"I HAD ONLY to hear the name Olive Schreiner," Doris Lessing has written, "and my deepest self was touched." Lessing has placed Schreiner's famous novel The Story of an African Farm , too long overlooked in America, "in that small number of novels, with Moby Dick, Jude the Obscure, Wuthering Heights; perhaps one or two others, which is on the frontier of the human mind." Similarly, Schreiner's Women and Labour, the Bible for a generation of English women between the wars, has only just been reissued in America.

English critics, including the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, have greeted this new biography of Olive Schreiner as an important event. Ironically,it is to America that her life now speaks most importantly, for Schreiner, in her novels, economic histories, allegories, journalism, wrote of women with constrained destinies and blacks with no destinies at all, of dogmatic, narrowminded Christianity, imperialism, militarism, the rape of the earth. How these subjects echo here in the year of a presidential election!

Olive Schreiner was born in South Africa in 1855 of missionary parents in conditions of great poverty and constraint; during her lifetime the white race would claim African minerals, African land, and the African peoples. Dividing her life between Africa and England, she loved with great hope and greater fears, was politically brave and physically fragile. She became an intimate friend of Havelock Ellis, the new prophet of the sexual life, and Eleanor Marx, another brave and doomed woman. Growing up where education was rare and books rarer, she had read Spencer, Darwin, Goethe, Mill and others before she was 20, often borrowing the books for only a few precious days. She dreamt of becoming a doctor -- that paradigmatic female fantasy of autonomy and nurturing -- and wrote of her hope of regaining for women the sexuality and professionalism they had lot to patriarchal religions and institutions. Before it was quite so fashionable, she sought to reinforce "her sense of self." She died in 1920, after a life one of her youthful admirers called a "hard and lonely and long" battle.

Nothing is simpler than to ask of Olive Schreiner Freud's question: What do women want? But surely we can now perceive that women are confounded, not by their confused wants, but by the terrible price society exacts from those women who demand what Freud and the Church have ordained they must not desire. Ruth First and Ann Scott, in this carefully documented, impeccably objective biography, record the brave attempts and sad frustrations of a woman who refused the constraints of racism, sexism and imperialism.

It is no use women today looking to this biography for a pattern of life, for a recipe of happiness and clarity of purpose. First and Scott do not impose upon Schreiner's life a narrative it does not naturally possess. In the lives of revolutionary women there has been no "story" no script; there is only the struggle. In the last chapter, Schreiner's biographers attempt to sum her up, but without pretending that the life they recorded with such clarity amounts to more than what Virginia Woolf called "orts and fragments." cYet the biography of Schreiner does demonstrate that if women make the choice to live, rather than to protect themselves from life, to be the protagonists in their own stories rather than events in the lives of others, they shall, as Simone Weil knew, "not perish without having truly existed."

The Africa of Schreiner's lifetime is carefully recreated here. When Schreiner moves to England and becomes involved with Havelock Ellis and Eleanor Marx, the authors fail, perhaps, to provide sufficiently detailed portraits of these remarkable individuals. Fortunately, however, we have recent biographies of both, and this book does add the kind of social-historical detail out of which we are gradually evolving a true portrait of that important time in English history -- the years before and after the Great War.

Schreiner lived, like many women today, a formless, suffering, creating life. Loving imperfect men, marrying in compromise, bearing a daughter who lived only hours, enduring the terrible scorn of a world frightened of new ideas, she dedicated one of her books and all of her life "to a small girl-child, who may live to grasp much, that for us is sight, not touch."