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Letter ReferenceKarl Pearson 840/4/3/34-39
ArchiveUniversity College London Library, Special Collections, UCL, London
Epistolary TypeLetter
Letter DateTuesday July 1886
Address FromThe Convent, Harrow, London
Address To
Who ToKarl Pearson
Other VersionsRive 1987: 97-100
PermissionsPlease read before using or citing this transcription
The Project is grateful to University College London (UCL) and its Library Services for kindly allowing us to transcribe this Olive Schreiner letter, which is part of its Special Collections. The month and year have been written on this letter in an unknown hand. Schreiner was resident at the Convent in Harrow from mid May to the end of September 1886. .
1 Tuesday night
3 Dear K.P.
5 I have been reading your letter over again, & there are many things it
6makes me want to say.
8 Do you know what I think you fail to see? In all creative or
9productive minds there are different phases & I believe they have to
10pass through these phases, exactly as certain insects have on their
11way to maturity, have to pass through their different stages. In my
12own small experience I have traced it clearly. There is the receptive
13state when like the caterpillar, we eat & eat & eat. Have you ever
14watched a caterpillar how it eats leaves greater than itself with its
15great greedy mouth, eats till you think it must die, & it grows &
16grows till its skin cracks off & it gets another one & that cracks off.
17 & then it begins to get uneasy & doesn’t want to eat any more,
18tries curl to & can’t, & then it curls up & becomes a chrysalis? It
19seems to be dead, it doesn’t move, it doesn’t grow, it takes
20nothing in from outside - & then at last out comes the butterfly.
21It’s a strange thing that through the caterpillar state there is
22hardly any evolution the full grown caterpillar is nearly as simple in
23organization as the embryo; but when it ceases to grow & lies still
24absorbing nothing then internal evolution begins, & the whole creature
25gradually develops within itself & the butterfly is formed. Have you
26never noticed these stages in yourself? I have, & I have at last come
27to understand that at the times when I am growing very rapidly &
28absorbing I must not expect myself to do creative or artistic work, &
29that when my mind is working on itself I cannot absorb, largely. The
30two moods are in antithesis. Do you fully recognise this? I think it
31an almost universal truth. Consider how you have grown within the last
32three years & then ask whether you have a right to expect that gradual
33maturing & changing of conceptions within the mind in which creative
34work consists, at the same time. What fills one with astonishment is
35that you do to some extent carry on both processes at the same time!
36You do produce original work & absorbe. You say your work lacks
37originality in the last years, I see a large increase of originality
38as well as strength in your last work, almost every line & word of it
39in the driest & most abstruse subject could have been written by no
40man, but just Karl Pearson. What it lack is the fullness of
41development which only only time gives, you see it always that heart
42beating on. on. on. I think some of ^us^ labour under a peculiar
43disadvantage. Most human beings, all but one in ten or twenty thousand,
44 need to be roused & stimulated: they are engines in which the fire
45must be heaped up & more steam created if they are ever to get
46anywhere at all. Its need to is difficult for the few to see that
47their problem is quite different, that while to all others there is
48only a cry on "forward", for them there is only "standstill", that
49while all others must have their fires made up & their steam generated
50for us there only to let the fires low & the steam off. Our danger is
51that we will reach our goal & sweep wildly past it into space! We can
52get anywhere: but the question is whether we can stop there when we
53get there! We feel it is almost wicked for to rest, to lie passive, to
54let a week a month a year pass with nothing done is sin - but that is
55the condition of our success. Things that are going to be always
56caterpillars don’t need the rest, but those that have got to make
57butterflies do. I’ve tried to explain this caterpillar & phases
58truth ^view^ to several people, but unproductive minds never understand
59it. Yet its a great truth. It seems to me that one way of attaining
60this ^quieter condition^ is to set before ourselves some one object,
61large enough to seem worthy of ourselves & to engross us; & then
62having set this before us, steadily to follow that & none other. We
63may look at other subject amuse ourselves, rest ourselves, change our
64thoughts with them, just as a woman who has one love may speak & joke
65with fifty men, but deep in the depths of her heart there is always
66calm because there is one immovable object. I think this is the secret
67of great work, Karl, & I think your work for the next nine or ten
68years is the woman question. After that may come socialism, philosophy,
69 God knows what, but now, to-day, to turn your eyes away from all
70other things except for pleasure & rest, & to feel that if in the next
71two years you produce nothing do nothing, that it matters not at all,
72that you have still years before you to give to this one thing.
