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Mary Sauer (nee Cloete)

Mary Sauer nee Cloete (1863 - 1937) was a close friend of Olive Schreiner’s and wife of the Cape politician Jacobus Wilhelmus Sauer (1850 - 1913). She was the daughter of Henry Cloete, one of the younger sons of the Groot Constantia Cloetes, owners of a historic Cape wine farm. She married Sauer in 1884 and they had two daughters, Magda and Dorothy, and a son, Paul Oliver, who later became a high-level Nationalist politician. It seems that Olive Schreiner met Mary Sauer shortly after her return to South Africa at the end of 1889 and they soon became very close friends. There are a large number of extant letters, over 130, given (presumably by Mary Sauer herself) to another friend of Schreiner’s, Ruth Alexander, in 1929. There is no certain way of establishing whether more letters within the existing sequence were written, for letter-content is clearly greatly marked by ‘punctuations’ or ‘interruptions’ brought about by their frequent face-to-face meetings so that letter-absences cannot be spotted, nor whether more letters might have been written after the ‘last’ extant letter but were weeded out before donation.

The initial letters convey that Mary Sauer  saw herself as ‘unfinished’, a woman wanting a wider world and identifying Olive Schreiner with this, with her husband considerably older and well set in his political ways, and her feeling the confines of the ‘wife and mother’ life she was living. The friendship advanced by leaps and bounds, well indicated by the language and expressions used and also content which conveys an enormous sense of energy and enthusiasm, although perhaps Schreiner recommending self-education and a programme of concerted reading of intellectual texts was not entirely anticipated. Later letters comment on South African War women’s relief organisations, the emergence of Cape women’s organisations, and are peppered with political comments. It is not at all clear whether the correspondence and the friendship dwindled, perhaps because of political differences emerging in the new political climate after 1902, with Schreiner certainly vehemently opposed to the Natives Land Act introduced by Sauer as Minister of Justice and of Native Affairs as his last political act. Sauer suffered a stroke and died soon after this was passed in late 1913, so this highly retrograde legislation with lasting significance through the apartheid era was his political legacy and not his earlier professions of liberalism. Sadly, the train with his coffin ‘passed’ the railway town of de Aar where Schreiner was living and stopped briefly at the station there, but as Schreiner wrote to John Merriman on 25 July 1913, “a quarter past two this morning I heard the train go past with his body. It was so improbable to realize it was Sauers body going by. I would have sat up at the station to watch for its coming but I knew Mary would be asleep worn out with much watching & sorrow, & I could not see her.” In this letter Schreiner sent her commiserations to Merriman on the loss of his friend, but the extant letters do not contain any such to Mary Sauer herself.

The extant letters start in November 1890, with Olive Schreiner and Mary Sauer having already met. Their salutation quickly changes from ‘My dear Mrs Sauer’ to ‘Dear Mary’ to ‘My darling Mary’ and ‘I love you’, so that affection and considerable intimacy seem to emerge very quickly, with the letters giving the sense of huge energy, excitement, of things happening and great possibilities. By early 1891, after but two short months it is Mary and Olive with them, something that others of Schreiner’s closest friendships correspondences took much longer to reach (Betty Molteno), or indeed never achieved (Molteno’s sister Caroline Murray). Overall, these letter contain a huge amount of detail on Schreiner’s writing, probably unparalleled across the extant letters, both specific things about particular pieces of writing but also about the work involved, of working at writing and what this means for Schreiner. Is this her demonstrating for Mary the potential of women’s lives when they are not just immersed in ‘personal’? Whether or not intended as such, it does do this with regard to writing. Indeed, these letters include really fascinating comments on Schreiner’s writing practices and patterns and how she works by being either fully immersed in her writing or else doing ‘nothing’ but being sociable (as in a letter of March-April 1891), at this time involving transitions from Matjesfontein to Cape Town and back again. But also given their infrequency in Schreiner’s other letters, the extent and detail of such comments and descriptions to Mary Sauer are clearly markers of loving trust and considerable intimacy.

Schreiner’s comments about her writing also echo those made in other letters about work as the ‘solution’ to life, that if we do our work we need never be depressed, because in work it is possible to forget you are a self and subjectivity. For Mary Sauer and many other women, the problem perhaps was finding what such ‘work’ might be, in the context of (literally) self-invention. Schreiner, well set on course, recommends books by Carpenter and John Stuart Mill among others and gets Mary involved in supporting the artist who she funds, the now well-known Hugo Naude, and encourages her to develop, to ‘awaken’. One interpretation here is that Schreiner sensed an intellectual potential or spark in Mary Sauer and tried to encourage or nurture this, so that it is possible to conjecture that Schreiner eventually stopping writing letters to Mary Sauer was also Schreiner giving up on her as a person ever really developing in this way, much as she gave up on various other correspondents politically (Malan, Merriman, Smuts). A related conjecture concerns whether there might have been women who were ‘projects’ in feminist terms for Schreiner, women she wanted to nurture intellectually, to help them develop and to break out of the narrow constraints they were living within? Mary Sauer could be an example here an example here, with others being Alys Pearsall Smith, Lucy Molteno, Andre Murray, and Ruth Alexander. But of course there is a more ordinary and perhaps more likely explanation, that emotionally Olive Schreiner and Mary Sauer ‘fell for each other’ in a major way, but over time they grew apart.

