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Letter ReferenceNLSAOlive Schreiner: EL to C-S MSC 26/2.16/348
ArchiveNational Library of South Africa, Special Collections, Cape Town
Epistolary TypeLetter
Letter Date18 December 1912
Address FromHotel Milner, Matjesfontein, Western Cape
Address To
Who ToS.C. (‘Cron’) Cronwright-Schreiner
Other VersionsCronwright-Schreiner 1924: 259-62
PermissionsPlease read before using or citing this transcription
The Project is grateful to the National Library of South Africa (NLSA), Cape Town, for kindly allowing us to transcribe this Olive Schreiner letter, which is part of its Special Collections. This letter by Olive Schreiner is contained among some hundreds of typescripted extracts which were produced by Cronwright-Schreiner using original letters when he was preparing The Life... (1924) and The Letters of Olive Schreiner (1924). Generally he then destroyed the originals, although in this case he preserved Schreiner’s handwritten letter more or less complete, minus the start of the letter.
1[page/s missing]
3 2
5 …I have just been reading a story that rather interested me as
6reminding me of the Boer of the lower type in this country. I’ll send
7it you only you’ve no time to read.
9 A young London man poet, artist & thinker, wants to get away from the
10noise or stir of London life ^with all its problems^ for a time & study
11simple country life & do his painting & write his poetry. He goes to a
12most out of the (way) part of the country in England, finds a
13primitive farm house, with a very plain scraggie common looking
14farmer’s wife & a husband & a lot of children. Here he determines to
15board, & all goes well for a time. He finds the plane country people
16so nice & restful to paint & look at. One day the land lady, who has
17always gone about in a print dress with a colla white apron & a cotton
18sun bonnet, is going to a party or show, & appears to his horror
19dressed in a black silk with a mantle covered with black beads & a
20georgeous velvet hat with three ostrich feathers in it. She looks so
21surprising hideous & terrible in this fashionable dress that before he
22thinks he cried out, “oh Mrs Smith, you oughtn’t to wear those things!
23If you only know how much more beautiful you looked in the clothes you
24wear every day!” In stead of the woman’s being frightfully angry as he
25expected she lifts up her head & chats with him & seems quite
26unoffended. From that time she begins to take great care of her
27personal appearance, is always starching or ironing her things &
28standing before the glass & doing up her hair. All her life she has
29been told she was plain & ugly, even her her husband when he was
30courting her never once said she was beautiful, he only praised her
31puddings, & here was this handsome fashionable man from London saying
32she was
taking notice of her appearance & saying she looked beautiful
33in her cappje! Often as the young man passes through the kitchen, when
34her husband is out he stops to talk with her, as he is interested in
35country life & people, & some times when she goes out to feed the pigs,
36 he goes to the pig sty to watch the pigs being fed, & stands talking
37to her. Her good old Husband notices nothing, except that she is
38always doing herself up, & looks at her face in the bit of glass on
39the qn kitchen wall; he thinks she must be ^going^ daft, for, as he says
40to himself, “She a good wife, & she make the finest puddings in the
41country; but there’s not much she can see when she looks in the glass!
42” But the neighbours are sharper, they have noticed how she does
43herself up, & they have seen her talking with him at the pig sty, & in
44the kitchen when her husband was out; & at last one old woman comes
45over & accuses her of “carrying on” with the stranger & caring for him.
46 Instead of denying it (for of course she really only cares for her
47husband & is only flattered by the young man’s supposed attentions)
48she tosses her head, her vanity is touched, & says its no business of
49theirs if the young man does admire her! Of course the old woman
50rushes out to tell the village; but unfortunately the good old husband
51has come home from his work & is in the front kitchen & hears all. He
52comes in & implores his wife to tell him there is no truth in what the
53old woman suggested; but her vanity is roused, & she turned on her old
54husband & says, “Do you think because you never saw anything to admire
55in me that no one else can see that I’m beautiful & love me” &c &c.
