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Letter ReferenceJohn X. Merriman MSC 15/1912:132
ArchiveNational Library of South Africa, Special Collections, Cape Town
Epistolary TypeLetter
Letter Date11 August 1912
Address FromDe Aar, Northern Cape
Address To
Who ToJohn X. Merriman
Other Versions
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 De Aar
2 Aug 11th 1912
4 Dear Mr Merriman.
6 Re. your letter. No, I do not take a sorrowful view of life generally;
7nor above all of the of condition of the world at the present day. I
8think in many countries things are what an American would call on the
9"up grade." The clear minded impartial looker on knows perfectly well,
10or ought to, when things in his country or any other (of which he has
11intimate knowledge) are going, as he from his standpoint forwards or
12backwards. Sometimes ^of course^ the backward movement is permanent, &
13means death. This was the case when the Roman Empire decayed; when
14Greece in third century, ^& second century^ began to fail. Far seeing
15souls did then see the decay, & did see all it meant; & were surely
16sorrowful. But there are smaller waves of backward movement & of
17forward. In 1880 when I went to England a strong (from my standpoint)
18forward movement was setting in. It continued till (roughly speaking)
19about 89 88. Then we who there were working at ^in^ the heart of things,
20felt a change becoming to come; subtle, but wide, & unmistakable. We
21all felt it. In 1890 when I left England to visit South Africa, we
22were looking into each others faces & saying "What is it that is
23coming over ^our^ English life." There was from the liberal & advanced
24stand point a distinct & vast back-wash setting in: When I went back ^&^
25it was to go on till it produced the Jameson Raid & the Boer War. When
26I went back to England for a visit in the year af ter ^after^ of the
27Jameson Raid, things had reached a much lower level than when I left
28in 1890. A dead unreadable ^pall^ rested over the whole life of the
29people - it was ghastly! You yourself The upper class - "society" -
30under the growing influence of the then Prince of Wales, Edward, was
31becoming rotten to its core. I shall never forget ^when^ one of the
32Princes "smart set," the daughter of a Lord married to the son of a
33Duke, called on me at half past 11 in the morning with white kid
34gloves on, loaded on the out the outside with diamond rings almost to
35the fingertips - frowsy ^dyed^ yellow hair hanging into her eyes, &
36looking like the most abandoned prostitute (I thought when I went into
37the drawing room to meet her she was one of the unhappy women I used
38to work among come to see me); & she entertained me with her views on
39sex matters, saying for instance that when a woman had born two
40legitimate children to a man to inherit his title & position she had a
41perfect right to amuse herself with other men as she liked &c &c. The
42days of the Lady Lyttons & Burdett Coutts's was passing at court, ^&
43social life was rotting from above downwards.^
45 The "noncomformist conscience" that Rhodes so hated & feared was
46dieing in the middle classes, a passion for dress, luxury & gain was
47eating it up. The saddest of all to me was the change among my own
48section the working classes & democratic organizations. The noble
49impersonal enthusiasm which had played such a large part among us in
50the early 80's was dead ^or at least torpid.^ A lifeless striving after
51gain for themselves had taken its place. Literature was at its lowest
52ebb. Tit Bits & ?Alles ?Slopper were flooding the land: The whole
53press ^almost^ was in the hands of the capitalists - because they
54represented the spirit of the nation
. Literature was dying; In place
55of the giants Wil who were passing ^William^ Morris, Browning Tennyson,
56Huxley Darwin, we had our idol Rudyard Kippling - & he gave voice to
57the soul of the people when he thirsted for a land -
59 "Where the best is like the worst,
60 And there ain't no ten commandments,
61 And a man can slake his thirst!"
63 You, yourself must have felt something of this ^downward movement in
64England^ for in a letter you wrote me two days before I sailed for
65England ^at the time of the Jameson trial^, you told me, I would be
66disappointed that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be hoped
67for from England! I knew & had felt the great material^ist^ reaction
68that was coming on in 1890 when I left England, but even I could not
69believed till I went there that my England; the England of the earlier
7080's was so wholly dead. I shall never forget my my interview with
71John Morley at the time of the Jameson trial. How politely he sneered
72at me when I spoke of the great war Rhodes & Chamberlain would bring
73about in South Africa, & its terrible results. How politely he implied
74that I was imaginative & mislead ^by feeling,^ that such a thing was
75impossible! That he knew Joe Chamberlain well with all his faults but
76that he was going to make such a war ^as^ I painted was inconceivable.
77You felt every-where that you were battering your head against a stone
78wall that never moved. One day 7 leading Englishmen of widely unlike
79types came to see me in succession & I put to each of them the
80question what was the meaning of the terrible changes that has passed
81over the life of England. Each gave a slightly different reason; but
82not one denied that a great war of materialism, a deadness towards all
83the higher & nobler aspects of human life had crept over the nation:
84that there was a great back-ward movement.
