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Rider Haggard was a badly educated brilliant best-selling novelist

Posted in Adventure, Africa, Cinema, English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature on Tuesday, 30 July 2013

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This edited article about Rider Haggard originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 354 published on 26 October 1968.

Rider Haggard in Africa, picture, image, illustration

Rider Haggard watched the fierce war dances and later wrote about them, by Neville Dear

As a schoolboy, Rider Haggard was regarded as not only dull but stupid. His mother described him as “heavy as lead in body and mind,” and his father, the Squire of Bradenham, in Norfolk, considered that he was “only fit to be a greengrocer.”

“I think that on the whole I was rather a quiet youth,” he said in later life, “. . . certainly I was very imaginative, although I kept my thoughts to myself, which I dare say had a good deal to do with my reputation for stupidity. . . . Without doubt I was slow at my lessons, chiefly because I was always thinking of something else . . . (but) I rarely forgot the substance of anything worth remembering.”

As a result of his slowness, Rider, who was born at Bradenham Hall, in 1856, did not receive as good an education as his five brothers. Unlike them, he was not sent to public school or university.

When he was nineteen, his father arranged for him to go to South Africa as aide to the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal.

It was then that Rider’s imagination came to the fore. He frequently had to travel into the veld and bush country, and he soon learnt to speak the Zulu language. He watched the natives performing their fierce war dances, listened to their stories of famous battles, and made notes of all the strange ceremonies and rituals he witnessed.

He set these “impressions” down on paper and posted them to London, where they appeared in various magazines. As was to be expected, his father scoffed at these literary efforts and told his son that he would never be more “than a penny-a-liner” – a run-of-the-mill writer. Luckily Rider did not allow this to discourage him.

By dint of his enthusiasm and energy, he rose to be Master and Registrar to the High Court of the Transvaal and during the next few years he witnessed a bitter struggle between the English, the Boers and the Zulus. He served as a volunteer lieutenant in the Pretoria Horse. Then, becoming disillusioned by the injustice meted out to the natives, he decided to “shake off the dust of Government service.”

For a short while he ran his own ostrich farm, then in 1881 he and his young English wife returned home to Norfolk. Rider began reading for the Bar.

It was then that “a little incident” occurred that led to his becoming a writer of romantic and adventurous fiction.

“At the church which my wife and I attended,” he wrote, “we saw sitting near us one Sunday a singularly beautiful and pure-faced young lady. Afterwards, we agreed that this semi-divine creature – on whom to the best of my knowledge I have never set eyes again from that day to this – ought to become the heroine of a novel.”

Haggard immediately started to write a novel, of mystery and intrigue. He called it Dawn, and set it in the Norfolk he knew so well.

This first novel was successfully published in 1884, and Haggard found himself launched on a new career as a novelist.

His next book, The Witch’s Head, incorporated some of his South African experiences, but it was not until he chanced to read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island that he felt “impelled . . . to try to write a book for boys.” For the next six weeks he wrote continuously, standing up at a pedestal desk in the home he had moved to in London, and by the end of that time he had produced a tale of African adventure called, King Solomon’s Mines.

The story, with its search for a hidden fortune in diamonds, was destined to become one of the most widely read in the world. It was to make its hard-up author rich and famous; yet Haggard nearly sold it outright to his publisher for £100.

He had decided to take the “£100 on the nail” rather than wait for the royalties it might earn. But while the contract was being drawn up, he was left alone in the office with an intently-working clerk.

* * *

“There was a clock ticking away on the mantelpiece,” Haggard recalled. “It seemed to be ticking happiness into my life . . . I was going out of this place with a hundred quid. . . .

“But the scratching of that quill pen at my back irritated me. Presently it ceased, and I heard the squeaky voice of the man at the desk say, ‘Mr. Haggard, if I were you I should take the royalty’.”

On the spur of the moment, Haggard took the clerk’s advice, and so set the seal on his own fortune. His boys’ adventure story went on to make a great deal of money, and to win such admirers as Mr. Gladstone and the then young Winston Churchill. A group of schoolgirls even wrote to the author congratulating him on having composed “a thrilling book without a heroine.”

After the phenomenal success of King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel, Allan Quatermain, Haggard had no hesitation about his next subject. In Africa, he said, he had been “thrown in with men who, for thirty or forty years, had been intimately acquainted with the Zulu people, with their history, their heroes, and their customs.” From these hunters and explorers he had heard “many tales and traditions, some of which . . . are rarely told . . . and in time to come may cease to be told altogether.”

So, during another six-week spell of writing at “white heat”, he produced She, the story of an African sorceress whom death could not touch.

Haggard sensed that this book would become a classic of romantic adventure, and when he gave the manuscript to his literary agent he declared, “There is what I shall be remembered by.” And in fact She rapidly established the author as the supreme story-teller of his time.

For the rest of his life, Rider Haggard travelled the world in search of authentic material for his yarns. In 1888, he sailed to Egypt in order to write Cleopatra. He excavated tombs and uncovered mummies which no eye had looked upon for thousands of years. Later that year, he visited Iceland, where he obtained the inspiration for his saga, Eric Brighteyes. In 1891, he braved yellow fever, malaria, snakes and Mexican bandits while he prepared to write Montezuma’s Daughter.

It was while he was in Mexico that he heard of the death in England of his only son, Jock. He never fully recovered from the blow.

In 1912 he received the knighthood he so richly deserved, and by the time he died in 1925, he had made good his early resolution to become “a success in the world in one way or another, and that of a sort which would cause my name to be remembered long after I had departed therefrom.”

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