74 Such a great peace comes to one when one fixes oneself on one large
75object so. "And if one dies?" - Yes, then others will take up our work,
76 where the pen drops from our fingers another man will be found to
77pick it up & finish the line & the book; the gold we have seen another
78man who comes after will see too, & he will pick it up & give it to
79the world, if we have not time. Truth is not a dream, not a chimera,
80she is always there, those who come upon the same road will find her
81where we have found her. We are not alone as we sometimes feel in our
82agony, we are all working into eachothers hands, & the steps are thick
83behind us on the road on which we wander wondering if we have lost our
86 You say, you have said often to me, that you are weak that you lack
87firmness, & strength. Yes, you are weak - on the surface, & below the
88strongest man I know. You have a weak element, a something weak as a
89boy or child is weak, & a gigantic strength behind to master it. If it
90were a question of facing moral suffering or material danger I should
91expect you to fly at first, but I should not even look round for you;
92you would be there before I had time to do so & stand when every body
93else had fallen. It is this strange combination of weakness & strength
94in your character that causes you unreadable your suffering; you are
95always strong, but strong with a conflict, strong through through the
96action of your reason on your will. You are strong to do anything if
97once your reason is convinced & your will set in action. You are the
98strongest man I know in spite of that seeming weakness which tortures
99you so. I am weaker than you, & my weakness is of a much more terrible
100kind. I am very strong, I can stand quite alone, my reason & will
101govern all my actions: but at any time I am liable to find my emotion
102gathered in strength & flinging me to the ground. All my life I knew I
103had this to dread, but I never lost control of myself but for ^a^ few
104moments. Three or four years ago I broke down utterly, floating like a
105cork on the water with will, reason, all powerless. It is a very
106terrible form of weakness of which you do not know & never can know
107anything. You stretch out your hand wildly; if only some humanbeing
108would take it; you cannot help yourself. I am very strong now, but as
109the Christians say, I "walk softly", I know what I am. This is all I
110have gained, that now no form of human weakness raises in me contempt,
111only infinite love & a sense of oneness.
113 //Sometimes I have thought that your life’s problem would perhaps be
114solved if you married a gentle loving woman who would look up to you &
115not disturb you, & had a child & could feel its little hand about your
116neck when it grew old enough to love you. You have genius & power, &
117originality, a clear dazzling intellect, & strength, & yet you lack
118something; I hardly know what it is, but you lack it greatly, & I
119sometimes feel that perhaps your own little child could teach it you.
120though no one else can.
122 //I looked for you everywhere when I was at the Museum on Friday, but
123I couldn’t find you. I will read Mark Pattison.
125 //Havelock Ellis is writing an exceedingly interesting paper on, the
126difference between men, women, & children, with regard to composition
127of tissues, functions, &c. It will be the most valuable ^physiological^
128paper on the sex question ever yet written. I will send it you as soon
129as it is done as it may be some time before it is printed. It has
130rested me so to talk to you. You don’t feel as if I was trespassing
131inside that circle in which a strangers feet have no right to be
134 Goodnight.
135 Olive S.
137 Of course I never ask you to come & see me because you know I would
138always be glad. The old Rev. Mother would like very much to see you &
139have a talk with you. I have been telling her about you. I wouldn’t
140sit on a gate post again: I promise, never!
141 OS
143 Wednesday. Thank you for your letter; we always write to each other at
144the same time! I hardly like to send this letter now you are so busy.
145It doesn’t require any answer. I am so glad you have hit upon this
146good vein. My woman paper ^notes^ are not worth showing you; there is
147only nothing in them of value, but I will send you Ellis’s paper as
148soon as I can. Our book is getting on, but very slowly. Do not trouble
149to send even a card in reply to this. I shall be glad to hear from you
150when you are resting in Austria.
151 Yours
152 O. S.
154 ^The note I sent you the other day was written when I was ill in bed
155thats why it was so horrid.^
The book referred to is: Mark Pattison (1885) Memoirs (ed. Emilia Francis Strong Pattison) London: Macmillan & Co. Ellis's 'exceedingly interesting paper' was eventually published as: Havelock Ellis (1887) 'The Changing Status of Women' Westminster Review October 1887. Schreiner's 'woman notes' were on Pearson's 'The Woman's Question', and a short version is provided by her 1885 'Note'; see Pearson 840/4/1/105. 'Our book' refers to From Man to Man. Rive's (1987) version omits part of this letter and is also in a number of respects incorrect