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Letter ReferenceJohn X. Merriman MSC 15/1899:113
ArchiveNational Library of South Africa, Special Collections, Cape Town
Epistolary TypeLetter
Letter Date17 March 1899
Address FromJohannesburg, Transvaal
Address To
Who ToJohn X. Merriman
Other VersionsRive 1987: 346-8
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.
1 Hell
2 March 17 / 99
4 Dear Mr Merriman
6 You will perceive from the superscription above that I am still in
7Johannesburg. I have not written to anyone, except absolutely
8necessary lines since I came here, because I have had nothing to write
9about but Johannesburg; it has filled all my thoughts or rather, it
10has crushed all power of thinking or feeling about anything else out
11of me. You know the place, but I think only to a woman's eyes can it
12be opened in all its full hideousness. It is the women that are the
13most terrible thing here; but doubtless the mass of ill-gotten wealth
14attained without labour & squandered with recklessness is the true
15source of the evil. It attracts the worst class of women to
16Johannesburg; & it demoralizes those who were not so ^demoralized^
17before. It is not the poor out-cast women who are the most terrible
18thing here, by any means: it is the apparently respectable women. I
19have lived in various places on earth, Monte Carlo, London, Paris. I
20have worked among the out-cast women & drunken sailors at the East End;
21 but anything so appalling, so decayed I have never seen.
23 The bitterest condemnation of Johannesburg society that I have heard
24was given utterance to the other day by a good old fashioned Lower
25Albany woman who has been ten years in Johannesburg, & who was
26absolutely uncons-cious of the fearful indictment she was making.
28 I said I found Johannesburg very depressing.
30 She replied, "Oh, but think of all the good one can do here." I said
31that was just what I didn't feel, the place crushed me. She replied,
32"Oh, but think of all the good one can do by simply leading a
33respectable life here
! It wouldn't be anything in any other place; &
34its so much in Johannesburg
36 And that is the truth. In another place to become a burning & a
37shining light it would be necessary to exhibit at least some sparks of
38positive & active virtue: here it is quite sufficient that you should
39simply ^remain^ superficially faithful to your own selfrespect.
41 One realized in Johannesburg what the tone of society must have been
42in the reign of Charles the Second. The whole moral fibre relaxed.
44 I do not believe, as one of my good clergyman friends holds, that
45sexual degeneracy is the root of our evil here.
47 We are a city given over to lust. Lust of money in the first place,
48lust of pleasure, lust of excitement; & the tone of our sexual
49morality springs incidentally from this general attitude. It seems
50hopeless to me to labour at the effect while the cause remains. I
51never think of Johannesburg but those lines of Rossetti's come into my
52mind - "Even such in the world is lust."
54 ^April 2nd^
56 Yesterday my husband & I went down to hear Oom Paul's speech in the
57square. It was a touching & impressive sight to me. That simply sturdy
58son of South Africa, with his old white hair like long ragged thatch
59blowing about his forehead, & his closed eyes, & strong never-to-be
60moved-from-his-purpose face, in the midst of that seething, sharp,
61Johannesburg crowd. It was a fine speech. As given in the papers it
62loses all its directness, point & character.
64 Some working men were here to see me about it yesterday afternoon.
65They say if he will give them due notice of his coming next time the
66working men will get up a great demonstration for him, line the
67streets, &c. They did not know he was coming till the day before, &
68felt rather pained that they had not heard of his coming.
70 Have you much concern with the new paper? If so, could you, do you
71think, speak a word for the old man whose testimonials I send, he
72would be very glad to get some work on the paper, even if don not
73bringing in much. He has a small private income, but nothing to do, &
74wants work that would interest him. I don't know much of him, but my
75husband thinks highly of him.
77 Wasn't our success at Stellenbosch splendid. Do you feel hopeful as to
78Vryburg? I am feeling very hopeful about these elections, perhaps
79because I don't know enough.
81 Yours very sincerely
82 Olive Schreiner
'Even in such a world is lust' is a slight misquotation from Dante Gabriel Rossetti's 'Jenny', in his (1870) Poems London: F.S. Ellis. Rive's (1987) version omits part of this letter and is also in a number of respects incorrect.