Samuel Cronwright (later Cronwright-Schreiner, later still Cronwright again) (1863 - 1936) was Olive Schreiner’s husband. He was born in the Bedford district of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, the second of eight children. His mother was Zipporah Featherstone, who came partly from 1820 settler stock. His father, Samuel Cron Cronwright, was the son of Peter Wright, a missionary for the London Missionary Society at the same time that Gottlob Schreiner was. The surname Cronwright, an amalgamation of Cron and Wright, was adopted by the family in 1857. Cronwright was born on his father’s sheep farm, Gideon’s Hoek, but when he was two the family moved to Grahamstown, where his father went into business as a storekeeper and trader, also becoming mayor of Grahamstown and a member of the Cape legislative assembly. Cronwright was educated at St Andrew’s College in Grahamstown, but was forced to abandon a university career because of his father’s business misfortunes, and he also seems to have become a free-thinker at about the same time.
In 1884 Cronwright became a farmer, spending ten months on an uncle’s farm in the Karoo. He was then asked to manage the Woods’ ostrich farm, Krantz Plaats, near Cradock (this farm included Buffel’s Kop where Olive Schreiner and Cronwright himself were later to be interred). According to biographers, in 1890 Cronwright read The Story of an African Farm and was deeply moved by the book. The same year he wrote Olive Schreiner what he describes as his first, rather ‘nervous and stiff’ letter. He found that his neighbours, the Cawoods of Ganna Hoek, were friends of ‘Miss Schreiner’ and it was on their farm that he met her two and a half years after reading her novel. Their friendship became a courtship in the months that followed, and when she left Ganna Hoek it was sustained by correspondence. Schreiner then spent some months in England in 1893, during which time she also considered whether or not to marry Cronwright. As she commented to Edward Carpenter in July that year, “In Africa is a man I love & who loves me, but I’m not quite sure that marriage would be right”, although the situation seems to have been more complicated than this suggests in two respects. One concerns Schreiner’s extremely close relationship with Mary Sauer, and the other Cronwright’s entanglement with an older woman. However, on her return to South Africa and a year after their first meeting, they were married at Middelburg in the Eastern Cape, not far from the Krantz Plaats farm. About her wedding, Schreiner commented in a letter to Betty Molteno, “I am going to keep my old name of Olive Schreiner, so just address that & P.O. Halesowen. I am going to be married by the magistrate just in my ordinary walking dress that I wear every day, & we are to go down to our Farm the same day.” Cronwright adopted Schreiner’s name and became Cronwright-Schreiner.
Before marriage, Schreiner commented in a letter to her brother that her asthma would prevent her living at Krantz Plaats, although in fact she did do so immediately following the marriage. However, Schreiner’s asthma eventually forced them to leave the area and the couple settled in Kimberley, a place where Schreiner both enjoyed living and also experienced good health. It was here on 30 April 1895 that Schreiner gave birth to their only child, a baby girl who died the day after her birth. In the aftermath of this, Schreiner and to an extent Cronwright-Schreiner increasingly involved themselves in political activity, particularly in opposing the powerful stronghold Cecil Rhodes held over public life in Kimberley and beyond. In August 1895, Cronwright-Schreiner read Schreiner’s The Political Situation in Kimberley Town Hall, causing something of a stir because it directly named and took on the Rhodes conglomerate and its activities. Cronwright-Schreiner accompanied Schreiner to Britain in 1897, where they arranged for the publication of her Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, also outspoken in its criticisms of Rhodes, this time regarding his Chartered Company and massacres it had carried out on ‘rebels’ in what were then called Matabeleland and Mashonaland.
On their return to Kimberley, Cronwright-Schreiner found that Moses Cornwall, the electoral returning officer in Kimberley, had had Cronwright-Schreiner’s name removed from the electoral roll. Unwisely, in a letter to the Diamond Fields Advertiser Cronwright-Schreiner commented that Cornwall had been employed to deliberately disenfranchise him because of his well-known hostility to Rhodes, Cornwall sued for libel. The ensuing trial cost the couple dearly, one of many occasions when Cronwright-Schreiner’s precipitous behaviour, embarked on against Schreiner’s counsel, ended in disaster. During this period Cronwright-Schreiner wrote a book entitled The Angora Goat and a Paper on the Ostrich (1898) and several shorter pieces on similar topics. Then, because his funds were nearly exhausted, he articled himself to a firm of attorneys in Johannesburg, where the couple moved, Schreiner with considerable reservation and because she put his needs first. On the outbreak of the South African War in 1899, Cronwright-Schreiner abandoned his position with this firm and arranged for himself and Schreiner to stay on a relative’s farm a long distance from Hopetown and so entirely removed from ‘the action’, thereby preventing Schreiner from taking up the position of war correspondent which had been offered to her and also isolated her from all the activity around the war in which she had earlier been keenly and prominently involved.
During the South African War, of which both Schreiner and Cronwright-Schreiner were very outspoken critics, Cronwright-Schreiner spent six months in England in 1900 campaigning against British military action. He embarked on an extensive lecture tour organised in part by the so-called ‘pro-Boer’ movement, but on a number of occasions his speeches were disrupted by ‘jingo mobs’ that not only heckled him, but also on occasion violently attacked him. Some commentators have speculated that, “It seems likely that Cronwright’s experiences in 1900 - and they must have tortured his nerves - had permanently altered his personality” (Buchanan-Gould 1949: 195). It was also on this visit to England that Cronwright-Schreiner came to know many of Schreiner’s British friends from the 1880s, including Dr and Mrs Philpot.
