Speech by Howard Phillips at launch pf The World’s grGreat Question: Olive Schreiner’s South African Letters 1889–1920

 (Kalk Bay Community Centre, 9 August 2014)

 

Today sees a telling conjucture of date, place and person.

The Date: 9 August is Women’s Day, a day especially appropriate to launch a volume of the letters of as committed a feminist and colour-blind a suffragette as Olive Schreiner.

The Place: We are across the road from where the Kalk Bay Anglican Church schoolroom stood a century and more ago, which is where Olive Schreiner probably spoke at a Women’s Enfranchisement League meeting in 1908. A little sculptured memorial commemorating Olive Schreiner marks the spot on the sea side of the Main Road.

The Person: The main speaker at today’s launch is Professor Liz Stanley of Edinburgh University, who, with her co-editor, Dr Andrea Salter, edited the WGQ. Unfortunately, Dr Salter had to return to the UK yesterday.

Liz Stanley is a sociologist with a very strong historical bent, who has written extensively on women in modern society, not least on Afrikaner women in the South African War. Not surprisingly, therefore, she has had a longstanding interest in Olive Schreiner – ‘one of the world’s most famous women’, she labels her – and in the 1990s this interest steered her deeply into Schreiner’s letter-writing. From Liz Stanley’s fertile and indefatigable mind arose a massive project to place every surviving letter by Schreiner (of which there are some 5000) online, with open access guaranteed, a mighty task which she and her team completed in 2012. At the same time, she recognized that a selection of the letters in hardcopy form would offer a further powerful way of making Schreiner’s letter-writing better known. For Liz Stanley, to think is to do – indeed, to do with unstoppable zeal – and in 2003 she took up our suggestion of editing a volume of Olive Schreiner’s letters, deciding to focus it on Schreiner’s explicitly political South African letters after her return from Britain in 1889. She delivered the finished text to us, with exquisite timing, exactly one week after our AGM in 2013.

Her distinctive stamp of wide and thorough scholarship, penetrating insight and attention to detail mark every page, and for this the VRS is profoundly grateful, to both her and Andrea Salter and those around them who sacrificed much family time to ensure that our deadlines were punctually met. On the VRS’s side, I must thank Elizabeth van Heyningen, Russell Martin and Cora Ovens who joined me in the ‘Schreiner task team’ to act as an in-house editorial panel whose queries and suggestions to Liz and Andrea drew, I think, more than one equivalent of an e-mailed sigh from them. Liz – and through you to Andrea – our gratitude goes to you for your forbearance and consistently highly professional scholarship. This book is a tribute to you and these admirable traits.

How best do we express our thanks? We could give you extra copies of the WGQ, but that would be like carrying coals to Edinburgh where you will soon have 10 editors’ copies between you. We could present you with another bottle of Solms-Delta’s fine wine, but that would be tempting the shades of that fierce teetotaler, Olive Schreiner’s older brother, Theo, whom she called ‘The Baas’.

 Rather, knowing you as I have come to do, Liz, I am sure that the very best way to express the VRS’s gratitude to you for editing this volume to the highest standard is to present you with, not another book, not another bottle, but with a copy of a hitherto  unknown letter by Olive Schreiner which has only just come to light, thanks to the sharp and informed eye of one of our members, Professor Jane Carruthers, who found it inside her copy of a biography of Olive Schreiner which was originally owned by Olive’s friend of very long standing, Mary Brown. The VRS is delighted to be able to present you with something which we know has very special meaning for you, in return for everything you have poured into this volume for it. Thank you.

I fear that this means that this edition of the WGQ is already out of date and that a second edition will be required at once. In the interim, I ask you to tell us about this first edition of the WGQ.