That these letters provide a sense of Schreiner’s huge energy and that she was living and writing at full pelt in the early 1890s period has already been commented on. This stands in considerable contrast to Schreiner’s ill-health and domestic labour killing out intellectual work in the period after her marriage to Cronwright-Schreiner. After her return from Europe and then her marriage, the focus in the letters to Mary Sauer is initially on the happiness of married life, then Schreiner’s pregnancy and her looking forward to the baby, her rather odd experience of professional jealousies involving two local doctors but still ‘trotting about’ her domestic life, and then the heartbreaking sadness of the time after the baby’s birth and death. The latter letters comment on drudgery and stultification, so that it is becomes Olive who is trapped and unfinished and working within confines not of her choosing. While even the early letters contain some political observations and comments, from this point on such concerns become more pronounced, and they include a good deal on South African political life (perhaps a shared interest with Mary), and with the final very long extant letter concerning the formation of a women’s section of a political party, or perhaps the initial stages of the founding of the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League..

There are some enormously resonant quotidian ‘moments’ in these letters: Schreiner washing her pots out at the back door and the rather grand Mr Innes arriving, and writing a long letter to Mary Sauer about Sauer’s husband’s political future and then moving quite seamlessly into a request for Mary to buy her a set of the largest set of combinations possible, are cases in point. There are also some attempts to include Sauer (send some letters via him), by sending greetings to him and including him in arrangements for meetings, but these appear rather incidental politenesses. And even after the marriage to Cronwright, their loving intimacy continues. For example, Olive asks Mary to come and stay when Cron will be away, and she imagines them bathing in the river together. Also Mary Sauer is part of the family circle - Olive asks her sister Ettie to write to Mary about the birth and death of the baby, for instance.

So was this a love affair, or a passionate intellectual engagement? Or perhaps both? There is certainly a great deal in these letters about how much Schreiner loves Mary Sauer (or perhaps this might be her telling her what she wanted to hear?), with Schreiner writing that she only goes to Cape Town because Mary is there, and in a siren-like way she writes a litany of such things as, come to see me and stay with me, I think of you in bed, I want to dedicate my new volume of dreams to you, I imagine ‘our place’ in the rushes at the river bed, and I can make a woman so happy who lives with me.   There are also other uses of the language of love letters too, including ‘Thou dost’, ‘My darling’, ‘Thine ever’, and many overt declarations of love for Mary. There is the sense elsewhere in her letters of Schreiner at this time considering whether the is a ‘marrying woman’ or not, and whether she wants to live in a world of women or the everyday world , and weighting up the pluses and minuses of the ‘young Karoo farmer’ who was Cronwright. The jury must be out concerning what exactly the relationship between Olive Schreiner and Mary Sauer ‘was’ and what it meant to both of them, for part there is really not enough certain evidence to reach conclusions about this. However, it is difficult not to think that Mary Sauer represented in some sense a lost future for Olive Schreiner because, whatever else, living in a world of women would have been far less likely to have entailed the domestic drudgery that marriage held for someone who refused to let servants do everything and who always worked alongside them.

In the last letters from 1903, there is no obvious sign of a major rift but rather perhaps a gradual drifting apart. In these letters Olive is still writing to her darling Mary, and she also comments that she hasn’t had time to read or write because her brain has been killed by nine years (the period of her marriage, at that point in time) of physical labour. Thinking about the end of the letters, and also Schreiner’s many comments in these letters about forgetting you are a self through impersonal work and the killing out of personal life, the question then arises of whether her letters to Mary Sauer are the dying embers of the ‘personal life’ that Olive Schreiner once had. The letters remain personal in lots of ways, although there is interestingly not so many of Schreiner’s markers of intimacy and meaningfulness, such as her use of the third person ‘one’, as in the earlier letters. Perhaps then this correspondence acts as a key sign of the deliberate transition Schreiner made on her late 1889 return to South Africa, regarding the dangers of subjectivity and immersion in others and the consequential need to turn away from the personal and towards impersonal work if one was to help contribute to changing the world. Perhaps the way to conclude is with the lack of conclusion which Schreiner felt about the clearly very much loved Mary Sauer:

“I am so glad you came. I've never felt so near you before nor loved you so. Mary, you have to go through a time of certain trouble & awakening in your own life, but I believe that in the end & as the result of it you & your husband will be nearer than you ever were before & you will have a larger power of helping him, which is what you so long for. Only hold by all that is greatest & best in yourself my darling. I wish we could spend the winter abroad together. I can't help you: my own nature struggles too feebly after the the beautiful for me to do that but you would have some one near you whom you knew loved you utterly. Dear there are very few human beings I care for as I do for you, & none who could fill your place ^to^ for me. / I have been going through the most straining time of my life the last eight months, & it has left me a little dis-cordant mentally; but I am loving you more than I ever loved you.” (Oct - Nov 1891)
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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
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mentioned icon Mentioned In
collection icon Aletta: The Aletta Jacobs collection is extensive and available on microfilm at the Aletta IIVA archive in Amsterdam. Schreiner’... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon Greene Family: A sub-set of Schreiner’s letters to Alice Greene is held in the private collection of the Greene family heirs, (while o... Show/Hide Collection Letters
collection icon National Archives Depot, Pretoria: The National Archives Depot is Pretoria is a leading location for archival papers across a wide time-period, organisations an... 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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