Authentic fictionBMJ 2012; 345 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6185 (Published 13 September 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6185
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It was a cultural shift of some proportions for Rider Haggard when he left behind Africa and returned home to the mollifying green of the British Isles. The year was 1882. He had sailed back after seven perspiring years out in the concentration of South Africa. Still only twenty-six, he had seen a huge spectrum of life and circumstance over his days in the southern hemisphere. To his benefit, he had ventured overseas with the impressionability of youth rather than the greyed cynicism of age. His digression in South Africa, 1875 to 1882, furnished him with a mental fund from which he would draw for the entirety of his life as writer-at-large.
Earlier at nineteen, Haggard had been sent overseas under the auspices of a paternalistic belief that was a common theme of the 1800s. Namely, that a young man would do well to go abroad and further himself in the outposts of the empire. Occupationally, there was the prospect of becoming ensconced somewhere in the rambling machinery of the civil service. In Haggard’s case, his South African stint was eventful from the viewpoint of colonial history because he was the youngster who raised the Union Jack in the city of Pretoria as the Dutch province of Transvaal was devoured by the avaricious jaws of British imperialism.
Since many countries in Europe during the 1800s had colonial designs on Africa – Belgian Congo, German Namibia, British Kenya – the perception of Africa which had been popularised was that of a continent of unending civilisations peopled by semi-humans. This perception had been cultivated by the writings of European travellers in the 1800s and their presentations of African cultures to necessarily insular audiences at home. Preciously rare were those who possessed the depth of intelligence to not see Africa with the mindset of scientists milling about in a curious, continental laboratory. One of those precious exceptions was Sir Henry Rider Haggard.
Unlike other authors, Haggard could never be austerely academic in approach when shaping his impressions of Africa. Since the ultimate judge of literature is history, and not the volatility of the time in which it is composed, a recourse to Haggard’s most loved book, “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885), shows how well he understood in the 1800s the intercultural dynamics of Europeans encountering the original peoples of Africa. What is unflinchingly sensed in Haggard is humanity. He could see only with the feeling gaze of the artist, with the energy of the dramatist, and of his books those which are the most durably marbled into posterity are the action-filled adventure novels. Rarely misled by the colonial prejudices of his time, he retained throughout an unwithering love for Africa and its myriad peoples. He wrote stories that encapsulated the awed times from his travelling, absorptive youth. He was filled with ethnological adulation for the war-like Zulus of South Africa whom, through personal experience, he found a dignified and majestic people. In places, the affection radiates from the pages.
Rider Haggard’s books were thus mounds of experience, borne out of a knowledge that had been gained via both delight and discomfort on the large-scale landscapes of rolling Africa. It was not an understanding of other worlds that was remote, distorted, and secondhand. The Haggardian planetariums of fiction, as such, were innately layered with research and authenticity. He transduced what may otherwise have been a surreal time in foreign lands into an imaginative landscape for those he called “all the big boys and little boys who read it.” It was the mind of the male which was enticed by his stories of swashbucklers shooting antelope or a stony-eyed cragginess of elephants in the crayoned dusk. Boys and men were the audience for tales in which his most favoured hero, Allan Quatermain, would accompany characters with names like Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good as they stoutheartedly went in search of treasure through the scrubland and mangroves of Africa.
By adding sixty works to the tradition of English literature, Haggard’s posture on the cultural landscape was as unmissable as that of the snow-flecked Mount Kilimanjaro on the heat-hazed savannahs of Africa. But there was more than the importance of being prolific and having a bowed shelf of scholarship. There had to be life. A couple of the tales of adventure, most famously “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885), offered an intensity of entertainment which kept the Victorian reader congealed to the book. Haggard had enlivened Africa through fact-based fiction. It was achieved through a form of plain and popular writing where the centre of gravity was the telling of a story set in a mysterious place and involving a mysterious variety of people. These experiments in fiction were successful because of the surrounding conditions of history. This was the late 1800s when newspapers were reporting the unearthing of tombs in Egypt. Against such unravellings, Haggard brought Africa into reading hands in compelling and mesmerising ways. His work was similar to that of Rudyard Kipling refracting the tropical light and customs of colonial India through the apparatus of his inventive, commodious brain. It was the eminence of these two literary lions, who were actually dear friends, that led the poet J K Stephen to write, “When the Rudyards cease from Kipling/And the Haggards Ride no more.”
Towards England – he was raised in rural East Anglia – Haggard was to remain meditative and philosophical. He issued books such as “The Poor and the Land” (1905) and “Rural England” (1906) because, as well as scribing popular novels, he was a practical agriculturalist alarmed by the effect of industrialisation on the livelihood in the old farming lands. He was likewise perturbed by economic measures such as the importation of cheaper grain from abroad. But even in his tales of adventure, which are full of exclamatory dialogue within a lean story-telling narrative, there are flashes of magniloquent philosophy :
“Only the old moon would shine serenely on, the night wind would stir the grasses, and the wide earth would take its happy rest, even as it did eons before these were, and will do eons after they have been forgotten. Yet man dies not while the world, at once his mother and his monument, remains. His name is forgotten, indeed, but the breath he breathed yet stirs the pine tops on the mountain, the sound of the words he spoke yet echoes on through space;the thoughts his brain gave birth to we have inherited today;his passions are our cause of life;the joys and sorrows that he felt are our familiar friends – the end from which he fled aghast will surely overtake us also.”
(from the adventure novel “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885) by Henry Rider Haggard)
Competing interests: No competing interests