Fashionable Gore

Katherine Rundell

  • BuyKing Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
    Vintage, 337 pp, £7.99, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 09 958282 3
  • She by H. Rider Haggard
    Vintage, 317 pp, £8.99, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 09 958283 0

I first encountered King Solomon’s Mines in the children’s section of a public library in Harare. Most of the books smelled of water damage and many had been taken out so rarely that the last ‘return by’ stamp pre-dated Mugabe and decimalisation. I was working through shelves of books about horses and morality tales written by women who manifestly did not like children, and took King Solomon’s Mines because it’s set in ‘the Manica country’, a province a few hundred miles east of Harare. It seemed run of the mill at the time, much like the other books in the library: it was tightly plotted, suspense-driven, lavishly sexist and racist. In fact, though it is often read as a children’s book, it isn’t; nor is it run of the mill. It is the book which sowed the seed for John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, for Indiana Jones and James Bond, and though less slick than its successors, its anxieties and lunacies are more interesting. It isn’t suitable for children; perhaps not suitable at all.

As a child Henry Rider Haggard was believed to be stupid: his father told him he was destined to become a greengrocer. The books aren’t proof that he wasn’t stupid; but they are proof that he was dogged and canny, with a strange and lurid imagination. Haggard’s father lived long enough to see his son become wealthier than he was and the author of a 15-volume series which ran for forty years; he was dead by the time his son was knighted in 1912 (a knighthood for services to literature was at the time largely unheard of, so his was given for services to the development of agriculture in Norfolk). King Solomon’s Mines was written in answer to a bet Haggard had made with his brother that he could write a book as good as Treasure Island. He said it took him six weeks (though novelists always lie about that sort of thing) and it was an immediate bestseller. The 1870 Education Act had produced a large cohort of literate citizens with an appetite for fiction. There was much in the book to be admired by the stay-at-home population of late 19th-century England: in the world Haggard created the governing principle was survival, not class or intellect, and the rewards for bravery were blood (other people’s) and diamonds. Graham Greene said that he valued Haggard’s book ‘a good deal higher than Treasure Island’.

The story follows the narrator Allan Quatermain – an elephant hunter with good manners – and his colleagues, Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good, on a journey into Mashukulumbwe country. Quatermain early on stakes his claim to heroic status when he says that he has already killed, but always with the stern regret of the Victorian imperialist: ‘I have killed many men in my time, yet I have never slain wantonly or stained my hand in innocent blood, but only in self-defence.’ The men’s aim is to find Curtis’s estranged brother, about which they are guardedly optimistic, and to discover King Solomon’s diamonds, about which – not knowing the title of the book – they are sceptical.

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