Rider Haggard And The Lost Empire: A Biography, by Tom Pocock
This book has a strange elegiac tone about it, in that it is discussing someone who had a great deal of what might conventionally be considered as success but which felt like a failure to him because he did not succeed when it came to the wishes and ambitions of his heart. The lost empire spoken of by the author is quite grand in nature, and it includes the fall of the British Empire as well as the lost empire of the imagination of the subject, who had some strong goals about how it was that the English people were to be revitalized through the increase of agricultural work and land ownership in England (as well as in the empire as a whole), something which has not happened to any appreciable degree in the century or so since Haggard died a prematurely old and exhausted man in the 1920’s. The author has done a good job in writing a biography about a person whose life is remembered for only a small section of his massively prolific writing efforts, and in showing how it was that a man who was a laughingstock in his time nevertheless remains relevant today.
This book is about 250 pages long and it is divided into fourteen chapters that take a conventional chronological view of the subject’s life from his family background (1) and early childhood to his young adulthood of adventure in South Africa (2), his struggles to find a place for himself given his lack of education and somewhat ordinary-seeming abilities (3, 4), and some early lack of success in love and relationships. The author talks about the vivid imagination and the political setbacks that led Haggard to refuse political ambitions even as he sought to support the Salvation Army as well as various causes near and dear to his heart as a Norfolk agriculturalist. Frequent travels, some of them done with political goals on the part of the ruling Conservatives to keep him from making their election campaign more difficult, are interspersed with various personal sorrows and struggles and some appallingly bad health. The author explores how it is that Haggard felt old and used up at least by the time that World War I began and he was unable to find an active place, and the last few years of his life appear to have been increasingly unhappy ones as he feels himself being passed by by the world around him. Death seems almost like a mercy and a release.
The fair-minded reader is likely to come to a book like this with some awareness of at least a few of the subject’s works, most notably She, King Solomon’s Mines, and Allan Quartermain, the three books of the author that have remained in print since they were written in the late 1800’s. That said, most readers of this book will be unaware of the way that the author had ambitions far beyond writing romance novels, and was a proud if somewhat unconventional imperialist and a close friend of Rudyard Kipling, with whom he shared an appreciation of the benefits of the white man’s burden and a great deal of popular appeal during the course of his life and the sorrows of losing only sons and not feeling as respected by the literary and cultural establishment as they would have liked. The author shows how it is that Haggard used travel as a means of inspiring his creativity and also providing him with something to do to keep his novels’ sales from being hurt by overproduction, which became an increasing problem as Haggard’s novels became increasingly less popular with time and he developed other interests that took him away from his writing, which he relied upon to provide his living.