Frances Schreiner (nee Reitz)
Frances Hester (Fan) Schreiner (nee Reitz) (1852 - 1931) was Will Schreiner’s wife and Olive Schreiner’s sister in law. Fan was the daughter of the progressive Cape farmer and politician F.W. Reitz and the sister of Frank Reitz, who became President of the Orange Free State and then State Secretary of the Transvaal. She married Will Schreiner on 3 January 1884 at Swellendam and they had a marriage of “unbroken affection”, according to Will Schreiner’s biographer (Walker 1937: 28). The couple’s first child, born later that year, died almost as soon as she was born; they subsequently had four children, two boys and two girls.
When Olive Schreiner first returned to South Africa at the end of 1889, it seems that she did not immediately strike up a good rapport with Fan Schreiner. In a May 1890 letter to Havelock Ellis she commented “I began to think how unkind my brother’s wife and her relations had been to me in Cape Town, and how wicked and mean and jealous women are”, although a few days later but in the same letter she added, “I got a very nice letter from my sister-in-law this evening. It’s very funny how Nature always repeats itself. Women are always jealous of me then afterwards (when it’s too late) they get sorry.” Over time, however, Schreiner’s letters to Fan suggest that on the surface at least, a comfortable and affectionate relationship developed between them, although it is not clear whether this was the price Schreiner felt she had to pay in order to gain access to Will Schreiner and the Schreiner children, with whom she developed close relationships and referred to as ‘our children’. In many respects Schreiner’s letters to Fan are strongly concerned with domestic matters (food, cooking, clothes, gardening) and family news, in particular about ‘our children’, Will and Fan’s children and their lives and achievements. They are also marked by Fan’s position as someone of Boer background, who Schreiner at times seems to ‘out-Boer’, writing to her about baking sourdough bread with sheep-tail fat, living in the ‘fore-trekker’ style, or signing off her letters with the phrase ‘alles ten besten’ (‘everything of the best’).
However, Schreiner’s letters to Fan are not ‘just’ about folksy, domestic or family matters, as interesting and diverting as these may be; at times they comment on important developments concerning Schreiner’s writing, or on political matters. In some instances Schreiner seems to write to Fan as a way of perhaps subtly influencing Will Schreiner politically, or at least testing the political waters. So for example in the immediate aftermath of the Jameson Raid, Schreiner wrote to Fan on 5 January 1896 that: “I don’t like to trouble Will just now as I know how busy he must be: could you drop me a line to tell me whether you have heard anything of [Seymour] Fort. I am very very anxious fearing he may ^have^ been among Jameson’s men. Do drop me a line. I fear you and Will will be on the side of the Chartered Company while all my sympathies are with the Transvaal Government, but political differences can make no difference in the tender love one feels for ones own.” In this reassurance of her own unchanged feelings towards Will and Fan, regardless of their political stance, Schreiner was presumably seeking similar reassurance from Fan, and perhaps also trying to gauge Will’s response to the Jameson Raid via Fan.
Later Schreiner and Fan were to have a more direct shared political involvement around their activities in the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League, of which Fan was also an active member from 1907. It is clear from Schreiner’s letters to Fan and to other WEL members that Fan played a fairly important role in hosting WEL ‘drawing room meetings’ where members could listen to speeches and discuss matters relating to the ‘woman question’ and especially the advancement of women’s suffrage, and also served as its secretary for a time. Schreiner commented in a 1907 letter inviting her friend Lucy Molteno to one of Fan’s drawing room meetings, “I am so glad my dear little sister-in-law is throwing herself into the work.” In 1911 Schreiner accompanied Fan and some of the Schreiner children on a trip to the Victoria Falls, an adventure which she clearly delighted in.
After Schreiner’s departure from South Africa for Britain in 1913 she continued to write letters to Fan Schreiner, and then when Fan joined Will Schreiner in London after his appointment as High Commissioner they resumed face-to-face meetings interspersed with shorter letters. Towards the end of the First World War, Schreiner’s letters to Fan increasingly focus on their mutual concern for Will Schreiner’s failing health, and after his death in 1919 Schreiner seems to have become especially close to Fan, commenting to her, “You know, Fan, I feel even more parting with you than the two dear girls. We two each know what the other is feeling. I can’t believe he’s really gone, that I shall never see him again”, and in a later letter, “Dear, you don’t know how I love getting a letter from you. In a way you seem nearer to me than any one in the world. That little casket in the quiet grave holds so much for you and me - more than for any one else.”
After Will Schreiner’s death Fan returned to Cape Town, and when Schreiner left Britain she stayed for some time with Fan Schreiner (and other friends and family) in Cape Town, before moving to a boarding house. Fan helped to make arrangements for Schreiner’s funeral after her death and with her daughter Ursula safe-guarded many of Schreiner’s possessions and papers until Cronwright-Schreiner’s return to South Africa in 1921. In 1930 when white women in South Africa were granted the vote, Fan Schreiner was amongst a group of women, organised by Ruth Alexander, who registered their opposition to the granting of the franchise to white women only.
For further information see:
John Benyon (2004) ‘Schreiner, William Philip (1857-1919)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/35973
Liz Stanley, Helen Dampier and Andrea Salter (2012, in press) “‘Bringing-into-being’ the Olive Schreiner Letters: Cultural Products and Editorial Practices” Cultural Sociology
Eric Walker (1937) W.P. Schreiner: A South African Oxford: Oxford University Press