Book Review: Rider Haggard

Ridger Haggard, by Norman Etherington

Like many people, I am only familiar with the subject of his book from one of his noted romances, King Solomon’s Mines [1], which I saw as a generally enjoyable adventure story, as well as through the character Allan Quartermain in general. As is frequently the case, those who are popular writers of literature for the general public tend to suffer in their appreciation by literary scholars, and it is certainly no different from Rider Haggard than for other writers whose work I enjoyed or would have enjoyed as a child [2]. This author does a good job at seeking to explore why it is that even though Haggard’s skill as a stylist improved with practice, it was his earliest dozen or so “romances” that have remained the works that readers have sought to read generation after generation, and that have been turned into successful films, even as his later works have been viewed less positively by the reading public as a whole. As a reader and as someone who enjoys literary criticism, this is a book that helps to explain this fact for those who are curious about such matters, and if you are reading this review then you are likely at least somewhat curious of it yourself.

This book is a short one at about 120 pages or so, and it is divided into seven chapters. The author begins with some notes about himself as well as a preface and a chronology that discuss the life of Rider Haggard (itself rather interesting and deeply connected with South Africa) and a chronology of Haggard’s life and prolific writing. The author then looks at Haggard’s upbringing and the way that he appeared to the outside to be a picture of weakness and dullness (1) and that he was strongly influenced by his family, including a somewhat domineering mother and a father who was moody and temperamental as well. The author then explores the early attempts at realism in Haggard’s writing that failed to capture the interest of the reading public (2) and that in at least one case, when he wrote about a realistic situation involving adultery, led to a high degree of criticism from others. After that the author explores the early romances, especially King Solomon’s Mines and She, that have given Haggard an enduring reputation as an adventure writer (3) and the later romances that were published to diminishing success even as Haggard practiced his craft and became a more polished writer (4). The author explores Haggard’s women (5) as well as his complex politics (6), which involved Tory conservatism of a kind that supported indirect empire, before examining Haggard’s legacy (7).

Ultimately (spoiler alert), the author views Haggard’s success in his early romances as being the result of writing about preoccupations that were shared by the general public and not by himself alone. The struggle of the savage unconscious within the heart of mankind, questions of the eternal feminine, and the struggles of people to come to grips with who they were in a society that recognized the darkness inside of people but also expected a high degree of social decorum were sufficiently widespread concerns to make his adventure novels that dealt with these concerns enduringly popular because they spoke to the concerns of Western culture in the post-Darwin world. Unfortunately, most of Haggard’s fiction, which is little read or remembered today, including the later romances as well as his unsuccessful attempts to write realistic fiction, dealt with the preoccupations of Rider Haggard himself, and thus have been of less interest to the wider public because the wider public doesn’t share the precise preoccupations as Haggard did. As is frequently the case or writers and creative types, the personal neuroses and struggles that drive us to create and the wider preoccupations of the general public seldom match, but when they do, works reach a wide and frequently an enduring popular audience.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2012/07/02/book-review-king-solomons-mines/

[2] See also:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2020/08/16/book-review-frances-hodgson-burnett/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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