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Robert Franklin Muirhead

Robert Muirhead was a mathematics teacher who also worked for the Glasgow Socialist League and Edward Carpenter had undertaken a speaking tour with him in 1886. Schreiner met Muirhead at Millthorpe, and according to Sheila Rowbotham he was immediately drawn to her, while Schreiner herself both reciprocated and also commented (to Carpenter and others) that she could never marry a man like Bob Muirhead because ‘he’s too good’. They became close friends and corresponded from when Schreiner left Britain for South Africa in late 1888 through to 1920, with the extant letters likely to be the remnants of a larger number.

These letters to Muirhead are comradely letters, letters between chums, and contain such comments as ‘I wish I was a man we could camp around the world together’ with sign offs often being from ‘your old comrade’. When Schreiner first returned to South Africa, she wrote urging him to come out too, then actively discouraged him - he would not be able to cope with realities for working men there in roughing it, but then suggests that he might work at her friend Mr Lloyd’s new school. Throughout these letters, the Edward Carpenter shared connection was clearly an important one and is referred to in the later letters as well as the earlier. Comments on nature and landscape also feature strongly. Gaining a purchase on the letters to Muirhead is however quite difficult. They are largely ‘staying in touch’ kinds of letters, making arrangements, and expressing friendly and loving feelings, but at the same time little of Schreiner and her activities comes through in the earlier letters, which contain very little about her writing and her ‘views’. Exceptions here concern a 1908 letter about the Dinuzulu trial and the need for justice for black people and a 1911 one sending Muirhead a copy of her Closer Union. However, from 1914 on there are some very powerful letters on the First World War, especially her October 1914 letter to him, which conveys what the conversations between them might have been like and is concerned with the diplomacy leading up to war, lying and darkness, and what was in the making being worse than even the South African War.

The later letters also shed some important light on Schreiner’s estrangement from Carpenter during the war, as with her comment to Muirhead that ‘I’m afraid he [Carpenter] thinks I’m very wicked because I don’t see any good in war’, with Carpenter’s less than total pacifist attitude to the war being named as one of the four great blows in her life. They detail a furore about a wartime invention by Muirhead and Schreiner’s perturbation and indignation at his accusation that she might have gossiped about this. Her horror of gossip, of being thought untrustworthy, of talking of other people and their business to third parties, come through strongly and are also expressed across many other letters too, not just these to Muirhead. What also comes through is that Bob Muirhead was in some respects rather flaky perhaps; he seems not have had any paid work at various points, and his inventions too seem to not come to anything. Schreiner also takes him to task on feminist grounds, for treating his wife’s concerns in a rather off-hand way. But the strong affection and friendship remained and in other letters from around this time (1914) Schreiner writes about becoming more and more sociable and not wanting to be alone any more.

For more information see:
Sheila Rowbotham (2008) Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love London: Verso 
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recipient icon Recipient Of
collection icon Macfarlane-Muirhead Family: Schreiner’s letters to Robert Muirhead are part of Macfarlane-Muirhead family collection and can be accessed at the Mui... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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collection icon Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin: The HRC, Austin, is one of the world leading locations for archival papers pertaining to literary life and manuscripts across... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Macfarlane-Muirhead Family: Schreiner’s letters to Robert Muirhead are part of Macfarlane-Muirhead family collection and can be accessed at the Mui... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown: The National English Literary Museum is the leading location for collections pertaining to the imaginative and creative writi... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Library of South Africa, Cape Town: Special Collections at the NLSA provide one of the leading locations for archival papers across many periods, organisations a... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Sheffield City Libraries, Archives & Local Studies: Edward Carpenter Collection, Archives & Local Studies, Sheffield City Libraries: The Edward Carpenter Collection is held ... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon University of Cape Town, Historical Manuscripts: Manuscripts & Archives at the University of Cape Town is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many per... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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