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Workers - HRC

Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas

HRC Schreiner, Olive – Works: MS-3734

Works: T – Z - Workers


The short allegory ‘Workers’ appears in Olive Schreiner’s (1923) posthumously published Stories, Dreams and Allegories, a collection of shorter pieces made after her death by her estranged husband Cronwright Schreiner.

There are at least two extant manuscripts of ‘Workers’, one held by the HRC, the other by the National Library of South Africa (NLSA). There was also presumably a third, which was that used by Cronwright Schreiner, as the published version differs from both of these manuscripts. No remnant of this manuscript or of the other pieces featured in Stories, Dreams and Allegories appears to exist.

The provenance of the HRC manuscript is that it was sent to Havelock Ellis, as indicated by the accompanying comments about Vizitelli/Vizitelly and ‘you mustn’t say it’s not nice’ (Ellis was frequently a very negative critic of Schreiner’s writing), as well the very clear route by which it entered the HRC collection. As other Schreiner comments inscribed on the same paper as the allegory also show, it was written on 16 April 1887 and sent to Ellis from Alassio, enclosing some flowers including a sprig of olive with it. There is in fact an empty unaddressed envelope containing olive leaves in the UCT collections, which may once have been associated.

This HRC manuscript is different from the NLSA version, and both are different from the print version. A careful scrutiny of the writing and editing of both manuscripts, as well as Schreiner’s comment on the HRC manuscript that she had just written the allegory, indicates that the HRC manuscript was the first. However, given the combination of similarities and differences, it is likely that the NLSA version was written almost immediately after.

Regarding the HRC manuscript, is notable that Schreiner’s first written thought was to give it a different main title from what was later published, ‘In the dark’, but which with its sub-title was deleted. Then neatly and emphatically, the sub-title was elevated and underlined with – notably – the implied author, ‘Ralph Iron’, actually being part of the title. This is really quite striking and suggest that some new attention should be given to Schreiner’s use of the Ralph Iron nomenclature, which here seems less a pseudonym than a literary device.

Taken as a whole, the deletions and insertions that Schreiner embeds in her ongoing writing practice here have the effect of producing reductions. Examples of this include the deletion of ‘air coming in from both sides’ and ‘got deeper’, and reducing ‘got them to do’ to ‘got them’, and also making such changes to make things more implicit, with examples here being that ‘after many years’ remains on its own with ‘as the spirits worked’ being deleted. The NLSA manuscript of ‘Workers’ appears to have less detail still; but there are also many more unreadable words in this, so the seeming stripping out might not look quite so spare if all the words could be read. However, the published version is clearly sparer still.

 The HRC allegory has been written-edited to reduce detail and become more spare and abstract.  It is also notable the manuscript of the allegory is surrounded by ‘Ellis-isms’. At the head of the sheet of paper is Schreiner’s inserted comment about it being a first draft and she does not know ‘if you can read it’.  And the allegory is followed by what is in effect a letter to Ellis. She has picked flowers for him, including a sprig of olive; she comments on her book and Ellis’s publisher Vizitelly; she provides him with news of other allegories, that she has been for a walk; and she finishes with her inserted request that he ‘mustn’t say it’s not nice!’.

‘Workers by Ralph Iron’ is of course a minor although interesting example of Schreiner’s  writing. Its main importance is that the existence of two extant and different manuscripts as well as a published version enables gaining some further purchase, using genetic transcriptions, on the writing practices that she engaged in and in particular the attention she has given to detail and stripping this away in the allegory form.