What better gift can there be than a new book? I think back so fondly of the time when I was away at camp one year and my father sent me a small box of books, one of which was a novel by Jane Austen. What more delicious an occupation could there be for a word-mad young girl than sitting in a rustic cabin among whispering pines with rain pattering outside reading the divine Jane?
This memory is prompted by another holiday gift I received from Betty, my mother-in-law. who is always on the lookout for books I’ll enjoy. This year, she gave me a wonderful one called Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont. After a major day of cooking and entertaining, I finally treated myself to a sit-down with a fire, a bottle of Pear Woodchuck Hard Cider (a gift from my adorable son Alex), and my new book. What a delight!
The very first chapter hooked me. It’s subject, Olive Shreiner, is the author of a novel called The Story of an African Farm — and someone entirely new to me. She sounds like an amazing woman and writer. She was deeply admired by many authors, including Doris Lessing, who saw her book as one of a small number existing “on a frontier of the human mind” in the company of masterworks like Jude the Obscure, Moby Dick, and Wuthering Heights. High praise indeed!
Here’s what Moore Ritchie, another writer said of Olive in 1923: “Olive Schreiner was not a creative artist only, but one whose comprehensive mind was such as to entitle her to rank as one of the greatest women of the age, and incontestably the most formidable interpretive intellect that South Africa has produced. You may disagree with her as you read; you may assent with reservations: but, whatever your attitude, you feel her forcing you to think hard. On the first page of almost any of her books you realise at once that you are in touch with that rare phenomenon, a truly first-class mind, bearing all the essential marks of such a mind, such an imagination, impassioned wide sympathy, and penetrative power bent to the search for truth. …”
What an amazing comment! The ninth of twelve children, Olive was born in 1855, received very little education and was entirely self-made. As a teenager, her life was changed forever when a young man named Willie Bertram, whom she met only for a few hours, gave her a copy of First Principles by Herbert Spencer. In her novel, The Story of an African Farm, she has a mysterious stranger give the same book to a main character.
How wonderful it is to read about a writer — or anyone — whose life was dramatically changed by the simple yet radical act of reading words on a page! For Olive, reading First Principles gave her a way of looking at the world that made sense to her. It turned her into a “freethinker” and set her on the road to writing. Write on!