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Letter ReferenceLife/6
Archive
Epistolary Type
Letter Date1897
Address FromEngland
Address To
Who ToSarah Ann Tooley
Other VersionsCronwright-Schreiner (1924) The Life…: 295-7
PermissionsPlease read before using or citing this transcription
Legend
When Cronwright-Schreiner wrote The Life of Olive Schreiner, he included a small number of largely complete letters which do not appear in The Letters, then destroyed them. They are included here for sake of completeness. However, when Schreiner’s originals can be compared against his versions, his have omissions, distortions and bowdlerisations. Consequently the relationship of these letters embedded in The Life... to what Schreiner originally wrote cannot be gauged, and they should therefore be read with caution. Cronwright-Schreiner provides the year this letter was written in and the name of its addressee. The beginning and end of the letter are not provided.
1I have made it a fixed rule of my life never to countenance
2interviewing in any way or in any of its forms. The whole of the petty
3personal element that is pervading modern literature seems to show one
4its painfullest features in the modern interview, and yet more in that
5taste for petty personalities which alone makes the interview pay. It
6is not the fault of the interviewer, but of the public which reads the
7interview
. Shakespeare was possible in a great age which troubled
8itself not with his height, his hair, his house, his mother and
9brothers and sisters. An age which thirsts to know whether Mrs. Smith
10was one of two or four children, whether she wears a light or dark
11dress, and lives in a house in Brixton or Hammersmith, is not likely
12to produce a Shakespeare; or, if it produced him, would not be able to
13recognize him. The terrible thing to me about this element of gossip
14and personality which is decaying our society is that I believe it to
15be largely the work of women, and to mark our entrance as women into
16the field of journalism.
17
18Does any soul love Shakespeare more, or is the world in any way a
19higher and nobler world, because he left his wife his second best bed?
20Or do I or you love Shakespeare’s soul less because no one called on
21him at his rooms and examined him? Could all the interviews in
22creation have given us one glimpse into that divine and deep soul,
23whose depths a page in Hamlet makes clear to us? Have all the
24biographies and notices which have been written of George Eliot
25revealed to us one aspect of that great and heroic nature which is not
26made infinitely clearer by a page in The Mill on the Floss?
27
28Again: You ask me what you seem to think are two simple questions, and
29to which you have a right to an answer. One is “How were you
30educated?” I never went to any school; yet, to give you the true story
31of my education, would mean the rending open of my heart before you,
32the describing to you of the (to me) most sacred and beautiful hours
33of my childhood and girlhood, the books I loved and studied, the
34scenes I visited, the influence of a thousand beneficent and
35stimulating things upon my mind, matters to me so sacred and intimate
36that I would not discuss them with my closest friend - yet you would
37ask me to pour them out to you, an absolute stranger: and this not for
38your own special help and comfort, which might make me compelled to
39reply, but that you may write an article in a magazine which in a
40month’s time will be blazoning round every newspaper stall in the
41kingdom for every man and woman, who had sixpence to spend and nothing
42to do, to read.
43
44I know you may reply that what you want is not the true history of
45anyone’s education, but simply some phrase which one may read and
46forget in five minutes, as one forgets the gossip of a five-o’clock
47tea - “Mrs. Jones was educated at so-and-so”. - “Mrs. Grey has four
48children” - “Mrs. Smith has a new servant and has gone to the seaside”
49- etc., etc., etc.
50
51I reply: If this is what the public wants, its want is a distinctly
52evil one, the gratification of which implies the frittering away of
53human intellect and a degradation of the subject gossipped over. If it
54were possible to have the true history of the education of one human
55soul, even the weakest and poorest - the history of the effect upon it,
56 during its early years, of the people who were about it, of the
57nature which surrounded it, of the books it read, of the social
58problems which were in the air at that time - it might be of value,
59because, carefully following the little path along which a brother
60soul has moved, our sympathy for it may be awakened; and a broadening
61of our affections and sympathies is ever for good ; but to do this
62would require a great genius, and he could do it only with regard to
63his own life.
64
65The epoch-making educational events of our lives which alone are worth
66recording; the hours of a long and restless night spent in reading a
67book which opened up to the child for the first time a field of
68thought which was to be its property through life; the hour of anguish
69when the child first saw death on a beloved face, and grasps a
70consciousness of the mystery which surrounds us, which it was never
71again to lose; these things which may form the real keynote of an
72education, without the knowledge of which the growth of a given
73individual mind cannot be understood at all - are they to be thrown
74down carelessly in the shape of rough fodder for men and women to
75tread on?
76
77Your second question, why I wrote The Story of an African Farm, is
78more easy to answer, because I cannot answer it at all! Those infinite
79powers of existence, which shaped human life and have placed each of
80us as a minute atom in the sum of existence, perhaps know how it came
81to pass that from the day I can first remember I made stories and
82poems and essays and shall do so till the breath goes out of my body -
83I don’t! Perhaps a careful study of the minds and bodies of my
84ancestors for countless generations might throw partial light on the
85matter - but, after all, it would only be throwing the mystery one
86step further back, why some men love to do one kind of thing and some
87men another! If you ask me why I printed The Story of an African Farm
88and my other books, that is quite another matter. Of the immense
89number of things I’ve made ever since I can remember, I have not
90written down one-half, and of those I have written, but one or two
91have been printed. I have printed these few in the hope that a little
92of the comfort and Joy I have had in writing them, some soul might
93have in reading them - though the hundredth part of the writer’s joy
94can never be known by the reader.
95
96You must not think me unkind because I have no information of the kind
97you wish me to give you; to do so would be to encourage a class of
98literature which I believe to be distinctly wrong. I never go into a
99railway station and see the woman’s literature lying there but my
100heart sinks. In the very weakest man’s journal there is at least an
101attempt to rise to the large and impersonal - to discuss cricket, not
102John Brown’s cricket breeches; to discuss a man’s work, not the colour
103of his eyes, his dress, and the furniture of his study. We women
104demand the franchise and this and that from man - it is not the man
105who can enfranchise us, but we who must enfranchise ourselves, we who
106must free ourselves from the bondage to the mean and trivial which
107eats out our women’s souls; and literature must lead in this matter.
108
109I know you will say: “The woman public demands such trivialities, and
110the editors demand from the writers a supply of such trivialities to
111supply the demand”; but should the writers comply with it?
112
113Instead of fifty articles describing how the Duchess of so-and-so
114furnishes her house, how such and such an authoress talks and plays
115golf, would it not be better to give one whole year even to writing
116one short paper on, say, the duties of the women of a dominant race
117(such as we English at present are) to the weaker or subject races in
118India, Africa, or elsewhere? Such an article might be of immense
119service to women, if only by turning their thoughts away from those
120trivialities which must play so large a part in the work-a-day life of
121so many of us, and which we look to literature to free us from.
122