Rider Haggard: A Biography, by D.S. Higgins
Rider Haggard is the sort of person whose complex personality and historical legacy as a novelist are something I can well appreciate. Although he became enduringly famous as an adventure novelist, he had far higher ambitions and was in fact not nearly the sort of adventurous person he was thought to be by reputation. A disastrously bad childhood include abuse at the hand of a father who thought him stupid and not particularly manly and whose interference hindered his chance at marrying the young woman who loved, who made a disastrous misalliance and ended up dying of syphilis, and his struggle to gain fame led him to be misjudged and disliked by literary critics who found fault in his writing. His need to keep writing long after his initial inspiration ran dry to make enough money to support himself and a rather expensive and improvident family seems to have driven him into an early grave, although he still has a few novels, written during the early period of his career as a novelist, that remain popular to this day, most notably King Solomon’s Mines, She, and Allan Quartermain. And Rider’s interests as a sincere farmer with a high degree of interest in agricultural reform ended up paying off in providing him with something else he deserves to be remembered for.
This book is a somewhat conventional biography of about 250 pages or so that explores the life of Rider Haggard as an author and as a political and cultural figure. For the most part, the author discusses things very similarly to at least a few other books. If there has not been a large amount of literature written about the life of the subject, those books at least have a fair degree of consensus about what to write about them. They emphasize the author’s emotional reticence, which meant that the author wrote about things that he did not feel comfortable talking about and did not really understand what aspect of his thinking and preoccupations resonated with his audience and which parts of his preoccupations did not. The author dwells long on the sufferings and losses and struggles of Rider Haggard, who did not truly understand how successful he was for much of his life because of failures in running for office or having a son or his lack of intimacy with his wife for long stretches of their marriage, a matter which led him to frequently ponder about the nature of marriage in his novels. By and large this book is a successful one, at least, in discussing Haggard’s life and thinking.
If this book manages to avoid some of the pitfalls that other writers have dealt with regarding Haggard’s interest to psychology regarding his ideas of the unconscious, this book certainly contains more than a little bit of speculative material about the life and behavior of Haggard. If it does not talk about romantic affairs conducted during his marriage, the author speculates that the author’s first sexual experience(s) were with black women in Africa and that this is the reason he wrote about them as attractive figures and gave advice to others to have them as concubines. The author attempts to show Haggard as a better person than the reactionary imperialist he is sometimes taken to be by contemporary critics, but if he was an indirect imperialist with some degree of fondness for the old ways of colonial peoples he certainly appears to be an imperialist nonetheless and was passionately interested in the well-being of the dominions. This book is a reminder, if any reminder is necessary, of the hazards of dying famous enough for people to write about you and speculate about unsavory aspects of your behavior and the deepest personal aspects of one’s thinking and feeling.