56The poor old husband then implores her to let th gives the young man
57notice & send him away & have nothing more to do with him. She refuses;
58 & he goes silent out of the house. He has to go to the next village.
59He’s a man who never drinks, but in his despair he turns in at a
60public-house & drinks himself drink. In this state he is knocked down
61by a wagon & killed. The next morning his body is brought home & all
62the neighbours rush in. The wife who really loved her husband very
63much is nearly frantic. The young man who is in the garden painting
64rushes into the kitchen & puts his hand on her arm to tell her how
65sorry he is. She flings it off. “You, you, killed him!” she cries, It
66is all your fault!” The poor young man stand flabbergast. “Yes,” she
67cries, “You, you, led me on to it! You flattered me, you told me I was
68beautiful, you tried to make me love you, you broke him heart!” Then
69the women break-in. Yes, they have seen him standing at the pig sty
70talking to her &c &c he is vile seducer breaking up the peace of other
71peoples home &c &c. They say he ought to support her & her children
72for the rest of their ^her^ life; & there is of course nothing for the
73young man but to pack up his things as quickly as he can & go back to
74London, quite disillusioned with the purity & sweetness of simple
75country life & of all!
77 It seems silly told as I’m telling it, but it’s written by some one
78who evidently knows country life & country people well & it’s quite
79real as told. There is something even pathetic in the distress of the
80simple old husband; & even in the poor woman’s delight in being, as
81she thinks, for the first time in her life, flattered & praised!
83 I was reading the book all night & it reminded one so curiously of
84Hanover. When I first came there there was a family living in the
85corner shop where ?Levinkind now is. All the ^Dutch^ women in Hanover
86told me the wife was not a woman whose call I ought to return, that
87they never called on her, & implied she was a real character when I
88asked Mrs Jan Viljoen what exactly there was against her. I found out
89that twice she had been seen walking in the plantation when her
90husband’s clerk; & once had the effrontery to come walking openly back
91into the village with him. I heard exactly the same story everywhere,
92nothing else against her; & when I suggested she might have met him
93there by chance, or gone for a walk with him with her husband’s
94consent, they would not hear of it, they said a for a “respectable
95married woman does not go out walking with a man who is not her
96husband”! I am quite sure if I invited Koos Van Zÿo have tea with me &
97went out ^afterwards^ for a walk to the kopjes with him, no woman in the
98place would speak to me again, & they might even bring it up before
99the Kirk-raad, & if I were twice found walking in the plantation with
100young Küor young Du Toit, my character would be gone forever! It does
101not matter how pure, or how beautiful, or how noble, your feeling is,
102people of another race & class will misunderstand you, if your if your
103conduct does not coincide with their little sexual standard. I would
104never have been able live my five years as governess among the Boers,
105if I had not always clearly recognised their sexual standard was not
106mine. If Mrs Fouche & the girls went out of a room, & I were left
107along with old Stoffel, I would at once make an excuse for going out
108also. I think that is why I was the only girl I ever heard of as
109living for years as governess among the Boers without getting into
110some sort of sexual trouble. The beautiful “camarardery” which I ^can^
111have with such men as Ellis or Purcell, or with William Butler, or
112Carpenter, would be as impossible with a man like Jim du Toit or Sarel
113Visser, as that they should understand my view of religion or
114philosophy! Such people may not be in any way worse than we are, but
115they simply have another standard of life in sexual matters as well as
116in religion, & they cannot understand our acts & motives unless we are
117always carefully apportioning them to their understanding. I think
118this little book is the best illustration I have ever read of the
119trajedy which may result when people of different classes are thrown
120together with a kind of intimacy. I was just because that young man
121was so pure & good that he ^dream of what those women were thinking.^…
Cronwright-Schreiner has written the date and where it was sent from onto this letter and the first seventeen words; Schreiner’s hand-writing starts with: ‘…Boer of the lower type in this country’. The story that Schreiner had read and discusses in the letter cannot be established. There are some differences between the letter and the version that appears in Cronwright-Schreiner (1924).