"Will Schreiner's death, first time in 50 years not writing to him on his birthday" Read the full letter

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Henrietta Stakesby Lewis (nee Schreiner)

Henrietta Rebecca (Ettie or Het) Stakesby Lewis (nee Schreiner) (1850 - 1912) was Olive Schreiner’s elder sister and an important figure in South African social work and temperance circles. Ettie was born at Umpukani mission station and grew up in the Kat River area. After Theo Schreiner became headmaster at the Cradock school in 1867 Ettie went to keep house for him, and she also started a girls school there. The two shared a zealous and rather rigid Christian faith. Ettie accompanied Theo when he left for the Diamond Fields in 1870, with Olive Schreiner then joining them. her experiences at the Diamond Fields converted the staunchly religious Ettie to the temperance movement, and in this she enlisted Theo’s help. During the 1870s she launched the world-wide Women’s Temperance Prayer Campaign and in the years which followed travelled to Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the US, lecturing extensively on temperance and evangelical matters.

After the death of her sister Alice Hemming in 1884, Ettie took primary charge of caring for Alice’s children and is sometimes rather confusingly referred to in family letters as the ‘mother’ of these children. In 1893 she married John Stakesby Lewis and the couple lived in Kimberley for some years before moving to Cape Town where Ettie opened a home for the destitute on Upper Buitenkant Street called ‘The Highlands’. It also served as a crèche for abandoned babies and a home for invalids of a range of kinds including alcoholism and mental illness, and operated a system of water treatments. Stakesby Lewis died after long suffering from the painful and debilitating family heart condition in 1898.

Ettie Stakesby Lewis was active in the Women’s Temperance Union and in 1907 she led a large protest against the Cheap Wine Licensing Bill. When she died in 1912, “an estimated 10 000 followers and friends attended her funeral” (Quinton and Conradie 1981: 601). Ettie was described as a great and indeed unstoppable talker and a staunch admirer of Rhodes. With her mother Rebecca and brother Theo, she was extremely pro-British during the 1899-1902 South African War. Ettie described herself as feeling passionately loving towards Olive, reciprocated by Olive but with some major rifts in the relationship between the sisters as well. Schreiner might have forgiven but she never forgot being beaten by Ettie for a minor matter in the school in Cradock, both for the injustice of the punishment and its violent character. Also Ettie’s passionate support for the British cause was something Schreiner found difficult at times, although her letters also recognize that Ettie never behaved in the unscrupulous way that the even more pro-British Theo did in using family relationships and confidences in a public context.

Schreiner’s early letters to the then Ettie Schreiner provide interesting glimpses of the young Olive, for example in an 1872 letter about her engagement to Julius Gau, taking him to meet her parents, and him not being able to tolerate the idea that his wife would have ever had to work for her living. These early letters to Ettie compare interestingly with those to her other sisters Katie Findlay and Alice Hemming over similar period. Those to Ettie are considerably warmer, more ‘natural’ and there are signs of great affection. They are chatty, have a conversational feel especially in the earliest ones, with such remarks as ‘good bye till next week’. The later letters are focused primarily on family news and obligations, health matters, including the death of Rebecca Schreiner and its aftermath (including the disinterment of Gottlob Schreiner and his reburial with Rebecca in Maitland cemetery in Cape Town), a rift with Theo and a partial reconciliation when Schreiner helped look after him in Matjesfontein when he had typhoid. After the mid 1870s, there is then something of a gap in the letters until the late 1880s, with Schreiner then arranging for Ettie to meet W.T. Stead in London (which they did, and became firm friends in particular around religious matters and a shared conviction about the material reality of spiritual experiences). Schreiner’s return to South Africa at the end of 1889 included the plan that she and Ettie would live together at Vischoek, but this failed to work out because Schreiner’s asthma became so debilitating that she had to leave.

The later letters contain many ongoing exhortations from Olive to Ettie to rest, not to over-exert herself, to care for her health, passing on health tips and advice with the knowledge that, like their father Gottlob, ‘we Schreiners’ were destined to break down from heart problems at a relatively young age. Then as Ettie began to die from the heart disease that was Gottlob’s legacy to his children, there is much on physical suffering and death as an eventual beautiful release from pain. Ettie provided Olive with a strong link to her childhood, to ‘my old Ettie of Witteberg’ and the sister with the golden hair, and there are also increasingly frequent slips of the pen between the dying Ettie and the much loved little sister Ellie who had died. In these many last letters - in the sense that Schreiner never knew which one would actually be the last one - there are many loving reassurances and affection in most letters, of a ‘you don’t know how beautiful and sweet you are to me’ kind,  and also invoking Ettie as the one who has always cared for everyone else and all that she has done for so many other people. In spite of the differences between them, Schreiner’s deep love for ‘darling Et’ is undoubted, together with their shared commitment to the ‘native question’ and cause and also their belief - albeit with a very different basis for each of them - that ‘one is only happy when one is doing one’s life’s work ’.

There is quite a lot about Schreiner’s writing in her letters to Ettie, concerning both the process (stories appearing to her) and also that the mindless exertion of domestic labour (which Schreiner always participated in and never delegated to servants) killing out her ability to write. There is also much about domestic life, cleaning and cooking, the daily round of Schreiner’s later life before leaving South Africa at the end of 1913. They feature too Schreiner’s battle between the pushes and pulls of personal life and impersonal work, as for example in a 4 February 1893 letter on the eventual dying out of self (and implicitly, its replacement with the ‘one’ which figures large in Schreiner’s letter-writing). In addition, they contain speaking invocations of silences, of what can/not be spoken of and written about, with such comments as ‘You know how I love you though I never speak’, ‘One’s heart is really broken though one goes on living so calmly’ and ‘better one should carry much silent to ones grave’, while around the rift with Theo, in February 1909 there is ‘Please don’t compel me to talk of things I would rather leave unspoken of’.

The letters which Schreiner wrote to the dying Ettie in 1911 and 1912 are mainly short, frequently written, with their contents concerned with Ettie’s rapidly declining health, and they make many practical suggestions (a flannel band around the chest, a bedroom fireplace, honey, oysters, brawn, pigeon minced on Bath Oliver biscuits, buchu tea) which might help Ettie be more comfortable and to eat. In April-June 1912 they take on almost incantatory nature, with their frequent similar phrasings of ‘my darling, I am thinking so much of you, you who have done so much to help others, now so weak and suffering’, with Schreiner writing that writing these letters helped her to ‘feel a little nearer you’. The 1912 letters are particularly interesting with regard to ‘letterness’ and seem to be a distinctive type of letter: they do not require or want a reply (Schreiner insists that Ettie is not to try to write); they are not about the exchange of news or keeping in touch (they are a sign from Olive to Ettie of her ongoing love for her); and they are not a correspondence (but rather Olive sending out almost daily messages of love).

For further information see:
Ruth First & Ann Scott (1980) Olive Schreiner, A Biography London: Andre Deutsch
J.C. Quinton in collaboration with B. Conradie (1981) ‘Stakesby Lewis, Henrietta Rebecca (Het, Ettie)’ in (ed) C.J. Beyers Dictionary of South African Biography  Vol IV Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, pp. 600 - 601
Karel Schoeman (1989) Olive Schreiner: A Woman in South Africa 1855-1881 Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball
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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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