After his return to South Africa and the couple’s relocation to the remote village of Hanover, Cronwright-Schreiner became an estate and insurance agent after the South African War. In 1904 Cronwright-Schreiner’s feckless business and other dealings once more created difficulties; first his clerk was found to be embezzling money, and then Cronwright-Schreiner was sued by a local attorney. Schreiner explained in a letter to Betty Molteno, “As I sat writing a terrible blow has fallen on me. ((this is for you & Miss Greene only)) Cron came in & told me he had to leave for Cape Town tonight he has to go tonight. De Villiers the little attorney here is bringing an action against him for one thousand pounds damages for some things Cron wrote about him to the chief sheriff in Cape Town.” Later in the same letter she added, “You see I couldn’t leave him [Cronwright] any more than a mother could leave her little child. He will always be in trouble. If we weather this something else will come soon.” Their marriage it seemed had become a burden of duty for Schreiner, but one that she was unwilling or unable to abandon. Certainly this is one of the very few occasions when Schreiner makes any references in her letters to her marriage and its difficulties, preferring instead to gloss these with the phrase ‘great is silence’.
Meanwhile Cronwright-Schreiner continued to develop his political career. In 1902 he was elected to the Cape legislative assembly, and remained a member until the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. In 1907 he sold his business in Hanover and the couple moved to the railway town of De Aar, again on Schreiner’s part with reservations outweighed by her comments in letters about his need to do so. In De Aar, he opened a new law, estate, auctioneering and general agency and developed a flourishing independent social life. By 1913 Schreiner’s health had deteriorated badly, and she decided to travel to Europe to seek medical attention. It is likely too that the marriage to Cronwright-Schreiner had by this time broken down irretrievably. Certainly the few extant letters exchanged between the couple during the period prior to Schreiner’s departure for England painfully attest to this. Schreiner’s letter of 2 July 1913 explains her reasons for wanting to leave but also encourage Cronwright-Schreiner to take an extended holiday and suggest that they might arrange to meet up from time to time. With regard to a possible meeting up in London she comments, “I would be willing to meet Mrs Philpot if she called on me because she is
After Schreiner’s departure from South Africa, her letters to Cronwright-Schreiner continued regularly (as he states his did too) while he remained in De Aar. In 1919 he sold his business, having decided to retire, and joined Schreiner in England for some months in 1920, in his case because he was en route to an intended visit to America. By this time Schreiner had already decided to return to South Africa, which she did soon after his arrival, so they coincided in London for a very short period. She died in Cape Town in December 1920. Cronwright-Schreiner wrote sparely onto the telegram sent to him by Fan Schreiner announcing Olive Schreiner’s death, “Received 5.40pm 13th December 1920 50 Cambridge Terrace, London, W.2. I first got the news in the papers at breakfast.” Cronwright-Schreiner only returned to South Africa in 1921, where he then arranged for Schreiner’s reinterment on Buffel’s Kop. In London, his American trip abandoned, he set to work gathering papers and letters and became his famous wife’s biographer and editor, which activities led him to produce The Life of Olive Schreiner (1924) and The Letters of Olive Schreiner (1924), and posthumously publish with various amendments her Thoughts on South Africa (1923) and Stories, Dreams and Allegories (1923), and also her two novels From Man to Man (1926) and Undine (1929). His biographical publications were not universally well-received. Certainly members of Schreiner’s family, including Fan Schreiner, regarded The Life as Cronwright-Schreiner’s ‘novel about his wife’, and his editorial practices in preparing The Letters involved the destruction of some thousands of Schreiner’s letters (for a detailed discussion of Cronwright-Schreiner’s editorial practices see Stanley and Salter 2009).
In 1924 Cronwright dropped ‘Schreiner’ from his surname, and in the same year married Leonora (‘Lyn’) Gann (nee Bush) in England. A daughter, Cronlyn, was born to them in 1925. In 1930 he issued his last book, an address to his four-year-old daughter called Her South African Ancestors. Cronwright settled in Rondebosch in Cape Town where he died following a stroke in 1936. He was interred beside Olive Schreiner, her baby daughter and her dog Neta on Buffel’s Kop. The very large majority of Schreiner’s extant ‘letters’ to Cronwright-Schreiner are the heavily edited, bowdlerised snippets which appear in The Letters and their relationship with Schreiner’s original letters is unknown but troubled. A few whole letters remain; some are part of the collections at the University of Cape Town, and a few are archived at the National English Literary Museum.
For further information see:
Vera Buchanan-Gould (1949) Not Without Honour: The Life and Writings of Olive Schreiner London: Hutchinson
Samuel Cronwright-Schreiner (1906) The Land of Free Speech: Record of a Campaign on Behalf of Peace London: The New Age Press
D. R. Beeton (1968) ‘Cronwright (Cronwright-Schreiner), Samuel Cron’ in (ed) W.J. de Kock Dictionary of South African Biography Vol I Pretoria: National Council for Social Research, pp. 191 - 192
Ruth First and Ann Scott (1980) Olive Schreiner: A Biography Andre Deutsch
Liz Stanley and Andrea Salter (2009) “‘Her letters cut are generally nothing of interest’: The heterotopic persona of Olive Schreiner and the alterity-persona of Cronwright-Schreiner” English in Africa 36: 7-30