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Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a British sociologist, writer and social theorist whose work had a profound impact on Schreiner’s early thinking. When staying with relatives in the early 1870s, a visitor, Willie Bertram, lent her a copy of Spencer’s First Principles. She described the effect of her immersed reading of it in a March 1884 letter to Havelock Ellis, that “I always think that when Christianity burst on the dark Roman world it was what that book was to me”, and then later in May 1896 commented to Betty Molteno that “his First Principles showed me the unity of existence...” although she had to ‘transmute’ it for her own purposes.

A major public figure, Spencer later emphasised his opposition to the South African War, a stance Schreiner admired.  She certainly knew Spencer, having originally met him at the home of his friends the Potters (their daughter Beatrice was later Beatrice Webb). Spencer was influenced by Olive Schreiner too, and when dying had read aloud to him the passage in The Story of An African Farm concerned with the Hunter and the feather of truth.

For further information see
Jose Harris (2004) ‘Spencer, Herbert (1820-1903)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36208
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collection icon LSE Passfield: The extensive Passfield (Beatrice and Sidney Webb) collection is part of the Archives Collections held by the London School o... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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collection icon SCCS Edited Extracts: Four groups of edited extracts from Olive Schreiner's letters can be accessed from here, made by her estranged husband Cronwr... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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