'The Woman's Rose'

Olive Schreiner, the Short Story and Grand History

in Critical Survey
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  • 1 University of Hertfordshire
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Olive Schreiner? South African writing at the crossroads? The title of this issue of Critical Survey connotes contemporaneity: Schreiner died when this century was only twenty years old. Provisionally to lift the weight of this seeming paradox off the reader’s mind – if not wholly to resolve it – I would only suggest that both ‘South Africa’ as an entity and its writing were as much (and critically) at a point of intersection – a choice of paths – in the 1890s as they have been in the 1990s, and that one century’s end speaks eloquently to another. It is of course always and only thanks to our own effort-free hindsight that we can speak of a writer’s foresight: of all those who exerted themselves in gazing forward as the last century ended and this one began, Schreiner scores in my view highest; and not on any yardstick of empirical prediction but rather because her brand of countercultural thinking and imagining is – and here another and harder paradox looms – always so productively non-contemporaneous, always so open to the other and to the future. We find this quality in the shortest no less than in the longer of her fictions, and the thousand or so words of ‘The Woman’s Rose’ from Dream Life and Real Life deliver its effects as strongly as any. Schreiner brings her experience as a woman on the frontier to bear upon the new South Africa that was emerging in the late nineteenth century. The story I have chosen offers a way in to the historical narratives of her formation as well as a commentary upon the ethical and sociopolitical options before the (new) new South Africa a hundred and more years on.

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