Fit only to be a greengrocer

E.S. Turner

  • Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire by Tom Pocock
    Weidenfeld, 264 pp, £20.00, August 1993, ISBN 0 297 81308 0

When 19-year-old Rider Haggard, an underachiever straight from the crammer, secured his first job in 1875, his mother addressed an earnest poem to him. He had now finished drifting ‘adown Life’s vernal tide’ and faced a stiffer challenge. ‘Rise to thy destiny!’ she exhorted. ‘Awake thy powers!’ His father, Squire Haggard (a crusty fellow, but otherwise unlike the old villain invented by Michael Green), had viewed him as fit only to be a greengrocer. The post found for him was that of junior aide to the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal. Within two years, as a sort of legal odd-jobs man, he had been deputed to raise the Union Jack for the first time in the Transvaal, and had helped to hang a Swazi chieftain for murder (taking over from the drunken executioner, according to his own story). This was good going for a greengrocer. Why, then, did he not rise to his destiny and become a great judge, a tribune or a proconsul? He had the imperial instincts in abundance. His misfortune was that it was the time of the gross military disasters of Majuba Hill and Isandhlwana, with the Boers waiting to snatch the lands the Zulus claimed. Britain could not, or would not, hold on to the Transvaal. Disenchanted, the young adventurer decided that the time had come to make money out of Africa, like everyone else. Instead of digging for gold or diamonds, he turned to supplying ostrich feathers for fine ladies back home. Four years after hoisting the Union flag he and his wife (a ‘brick’ of a girl, not his first choice) rented their house at £50 a week to the members of a Royal Commission organising the cession of the Transvaal, leaving Queen Victoria to enjoy that most nebulous of assets, suzerainty. Then he was back in Britain, with a confident presence and a good moustache, an imagination topped up by strange sights and ‘the highest sort of shame, shame for my country’. And perhaps a touch of shame at having made £50 a week out of the national climb-down?

Rider Haggard’s career has already attracted biographers. Tom Pocock, while never losing sight of the man as literary phenomenon, concentrates on his half-forgotten role as visionary of Empire. Here is the man who saw in the Zulus the makings of English gentlemen (which was more than could be said for the Boers); the man who believed in the ‘divine mission’ of ‘a great civilising people’ to confer just government on those peoples, swarthier perhaps, who stood in need of it; the man Rudyard Kipling was to consult on whether the much-criticised ‘Recessional’ had struck the right note; the man above all haunted by the thought of the Queen’s vast empty realms and the reluctance of his fellow men, proud as they were of their Empire, to go out and plant cabbages in them.

These imperial views matured slowly. Haggard was an unknown, reduced on his return home to reading for the Bar. A career in the divorce courts did not strike him as gentlemanly. What changed his life was the success of Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which he felt he could at least emulate. In idle youthful hours he had dabbled in séances and the ‘mysterious’; he was credulous about reincarnation, poltergeists and the irregular behaviour of mummies. His challenge to Stevenson took only six weeks to write. On 2 September 1885 Londoners woke to find their city plastered with posters announcing ‘King Solomon’s Mines – The Most Amazing Story Ever Written.’ Cassell had organised a splendid hype. Haggard wrote two other bestsellers within a year. Then came She, filling the minds of men with that wonderful fifth-formers’ vision of an unbearably beautiful woman stepping naked into a sacred flame, and providing grist for generations of psychoanalysts.

Success had a quality of revenge in it. The least-favoured son of Squire Haggard, who had been denied the public-school and university education accorded to his five brothers, had become an instant household name. ‘Yet,’ writes Pocock, ‘he was aware that this was not a proper life’s work, not a real achievement for a gentleman.’ Like many a writer of popular fiction, he felt he ought to be performing some sort of public service. Conan Doyle, notoriously, had no wish to be remembered for Sherlock Holmes. Some word-spinners stood for Parliament, but tended to spoil their chances by putting up too many ideas of their own. Haggard, who had turned gentleman-farmer in Norfolk, fell into this trap when he stood unsuccessfully as Unionist and Agricultural candidate for East Norfolk in 1895. He had been campaigning strongly to reverse the flow from country to town and was in danger, as he said, of becoming an ‘agricultural bore’. When it emerged that he favoured turning the Church’s glebe lands into smallholdings and imposing a minimum wage for farm-labourers many Tories were not sorry he had been defeated.

However, his eagerness to plant good men on good land had attracted Government interest. In 1905 the Colonial Secretary asked him to go out to North America to report on the labour colonies set up by the Salvation Army in the hope of making men out of Britain’s derelicts, and to consider whether this was an idea on which the Government could build. General Booth’s Army was but one of many such organisations. The worst of them specialised in the arbitrary shipping abroad of ‘waifs and strays’ from orphanages and workhouses. At one of Booth’s training camps in England Haggard interviewed the inmates rather in the style, as Pocock says, of an inspecting officer addressing a private on parade: ‘How long have you been here?’ – ‘Four and a half years, sir.’ – ‘What were you before you came?’ – ‘Sanitary engineer.’ – ‘Went astray, I suppose?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘Not astray now? Doing all right?’ – ‘Yes.’ – ‘You are superintendent of the laundry?’ – ‘Yes.’ On his tour, subsidised heavily out of his own pocket, Haggard warned the Canadians of the Yellow Peril, four hundred million industrious Chinese looking for new lands in which to settle (this was really Australia’s problem). Canada, he later reported, had offered him 240,000 acres of land outright, with as much more as he wanted.

