Skip to Content
Indiana University

Search Options




View Options


Table of Contents



Undine. Schreiner, Olive, 1855–1920.
previous
next
page: vii

INTRODUCTION

HERE, in this novel, which precedes The Story of an African Farm and has some curious and interesting facts associated with it, we have Olive Schreiner “Mewing her mighty youth.”

Some years before her death Olive Schreiner said to me that, if ever a biography of her were to be written, she would like me to write it, or, failing me, her “oldest and best friend,” Havelock Ellis.

I was in London when she died, and wrote to Ellis as soon as possible. Telling him of her wish, I asked him if he would write the biography. This he found himself unable to do, but offered to place at my service all the information he had if I would undertake it. Without delay I engaged quarters near him and got to work. At our first “business” meeting, he brought up the subject of an unfinished novel of Olive's, much to my surprise, for I had never even heard of it. This was Undine, the manuscript of which she had placed in his hands in 1884, shortly after they met. I had the manuscript typed and left the original and a carbon copy with him.

But the novel was not complete; the concluding part was missing. On my return to South Africa in March, 1921, I found the missing section among page: viii my wife's papers. It consisted of twenty-two foolscap sheets in two separate lots (being pages 410 to 432 of the whole manuscript of the novel) which connected up unbrokenly with what preceded it. The handwriting is in Olive's large, strong, rapid style, an approximate specimen of which is given on page 228 of her Letters. The paper is faded and the matter is clearly a final revision. At some time this manuscript had been posted to “Miss O. Schreiner, c/o Advocate Schreiner, Cape Town,” by her mother, whose handwriting is unmistakable. From the official cancellation of the postage stamps I cannot now make out when or where it was posted. The stamps are Cape Colony stamps, long out of date. Well weighing all the facts within my knowledge, I think, however, that the novel was completed in South Africa before she left for England in 1881, that the now-recovered missing section consists of the two parts mentioned in Olive's letter to Ellis of the 20th November, 1884 (given later), that it was taken by her to her mother at Seymour at the end of 1876 (as mentioned in her Ratel Hoek journal later), and left there, or that she left it with her mother in Grahamstown as she passed through on her way to England in February, 1881, and finally that her mother posted it to Advocate Schreiner from Grahamstown after Olive's return to South Africa (which was in November, 1889). There is another interesting fact in connection with this manuscript: page: ix on a wrapper tied round the roll I found Olive's description of its contents, written in ink in her own handwriting, “Bit of early novel when I was about 16 years.”

We now come to the actual writing of the novel.

The Kimberley Diamond Mine was discovered in July, 1871. The great rush that at once set in towards it soon caused it to be called New Rush, a name it retained until the Camp at the Diamond Fields was proclaimed as Kimberley in July, 1873.

Olive's brother Theo (later a Senator) was one of the early diggers who joined the Camp at New Rush. He was followed by his sister Ettie (later the temperance orator), while their youngest brother, Will (later Prime Minister of Cape Colony), used to travel up from Cape Colony to spend his school holidays working with Theo on his claims. Like other diggers, the Schreiners lived in tents near the edge of the mine, where Kaffir “boys,” under an overseer, worked the claims. Theo himself supervised the “washing” and personally did the “sorting.”

In 1872 Olive went to visit her brother and sister. Setting out from the little village of Hertzog where her parents lived, not far from Grahamstown, and travelling by passenger coach the hundreds of miles to the Diamond Fields, she arrived at New Rush early in December. During her stay she lived in tents as the others did. There was no other shelter; page: x and a “pretty time” they had of it in the dust, the heat, the violent thunderstorms and the myriad fleas of the Camp.

The first mention of Undine appears in her New Rush journal on the 18th June, 1873: “I have finished the first Chapter of Undine Bock this morning.” 1 At the time she was eighteen years and three months old.

It must not, however, be inferred from this entry that she had only then begun the novel. Among her papers I found (and still have) a small, cheap, paper-covered child's exercise book, part of which she had used for doing her juvenile sums. The colour and condition of the paper, the writing, spelling, and other factors about this little book of sixteen pages indicate, in my opinion, that its contents considerably antedate the manuscript of the book we now have. But they are without doubt part of the novel; for practically the whole of the little one's “scribble” is included in Undine as we now have it.

After this entry of the 18th June the next reference to the novel is in her Hertzog journal of the 3rd November, 1873. She “has not yet finished the first chapter of A Queer Little Girl.

From May, 1874, to the end of February, 1875, she was acting as governess at Colesberg. Her journal of this period contains no reference to


1This is her only use of the title Undine Bock; thereafter she omitted the Bock.

page: xi Undine. However, as will presently be seen, she was just about finishing the first draft of it.

In March, 1875, we find her employed at the farm Ganna Hoek (that portion styled Klein Ganna Hoek in the Life), teaching the children of Mr. and Mrs. Stoffel Fouché, Dutch farmers. This farm lies in the Karoo mountain-veld of Cradock (Cape Colony) about twenty-five miles southwest of the village and at that time some two hundred miles from the nearest railway. Here, possibly, Olive wrote the whole of the second draft of Undine, except for the revision of parts of Ratel Hoek, a farm about sixty miles away, near Tarkastad, in 1876.

