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Katie (Catherine) Findlay (nee Schreiner)

Katie (Catherine) Whitby Schreiner (1838 - 1898) was the eldest of Gottlob and Rebecca Schreiner’s children. She grew up on the various mission stations to which the family were posted, and in 1859 when the Schreiners were living at Wittebergen she met John Findlay, who had moved to nearby Lady Grey from Cape Town to work in a local trading shop. Katie married John Findlay on 1 August 1860 and the couple settled initially in Aliwal North, then lived later at Fraserburg where John Findlay became a profitable merchant and general dealer. Olive Schreiner was only five years old when Katie left the family home and so grew up not knowing her sister, older than her by seventeen years. From the early 1870s, however, she kept up a correspondence with Katie which seems to have lasted until the mid-1880s. Unlike most of her correspondences, in which letters were interspersed with face-to-face meetings, Schreiner did not see Katie Findlay (apart from when she visited Fraserburg briefly in 1873, and then she stayed with Alice Hemming), and so in effect her epistolary relationship was the entirety of her relationship with Katie.

Schreiner’s letters to Katie are mostly concentrated in the 1870s before she left South Africa for Britain, and they have a decidedly ‘dutiful’ character, with the sense that Schreiner felt family obligation necessitated her writing to Katie, but it comes across that they had little in common and no real emotional bond. Indeed in many of her letters to Katie, Schreiner apologises for being a poor correspondent, and offers a range of reasons to explain her failure to keep in touch, including having a headache, injuring her thumb, not having time, or difficulties associated with the postal system. However, in spite of their sometimes rather formulaic style and mainly prosaic content concerning ‘family news’, the 1870s letters to Katie Findlay in fact provide valuable insight into Schreiner’s early life and also her early letter-writing practices. The letters deal with a number of important turning points in Schreiner’s early life, including her decision to be called Olive in 1871 (“I wish you would call me Olive. I like it so much better than Emily & it is my first name you know”), her botched engagement to Julius Gau, her experiences at the Diamond Fields, her determination to be financially independent (“I made up my mind when I was quite a little child that as soon as I was able I would support myself”), and her unfolding plans about leaving South Africa.

The 1870s letters also provide some insight into the postal system at the time, with letters in 1872 taking three months to travel from Fraserburg to the Western Cape, and Schreiner, writing from Eastern Cape farms, having to wait for ‘a boy’ to take the post into town to start its journey. Schreiner’s later letters to Katie written after her departure from South Africa gradually take on a rather different, less formal and formulaic style, for example being addressed to “My dear old Sissie” in a way that is characteristically ‘Schreiner’, rather than the exclamatory “Dearest Katie!”, which is more like an example from a letter-writing manual.

From the late 1860s on, Katie Findlay suffered bouts of mental instability which were “ascribed variously to the premature birth of a baby in 1868, the after-effects of puerperal fever, or shock she had suffered during the Korana war” (Schoeman 1991: 278). Katie had twelve children, of whom four died young (several of Schreiner’s letters to Katie offer condolences on the death of a child), and according to Schoeman she found “no great fulfillment in her marriage” (Schoeman1991: 458). In later life Katie Findlay’s mental condition deteriorated to the point where she was eventually admitted by her family to the Natal Government Asylum at Pietermaritzburg, where she died in 1898.

For further information see:
Vera Buchanan-Gould (1949) Not Without Honour: The Life and Writings of Olive Schreiner London & Cape Town: Hutchinson & Co
Joan Findlay (1954) The Findlay Letters 1808 - 1870 Pretoria: Van Schaik
Karel Schoeman (1991) Olive Schreiner: A Woman in South Africa 1855-1881 Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball
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collection icon Cullen Library, Historical Papers, University of Witwatersrand: Historical Papers in the Cullen Library is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many periods, organisation... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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
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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collection icon Cullen Library, Historical Papers, University of Witwatersrand: Historical Papers in the Cullen Library is a leading location for accessing archival papers across many periods, organisation... Show/Hide Collection Letters
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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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