, was one of the three women who had influenced him most). The most telling reflection of her importance was given by Constance Lytton, recalling a reading of Three Dreams in a Desert by WFL suffragettes in Holloway prison one evening (the inspiration for this blog – see the page ‘why Making a Track’). No longer an allegory at that moment:
The words hit out a bare literal description of the pilgrimage of women. It fell on our ears more like an ABC railway guide to our journey than a figurative parable… We dispersed and went back to our hard beds, to the thought of our homes… to the groans and cries of organised women – content. (Prisons and Prisoners, pp. 156-7)
Schreiner’s writing was of its time and encapsulated many of the cultural contradictions and tensions faced by feminists. Rebecca West for instance, never afraid to criticise muddled feminist thinking, observed (in The Freewoman 12 October 1912) that Schreiner’s philosophy tended towards a ‘so simple’ attitude and ‘the most undiscriminating asceticism’. For West, not gainsaking its appeal, Three Dreams in a Desert portrayed an ‘extremely depressing career of Woman… giving their souls up to pain’, and surrendering their personality rather than exploring a more inquiring morality. Certainly there were ambiguous values in Olive Schreiner’s work and she wrote in a taut, constrained manner. Yet, as more recent critics such as Laura Chrisman have pointed out, this is consequent on the tight restraints and ambiguities of the culture in which she lived. Edward Carpenter similarly pointed out how realistic Olive Schreiner was:
in her consciousness of the sufferings of Woman the iron has entered her soul. If she had only be content – like some of the wilder spirits of the movement – to unload on men the vials of her wrath, and to saddle on mankind alone the responsibility for these sufferings, her strain in the cause would have had more delight of battle in it. But she was too large-minded not to see that if there is to be any blame in such a matter, the blame must be accepted by Woman herself just as much as Man. (My Days and Dreams, pp.230-1)
God of Holy Dreaming,
we give thanks for Olive Schreiner,
and for all prophets, poets and writers of your new world.
Grant to us a similar spirit of inquiry and imagination,
courage and commitment,
that we too can help inspire one another
to work for the realisation of your true common-wealth,
in which we may walk together hand in hand and not be afraid.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.