The Colonial Secretary seemed well pleased with Haggard’s report, as were the newspapers. ‘And the Prime Minister?’ enquired Haggard hopefully, eager for Balfour’s reaction. ‘Oh Arthur won’t read it – you know, Arthur won’t read it.’ The Government decided to leave emigration to the existing agencies. Haggard would have been entitled to shake his head at other government approaches, but he served conscientiously on a Royal Commission on coast erosion; this, on the strength of having protected his own coastal property by planting marram grass. In 1912 he received his first reward for unpaid public service, and perhaps also for public entertainment, when he was created a Knight Bachelor. This looked more like an inducement than a reward when within a fortnight he was invited to join a Royal Commission on the Dominions, to report on economic, social and political conditions. There were to be three extended tours, spread over three years. Haggard was proud and happy in this role. As the members were taking evidence on canned lobsters in Nova Scotia the Great War broke out. Almost at once they were called home.

War brings rare excitement for writers of bestsellers. Somerset Maugham dabbled in spying, in Switzerland and Russia; Compton Mackenzie became director of the Aegean Intelligence Service; Hugh Walpole ran the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau in revolutionary Petrograd; A.E.W. Mason, who had been a Liberal MP, was a secret agent in Morocco, Spain and Mexico; Hall Caine, whose new novels were given full-page advertisements, was engaged in Allied propaganda in America; E. Phillips Oppenheim conducted neutral journalists round the Western Front; Baroness Orczy founded a women’s Active Service League to hound slackers; and so on. What was to be Rider Haggard’s war work? By mid-1915 he had seen his vision: a grand post-war plan for restocking the Empire with subsidised heroes who would find themselves workless in the wake of victory, not narrowchested slum-dwellers but real men tempered in the furnace of war. From this distance it sounds a glorious non-starter. ‘Save your country and then abandon it for another one’ was a resistible plea, though the men who dreamed up patriotic posters could probably have improved on it. A body called the Royal Colonial Institute thought Haggard’s ideas ‘very interesting’ and decided to sponsor him on a tour of the Dominions. Kipling told his friend (whom he addressed as ‘old man’): ‘You’re in for the deuce and all of a big job.’ It was now 1916 and already far too many of the heroes he hoped to resettle had been ploughed into the mud of Flanders, and others with empty sleeves and trouser-legs were being wheeled along English sea-fronts. Nevertheless, at a dinner for 250 at the Hotel Cecil, Haggard was sent on his way by Lord Curzon, who described him as a ‘great Empire servant’.

The tour left Haggard little time for earning his living, but he was temporarily cushioned by the sale of the film rights to six novels. Everywhere he was personally popular; Canada even named a peak and a glacier after him. But men’s minds were on other things and this time the idea of an influx of British stalwarts roused no great enthusiasm. When the killing ended, and the influenza pandemic had thinned out the survivors, there were still (as Haggard had insisted there would be) workless Servicemen aplenty, but few with any desire to plant cabbages in desolate places. In 1921 an Empire Settlement Act provided for a moderate programme of subsidised emigration. This had to be Haggard’s reward, along with the second knighthood he received in 1919, in the Order of the British Empire. Soon afterwards he was sitting on yet another body, the Birth-Rate Commission, where he was able to argue that a policy of resettling surplus people in the Empire was a far better proposition than artificial birth control.

Not long before he died in 1925, Haggard learned that the Minister for Immigration in Canada had made a special appeal for settlers from Hungary, Yugoslavia, Scandinavia, Switzerland and the Irish Free State. So much for the Mother Country. Only thirty years after Haggard’s death the flags of Empire were everywhere fluttering to the ground. Here already was the blissful world for which that bitter poet had yearned – ‘when the Rudyards cease from kipling/And the Haggards ride no more’.

Haggard’s daughter Lilias, herself a writer, summed him up perfectly when she said: ‘Like many Victorians, my father took himself too seriously and saw everything a bit larger than life.’ He became obsessed by Perils – not only the Yellow Peril but the Jewish Peril and Bolshevist Peril. Accurately he forecast a new German Peril within a generation; he even suspected that the new Germany would breed manpower on stud-farm principles. But there was a bigger Peril yet: ‘the great ultimate war, as I have always held, will be that between the white and the coloured races’. An unfriendly biographer could have made rare mischief out of these obsessions. Tom Pocock, viewing Haggard strictly in the context of his time, is scrupulously fair to this frustrated man of destiny, whose ideal of a beneficent, civilising rule by whichever nation stood highest on the ladder of evolution is described as ‘not unworthy’, which is almost the same thing as worthy.

It is impossible, in the light of Haggard’s upbringing, to mock his desire to leave a mark on the world; an inspiration not ignoble, as it were. He had never seriously wanted to be a great Parliamentarian, deciding with his habitual concern for gentlemanly standards, that the House of Commons was ‘hardly the place for a self-respecting man’. His passion for serving on commissions, preferably royal ones, is curious, the more so because his first experience of such bodies was the one whose members were hell-bent on the retrocession of the Transvaal. This could have sickened him of commissions for good. Instead, he came to see them as a form of public service which enabled him to mix with heads of state (Theodore Roosevelt being a notable example) and offered a welcome pulpit for the propagation of ideas. He must have known that unpaid service of this kind was the way to the Honours List, though there is nothing in this book to suggest that he harboured such a motive. Many men of letters would have found the drudgery abhorrent and begrudged demands on their time and income. It is a pity that Haggard saw fit, or perhaps only pretended, to deprecate his role as entertainer. Pocock could have mentioned that had he lived another ten years he would have seen a writer of rattling good yarns, and a gentleman to boot, in the person of John Buchan appointed Governor-General of Canada, a height to which the creator of She would hardly have dared to aspire.