86 I think my friend J A Hobson was nearest the truth when dis-cussing
87this great backward movement with me some years later he said, "We are
88are suffering from a wave of excessive commercial prosperity 'Ephraim
89hath waxed fat & kicked' " But that there was such a backward movement,
90 to be ended only when England was pulled up sharply to the earth by
91the Boer war with its subsequent loss & shame, I think no one who in
92the future studies the history of England will doubt.
94 You will no doubt say "What on earth are you raking up these old
95stories for? No one doubts them." I am doing it in answer to your
96criticism. You say, I am needlessly depressed when I say I perceive a
97steady downward & backward movement in South Africa, which it seems to
98me, must go on for twelve, fifteen, or even twenty years; & you say,
99"Things are never so bad as they seem." Not only are they sometimes as
100bad, but they are sometimes much worse!
102 We, who between 1888 & 1890, felt the great backward wave creeping
103over us in England, knew that many & evil days were coming; but even
104in our most farseeing moments ^did^ we never pictured anything so
105morally shameful & nationally degrading as the wave of greed &
106Imperial lust that was to to sweep over England, always increasing in
107volume of 12 or 14 years; to end with ^the^ connivance of Rhodes,
108Chamberlain & Edward the 7th in the Boer war; which all but brought
109England on to her knees. It is true that in the last years England has
110been ^rudely^ awakened again; & is now moving forward slowly - but evil
111bears fruits which long poison the soil on which it falls.
113 I feel about South Africa exactly as I did about England between 1888
114& 1890 when the downward reaction was first setting in. I cannot blind
115my eyes to the conditions of the society about me. Some day the
116movement may be reversed when we have had some great & terrible lesson;
117 but the backward movement is here now.
119 We are seeking slowly & steadily to undo the work which the George
& William Porters & Saul Solomons sought to begin in this
121country: our social & moral ideals are sinking. ?Burton & Saul Solomon
122tried to start
We are narrowing our social & political rights - we are
123trying to with-draw even educating advantages from the mass of our
124people, who are our natives. In our defence force we are going to tax
125the nation to inaugurate a vast power for evil & blood shed, & civil
126war; which will begin with the native but not end there. When we have
127had our big native wars & dispossessed the native of his land, we may
128get cheap labour for the mine owner & the farmer, but we shall have
129created such a ^terrible^ proletariate as our will be our ultimate
130undoing Perhaps to me the saddest of all parts of the out look is the
131attitude of our so called labour party - much sadder to me than can be
132to you, who are not yourself a democrate & a sympathizer with labour
133in all lands. They are no real "labour party" at all, but a little
134plutocratic body seeking to crush down the mass of labourers, as much
135as any body of mine owners & land owners. The mere fact that our
136politicians have been able to give themselves incomes of three & four
137thousand a year in a poor country like South Africa - they they have
138have been able to carry out their plot of money granting for the
139building at Pretoria - & the nation has taken these things sitting down,
140 shows to me the direction in which we are moving.
142 Do not think that I mean there is no virtue left in South Africa.
143There is always Elijah at the door of his cave in the darkest hours of
144national degeneracy - & no doubt the Lord hath reserved to himself the
145ninety-&-nine thousand - but if he has, he has hidden them so away in
146the hollow of his hand that they don't show.
148 I know even in public life there are men like yourself & my brother
149who have principles & ideals, to whom 3 or 4 or it might be 6 thousand
150a year would be but as a handful of sand compared to leading the
151people on paths that seem to you right. But you will never be leaders:
152a man cannot lead when there is no one to unreadable ^follow!^ I do not
153blame the politicians alone - people make their governments A little
154oligarchy eaten up by the desire of keeping all South Africa to
155themselves & filling their pockets with gain, whether Englishmen or
156Dutch-men, mine owners or farmers, has got quite as good a government
157as it desires.
159 A little white Oligarchy seeking even to exclude more white men from
160the country that it may retain all advantage & gain for itself, &
161seeking to crush down & hold only for its own advantage the body of
162labouring millions, must ultimately bring about its own terrible
163retribution. What form exactly it will take no one can yet say.
164Perhaps it may be in 15 or 20 years when a great Asiatic fleet rides
165in Table Bay, & the down trodden millions who should be our main
166defence & strength, leap up to join a power, which may give them more
167justice, & cannot give them less? ?In
169 Some great reversal of our ideals & aims may save up. But I see no
170sign now of that reform.
172 I'm afraid you'll never get through this fearfully written scrawl. So
173I won't say any more. You see I'm trying to justify myself to you!
175 Yours very sincerely
176 Olive Schreiner
178 I really must apologise for inflicting on you this long tirade P: You
179will think my pen tonight is like the mill that couldn't leave off
180grinding till the whole sea became salt!
The quotation starting 'Where the best is like the worst' is from Kipling's poem 'Mandalay', in Rudyard Kipling (1892) Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses London: Methuen & Co.