"Mingling races, my articles, not my husband" Read the full letter


Rebecca Schreiner (nee Lyndall)

Rebecca Lyndall (18hh-1903), from Hoxton in London, came from an evangelical Non-Conformist (originally Methodist) background, with her father Samuel a well known charismatic preacher and hymn writer and her mother Catherine having an interest in missionary work. Earlier Catherine Lyndall's step-daughter and Rebecca's older half-sister Elizabeth had gone to the Cape to establish nurseries under the auspices of John Philip and the London Missionary Society, and there she had married the French missionary Samuel Rolland. Rebecca Lyndall was at the time involved with revivalist activities. She and the then not long ordained Gottlob Schreiner married in November 1837 and they left for South Africa at the end of that month. As a missionary wife, Rebecca Schreiner lived manly in outlying and remote areas on South Africa, with her feelings about the country marked by early experiences including the Frontier Wars of the 1840s and 50s - on one occasion with Gottlob away from home, she and her small children fled and were pursued along the Fish River by a Khosa army. A strict disciplinarian, she was fiercely opposed to anything Boer or 'common', with for example an 'ach' from a very young Olive Schreiner receiving a beating. She also appears to have thought that Gottlob and also her children favoured too much the African people among whom they lived. Rebecca Schreiner read widely and was seen by her daughter Olive as of pronounced intellectual inclination; she also described her mother as a piano shut up and used as a kitchen-table.

There are very few extant letters from Olive Schreiner to her mother, especially given that at some points she was writing to her every day (stated to her sister-in-law Fan Schreiner, and also her husband Cronwright-Schreiner), which then settled over many years into a weekly letter. The most substantial surviving letter is an extremely long and detailed account of Schreiner's wedding day in February 1894, while the remainder are mainly later letters which are rather formulaic in tone. Both to other people and in the extant letters to Rebecca Schreiner herself, she is 'the little mother', a phrase in wide contemporary white South African use, which Schreiner seems to have used in two ways to characterize her changing relationship with her mother. Firstly, a watershed occurred after Rebecca read an early manuscript of Undine and was moved to tears by what it implied about Olive's parenting, also linked with Schreiner?s strongly loving feelings about 'the little mother' of Seymour days after the death of Gottlob Schreiner, when she and her mother used to horse-back ride out on the veld, as invoked in some of Schreiner's letters to her older sister Ettie. Secondly, in the later 1890s, political disagreements not only among the Schreiners but also within the wider extended kin networks, coupled with Rebecca's increasing frailty in old age, led Schreiner to in effect empty her relationship with her mother of anything that might disturb her. In particular this concerned the politicalnd moral 'fall' of Rhodes after the Jameson Raid and Will's political position around these events, for Rebecca was very close to Rhodes and they wrote regularly to each other, while Will, the youngest of her children, appears also to have been one of her favourites.

Schreiner's love for her mother is clear, but there is also the sense that Rebecca came rather too much under the sway of, in particular, her niece Lily Orpen (Elize or Lily Rolland before marriage), who held strong pro-British and pro-Rhodes views. Also Rebecca Schreiner was beset by jealousies concerning her children and had strong favourites among them. Rebecca's independent and close relationship with Cecil Rhodes involved them writing frequently to each other and he also visited her; in addition, he made public political capital out of private family information which Rebecca had told him about, something Olive Schreiner found unforgivable. Eventually Schreiner's letters to Rebecca become condensed into quite literally 'just a word of love', a phrase often used in them. The later letters are soothing, cheerful, affectionate, 'newsy' letters about her health, Cron and his news, asking for extended family news, the weather and the animals; and 'Just a line to let you know I'm thinking of you' seems to be their essence, a word of love and affection but devoid of 'real' news or exchange. There is consequently a strange sense of stasis in reading them, of no change and in a way no content - you are my own sweet mother and I love you, but nothing else. Clearly, however, the younger Rebecca Schreiner was a woman of considerable ability and intellect, with Schreiner's description of her as a piano shut up and used as a table conveying a good deal.

For further information see:
Ruth First & Ann Scott (1980) Olive Schreiner, A Biography London: Andre Deutsch
Karel Schoeman (1989) Olive Schreiner: A Woman in South Africa 1855-1881 Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball
Back to top

recipient icon Recipient Of
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 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 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
Back to top

mentioned icon Mentioned In
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
Back to top