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.
The novel is peppered with geographical detail conveyed in the confident vernacular of contemporary explorers’ reports, though the information itself is often mildly insane. In Manicaland, only the Chimanimani mountains and Mount Nyangani, Zimbabwe’s highest peak, could serve as the basis for ‘Suliman’s Mountains’. The heroes expend much blood and sweat traversing snowy terrain (which, in real life, 11-year-old schoolchildren climb as a matter of routine). In a crevice Quatermain’s hired bearer freezes to death (‘like most Hottentots, he cannot stand cold’) and deep inside a cavern the explorers discover a dead body three hundred years old, preserved ‘fresh as New Zealand mutton’ in the atmosphere. Even in the coldest months the temperature in the Chimanimanis is between 12 and 15 degrees Celsius; Nyangani last had snow in 1935. Haggard knew Southern Africa – he made his first trip to South Africa as secretary to the governor of Natal at 19 and was later master and registrar of the High Court in the Transvaal – but the land he paints is as lurid and fantastical as the witches and secret kings who populate it.
Following an ancient Portuguese map, the three men and their servant, Umbopa, walk into the territory of a hostile tribe, who are awed out of their murderous intentions by the spectacle of Good’s false teeth and white legs. Good, the light-relief character, is forced to walk much of the journey without his trousers, so enamoured of his lower half are the Kukuana people. The tribesmen are also impressed by Quatermain’s gun, as he picks off an antelope from seventy yards with childlike pleasure. ‘“Bang! thud!” The antelope sprang in the air and fell on the rock dead as a door nail. A groan of simultaneous terror burst from the group before us.’ The Kukuanans, Quatermain learns, are ruled by an impostor king called Twala, who is in thrall to Gagool, a witch so pocked and wizened by age that Quatermain mistakes her for ‘a withered-up monkey, wrapped in a fur cloak’. Luckily, Umbopa turns out to be the rightful king of the Kukuana people: a snake tattooed around his middle is the proof. The next night, under cover of a convenient lunar eclipse, Umbopa unveils himself and declares war on the usurper king.
Most of the book focuses on the Kukuana kraal and the battlefield; despite the title, the quest to find the stones takes up only the last fifty pages. When the diamonds are found, in a cave with a hidden door, the moment is muted: ‘The chest was three-parts full of uncut diamonds, most of them of considerable size. Stooping, I picked some up. Yes, there was no doubt about it, there was the unmistakeable soapy feel about them.’ In the novel it isn’t the diamonds that shine but the sweat of male bodies at war. There’s no sex in the book: where there is delight in things bodily, it’s in the euphoric homosociality of the post-battle glow. Haggard’s reluctance to involve women is the most obvious difference between the Quatermain books and those of the writers who emulated them. John Buchan followed Haggard’s adventure-suspense formula closely and self-consciously: in The 39 Steps, the hero’s story is said to be ‘pure Rider Haggard’. But Buchan moistens his stories with sensual descriptions of food – particularly ham – and of beautiful women. Haggard’s heroes are small, bluff men, part of a literary tradition of beta males performing great feats, but the companions – Henry Curtis in King Solomon’s Mines, Leo Vincey in She – have beautiful bodies:
Round his throat he fastened the leopard-skin cloak of a commanding officer … the dress was, no doubt, a savage one, but I am bound to say that I seldom saw a finer sight than Sir Henry Curtis presented … It showed off his magnificent physique to the greatest advantage, and when [Umbopa] arrived presently, arrayed in similar costume, I thought to myself that I had never before seen two such splendid men.
Second only to the relish of battle is Haggard’s fascination with unusual ways a man might die. The highlight of King Solomon’s Mines for most children is the moment when a bull elephant, wounded by a bullet, attacks Good’s servant: ‘The brute seized the poor Zulu, hurled him to the earth, and placing one huge foot onto his body about the middle, twined its trunk around his upper part and tore him in two.’ It was in part because of the death of the poor Zulu that the manuscript was rejected by one of the first publishers to see it: ‘Never has it been our fate to wade through such a farrago of obscene witlessness … nothing is likely in the hands of the young to do so much injury as this recklessly immoral book.’ But it was a fashionable kind of gore. At the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, held at South Kensington in 1886, the entrance was taken up by a diorama depicting a stuffed tiger attacking a stuffed elephant. The exhibition attracted more than five and a half million visitors. Like Haggard’s fiction, it was lit by the radiance of Livingstone, Richard Burton and other empire-building Übermenschen. King Solomon’s Mines is a very Victorian fable of endurance but it’s also a glorious romp, if you don’t mind your romps racist, sexist and tin-eared.
It would be surprising if any white man born in 1856 had written non-racist, non-sexist fiction, whether it was set in Africa or not. Quatermain says of the Kukuana people: ‘These women, for a native race, are exceedingly handsome … the lips are not unpleasantly thick as is the case among African races.’ Narrators, of course, are not spokespersons for their authors and Haggard certainly wrote in the idiom of the time; the explorer Mungo Park, in the purportedly factual Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa, wrote in similar vein: ‘The noses of the Jaloffs are not so much depressed, nor the lips so protuberant, as among the generality of Africans … they are considered by the white traders as the most sightly Negroes in this part of the continent.’ You could say that if we excised all patriarchal books from the canon we would be left with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and little else, but few writers have embraced the status quo with such conviction. The racism in King Solomon’s Mines takes the form mainly of exhaustingly oracular pronouncements: there is none of Forster’s anxiety, or Kipling’s affection. Foulata is a tribeswoman who falls in love with Good, and risks her life to save him. When she dies – the noble native woman always dies in Haggard – Quatermain feels ‘bound to say … that I consider her removal a fortunate occurrence, since, otherwise, complications would have been sure to ensue’. The Quatermain novels become more explicitly unsettling as the series progresses; in a diary entry written in 1924, the year before his death, Haggard foresaw conflict between races as inevitable and bloody: ‘The great ultimate war, as I have always held, will be that between the white and coloured races.’ The sexism, on the other hand, is glossed as a charming foible: ‘I can safely say there is not a petticoat in the whole history.’ His characters describe themselves as misogynists with the same irritating coyness with which people today describe themselves as chocoholics.