A full description of the whole of Ganna Hoek, belonging mainly to the Fouchés and the Cawoods (Olive's intimate friends), is given in the Life (pages 103-120). From these pages I now give an extract with photograph, describing the room in which she lived and wrote while engaged on this novel:

“It is the little room under the flat roof of the lean-to the window of which may be seen between the aloe and the ladder; to the right of the ladder is the baking-oven with the kitchen chimmey above it. The door of the oven is through the kitchen wall; the oven is built of brick and has no chimney; a huge fire is made in it, the ‘live’ coals are then scraped out, the bread is put in and the door closed; in competent hands, this style of oven (universal in the old days) is most excellent, especially for bread, in which the Boer women excel. It will be seen that there was a wall between Olive's room and the kitchen and page: xii that these two rooms as well as some other out-rooms were not in the main part of the house but in a flat-roofed lean-to, the roof of which has some stones on it to strengthen its edges against the wind. The front of the house is where the tree stands over the left of the lean-to. In the gable may be seen the door of the loft. Olive's window faces almost north and looks straight up a kloof on the steep side of the mountain, which begins within a few yards. The room was mud-floored and ceilingless. It leaked badly; when the rain was heavy Olive used to put an umbrella over herself and lead the water out of the room by making a small furrow in its mud floor. The room contained a primitive bedstead, a box to hold her clothes, and nothing else (except Mill's Logic to read); she used to wash in the little stream in the kloof near by until she secured a basin. Such was the room in which the greater part of Undine, the forerunner of The Story of an African Farm, was written, and almost certainly part of An African Farm itself too. A little way up the kloof, on which her window looked, were great rocks and a pool of water from which the garden was irrigated.... Here large wild trees grew, and here she often saw what she always called ‘the long-tailed monkeys,’ of which she was very fond, as well as many other untamed veld creatures.”

The first reference to Undine in her Ganna Hoek journal is in June, 1875: “I mean to try and finish the first copy by the end of July and to have it written out [ i.e. id est , revised] by the end of August.” Then in July she writes: “Have got Undine on board ship” (on her way from England to South Africa). In September: “I am at Mrs. Snappercap's” (a char- character page: xiii acter of the novel).... “Mean to try and finish Undine by the end of this month, and write it out next.” In October: “Undine is at New Rush. Hope to get it done by the end of the year.” At the end of December she has “nearly finished Undine.” On the 26th January, 1876: “Afternoon, I have finished Undine; I must read out or correct and new-write if I can and get it done before I leave.” Her last entry at Ganna Hoek is in April, 1876: “I have made up my mind not to have Undine published, not yet at least.”

She left Ganna Hoek at the end of April, 1876, and went as governess at Ratel Hoek. Soon after this she is writing Thorn Kloof, the first title given to the novel afterwards to be known as The Story of an African Farm. In July, 1876, she enters in her journal that she has not yet decided whether to finish Undine or Thorn Kloof first, and adds (apropos of Undine): “I have just finished reading over as far as I have written her out (a very wicked woman) and I am not disgusted,” and she hopes to take the completed novel to her mother at the end of the year. On the 23rd September, 1876, we have her last reference to Undine: “I think I shall finish and read over Undine tomorrow. Then to the new work [Thorn Kloof].” 1

Olive first met Havelock Ellis in March, 1884.


1 The extracts from her journals do not comprise all her references to Undine.

page: xiv They soon became great friends and before long she had placed the manuscript of Undine in his hands. A month or two later he wrote to her about it. She answered on the 24th November: “I quite forget about Aunt Margaret. I don't know what her relation to Frank was. I know that Ettie was in my mind when I drew her and Ettie's love for Theo. Not the woman of talent and eloquent lecturer, but my soft-hearted sister Ettie who used to stroke my hair. I had quite forgotten that there was such a character in the book. It's not finished either; I left off in the middle of the last chapter and tore up the half I had written. I ought to have burnt it long ago, but the biographical element in it made me soft to it.”

With reference to the last sentence of this letter, it may be added that, as her journals show, she, alas, wrote and destroyed many of her writings. She told me she was so weary of The Story of an African Farm when it was finished (about the end of 1880) that she nearly threw it into the large dam at Lelie Kloof, where she was then employed as a governess.

This novel, the first book she ever wrote, is the last of her writings I have to publish. It has been a privilege to complete my work and give to the world since her death The Life of Olive Schreiner, The Letters of Olive Schreiner, Thoughts on South Africa, Stories, Dreams and Allegories, From Man to Man, and now Undine—the last five being, of course, by page: xv herself. During her lifetime she published The Story of an African Farm, Dreams, Dream Life and Real Life, Woman and Labour and Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland.

S. C. CRONWRIGHT-SCHREINER.

THE STRAND, CAPE PROVINCE, SOUTH AFRICA, 13th September, 1928.
previous
next