Alice Matilda Greene (1858 - 1920) was the third child of William and Charlotte Greene (nee Smith). William Greene was the son of Benjamin Greene, an affluent business man of Greene King Brewery at Bury-St-Edmonds and owner of sugar plantations on the Caribbean island of St Kitts. After her father’s death in 1881. Alice trained as a teacher in London, and after teaching there for a time, she then travelled to South Africa in 1887 for health reasons, where she joined the staff of the Collegiate School for Girls at Port Elizabeth. There she met Betty Molteno who was already a teacher at the school, and who later became its principal in 1889. The two women went on to have a relationship which “only started after the death of Miss Hall, the headmistress, with whom they had both been in love”, and which lasted until Alice’s death in 1920 (Barham 2010: 1).
Schreiner met Alice Greene and Betty Molteno at some point in the early 1890s, most likely in 1891. The first extant letter from Schreiner to Alice Greene dates from 1899, although there are a great number of references to her in Schreiner’s letters to Betty Molteno before that, and both women had visited Schreiner for a week at her home in Kimberley in mid-1896. Also Schreiner stayed with Alice and Betty in Port Elizabeth for a few days in 1898, and they visited her at Johannesburg in June 1899, shortly before the outbreak of the South African War. Alice had become engaged with South African politics, particularly in the aftermath of the 1895 Jameson Raid, and when the war broke out in 1899 she and Betty sided with the Boer cause, to the consternation of some of Alice’s family. As a consequence of the war and her political allegiances, Betty Molteno decided not to renew her lease on Collegiate School and in June 1900 the two women left Port Elizabeth for Cape Town, where they both became involved in relief work to assist Boer women and children in the concentrations camps established by the British military during the war. Both Alice and Betty (with some other friends of Schreiner’s) contributed to the collection of anti-imperial and anti-war poems, Songs of the Veld, originally published in 1902 and initially banned in South Africa.
In the winter of 1903, Alice and Betty spent some months with Schreiner on the farm Uitkÿk near Fraserburg Road in the Cape. Alice Greene returned to England in 1904 and Betty followed her a few weeks later. They spent some time travelling in Europe and Alice also stayed with and at times looked after various members of her extended family, including her sister-in-law Eva Greene in 1909. Betty and Alice returned to South Africa in April 1912, then travelled back to England in 1916, where they once more resumed their face-to-face friendship with Schreiner, although their correspondence had continued through the years when they lived in different countries from one another. Alice Greene’s death deteriorated quite soon after her return to England, and she was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer, although Schreiner’s letters show that the gravity of her illness but not its specific cause was kept from Alice by Betty and the Greene family. Alice Greene died on 28 January 1920 and was buried at Trevone in Cornwall, and when Betty died in 1927 she was buried with Alice.
Schreiner’s letters to Alice Greene are sometimes difficult to disentangle from those to Betty Molteno. Letters ostensibly addressed to them both as ‘Dear Friends’, in their content often, indeed usually, seem to be directed specifically to Betty; and it is not always easy to discern, especially in the absence of envelopes, whether those addressed to ‘Dear Friend’ are to Betty, Alice, or both. Early in their friendship and correspondence, Schreiner’s connection was primarily with Betty Molteno, with ‘Miss Greene’ referred to rather formally, and mentioned by Schreiner in letters to other friends chiefly in her capacity as ‘Miss Molteno’s partner’. Later on however, Schreiner and Greene developed an independent and warmly affectionate friendship of their own, and certainly Schreiner’s letters to Alice are kind and loving, and full of details about their shared passions: a love of nature, outdoor life, walking, swimming at the Kowie (Port Alfred), and animals. Indeed, one of Schreiner’s funniest letters, describing an attack which her meerkats made on a Dutch clergyman in Hanover, was written to Alice around the time of her mother’s death in 1904, perhaps in an effort to distract or amuse her, but anyway extremely amusing in its depiction of lesÚ majeste brought about by a small but determined meerkat with strong paternal feelings.
In spite of their shared political views regarding the Boer cause during the South African War, and later also a shared interest in the ‘native question’, Schreiner held strongly opposed views from Alice on ‘the woman question’. These differences were starkly emphasised in an anti-suffrage speech Greene gave in 1912 after her return to South Africa, which Schreiner read about in a newspaper report. Schreiner wrote Greene a number of letters around this time in which she expressed her surprise at Greene’s speech and also explained why her own views could never accord with them. However, she added, “It’s so sad we are so divided on all questions touching sex; but you are allways beautiful & true; & mere ‘views’ never make a bit of difference in my love to any one.” Certainly their political differences did not seem to mar Schreiner’s affection for Greene. She frequently commented on Alice’s smile as the embodiment of her warm, loving personality: “Your smile is a kind of revelation of your inner-self, as though a door suddenly open & a light flashed out, - & then when the smile end it closes again, butá one knows what one has seen!” While she was living in Britain during the First World War Schreiner was increasingly drawn into the Greene family network, and she developed a particular friendship with Alice’s sister-in-law Eva Greene. Shortly after Alice’s death, Schreiner wrote to Betty that “If I could put an epitaph on her dear resting place it would be ‘Alice Greene, much beloved & much loving.’ How beautiful her life was.”.
For further information see:
John E. Barham (ed) (2007) Alice Greene, Teacher and Campaigner: South African Correspondence 1887 - 1902 Leicester: Matador
John E. Barham (ed) (2010) The Mother and the Maiden Aunt: Letters of Eva and Alice Greene, 1909-1912 Leicester: Matador
Marthinus van Bart (ed, 2008) Songs of the Veld and Other Poems: English oems on the Anglo-Boer War’ Kennilworth, South Africa: Cederberg Publishers