She (1887) is a very different book; it certainly isn’t coy. It follows wise but ugly Ludwig Holly and beautiful but slow Leo Vincey to unknown lands on the east coast of Africa. Leo’s dying father bequeaths him a potsherd on which is written in Greek a family history showing that Leo is descended from the royal house of pharaohs, and an instruction that he seek out a beautiful white sorceress and her fiery pillar of eternal life. Haggard gives the Greek in full, in both uncial and cursive, and some of the earliest jacket covers used a photograph of a potsherd, made by Haggard’s sister-in-law, to add verisimilitude. (Vintage Classics has rejected the pot in favour of an orgasmic-looking woman.) The men travel by sea and land to find Ayesha, also known as She Who Must Be Obeyed: an all-powerful ruler, her beauty so terrible she is concealed from face to foot in ‘corpse-like wrappings’. She is wise – ‘the wisest man up on earth was not one-third as wise’ – and beautiful beyond imagining: a sultry multilingual virgin, wish-fulfilment made flesh. She, like King Solomon’s Mines, was written in six weeks and even more than King Solomon’s Mines, it’s a book out of which obsessions and anxieties leak. As Kipling wrote to Haggard, ‘you are a whale at parables and allegories and one thing reflecting another.’
The plot is as simple and linear as that of the earlier book: Queen Ayesha believes that Leo is the reincarnated soul of Kallikrates, a man she had loved and murdered when he remained loyal to another woman. When she learns that Leo too is in love with another woman, Ustane, Ayesha kills her with a gesture. Ayesha’s beauty is so overwhelming that Leo forgives her and kneels at her feet. The terrifying power of female beauty shapes the book. ‘No doubt she was a wicked person,’ Holly says, ‘and no doubt she had murdered Ustane when she stood in her path, but then she was very faithful, and by a law of nature man is apt to think but lightly of a woman’s crimes, especially if that woman be beautiful.’ And later: ‘What a terrifying reflection it is, by the way, that nearly all our deep love for women who are not our kindred depends … upon their personal appearance.’ Ayesha offers to reveal the source of her absolute power, and leads the men to the Fountain and Heart of Life. She bathes first, unclothing herself and re-wrapping her snake belt around her falling hair. It’s the only erotic moment in the book. Suddenly, as the men watch, she begins to shrivel in the flames, ageing before their eyes until she is ‘no larger than a monkey, skin puckered into a million wrinkles’. The powerful monkey-like woman seems to be a keystone of Haggard’s imagination: Gagool, unidentifiable as a woman when first encountered, is ‘so shrunken in size that it seemed no larger than the face of a year-old child’, ‘a withered-up monkey’ with ‘a skinny claw’; Ayesha’s body becomes ‘no bigger than that of a two-months’ child … the delicate hand was nothing but a claw now.’ Holly and Leo flee; Holly’s servant, Job, has died of fright, and they leave his corpse behind.
At the heart of the book is the sense that women, given power, will reign like despots or fail like children. As Margaret Atwood points out in her introduction, Haggard and his siblings had a doll called She Who Must Be Obeyed, who lived in a cupboard and whom the children both tortured and were haunted by. Read as an embodiment of Victorian neuroses and desires, She is a marvel. There are good feminist interpretations: Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar connect the witch-goddess figure with the newly fierce debates over the rights of women in Victorian England, and the proliferation of semi-scientific studies of woman’s ‘true nature’. With or without this reading, She has extraordinary moments. You make a choice with Haggard: if you suspend not just disbelief but politics, logic and taste, the rewards are very real. There is a peculiar and beautiful scene in which tribesmen, at Ayesha’s command, dance an ‘infernal and fiendish cancan’ in a room lit by burning corpses. ‘As soon as ever a mummy had burned down to the ankles, which it did in about twenty minutes, the feet were kicked away, and another put in its place.’ She burns the body of her two-thousand-year-old embalmed lover with acid: there is ‘a fierce fizzing and cracking sound’ and the man is turned into ‘a few handfuls of smoking white powder’. V.S. Pritchett wrote: ‘Mr E.M. Forster once spoke of the novelist sending down a bucket into the subconscious; the author of She installed a suction pump.’
The trouble with She is that it’s structured around a blank face. We are told that Ayesha had beauty ‘greater than the loveliness of the daughters of men’, but her beauty is sketchily imagined, asserted but never depicted. The result is that she is impossible to desire; a problem exacerbated by her voice and what she has to say. She rants like Nigel Farage, and has only one point to make: men are powerless in the face of beautiful women, women desire not men but power. The greatest woman to have lived is a disappointment, a heckling sex witch. Haggard would think I’m jealous. He says as much, near the end:
Of course, I am speaking of any man. We never had the advantage of a lady’s opinion of Ayesha, but I think it quite possible that she would have regarded the Queen with dislike, would have expressed her disapproval in some more or less pointed manner, and ultimately have got herself blasted.