In 1887, Rider Haggard earned more than £10,000 by writing: only 31, he was probably the highest-paid novelist in England. Twelve years earlier, he had been packed off to Natal as an unpaid flunky to Sir Henry Bulwer. Haggard’s father, a wealthy Norfolk landowner, had considered him too dim for any public school; later, Africa seemed the best place to dispose of such an unpromising younger son. Arrived there, Haggard surprised everyone by proving to be highly competent. Within two years he had become the youngest head of a government department in South Africa. Suddenly he abandoned the Civil Service and set up as an ostrich farmer, where he unfortunately discovered the truth of a local adage that ‘no gentleman ever did any good in Natal.’ The Boers, sturdier and more unscrupulous than the British settlers, were obviously gaining the upper hand; six years after his arrival, Haggard left the country in disgust and spent the rest of his long life in England. Though Africa had disappointed him materially, it had given his imagination enough food for a career of forty years as a novelist.
Today Haggard has sunk into relative obscurity, and most people assume that his novels catered to a fleeting demand for Imperialist propaganda. In fact, he wrote little about the everyday realities of African settlement, nor did he dispense advice on how to make one’s pile through hard work. Most of his heroes are already wealthy; they are jaded clubmen or dons who come to Africa in search of adventure. They trek out into unknown territory, assisted by a white hunter and a retinue of colourful, loyal Zulus. Their quest is for a lost kingdom, which will remain cut off from civilisation after the heroes have done their work and gone home (usually enriched with a few pocketfuls of ancient treasure).
Formally, these novels are in the ‘time travel’ mode – fantasies of escape from the predictable monotony of English middle-class life. But they also reveal a deep sympathy with Zulu culture, which Haggard saw as a living example of the vanished heroic age of the West. ‘I could never discern,’ he wrote in 1888, ‘a superiority so great in ourselves as to authorise us, by right divine as it were, to destroy the coloured man and take his lands. It is difficult to see why a Zulu, for instance, has not as much right to live in his own way as a Boer or an Englishman.’
Haggard imagined the British Empire as an oddly-assorted yet happy family, united by its devotion to a distant monarch. This ideal bore an obvious resemblance to the country estate on which he had grown up. As a child, he was happier in the servants’ quarters than in the presence of his irritable father; in maturity, he depicted Africans as the most devoted and lovable of servants – rather than tillers of the soil or a potential labour force for industry. He believed that the best outlet for England’s surplus population was not Africa, but the plains of Canada and Australia. On these wide acres the settlers could easily produce ‘the supply of children ... that is necessary to carrying on our white races.’ The white man’s culture, that is to say, should be propagated in the white man’s place, the temperate zone; while the Africans should be conceded a place and culture of their own.
Haggard’s sympathy with tribal values helped him get started on a writing career, but his enormous success as a popular novelist depended on more than just his use of exotic settings. He also drew on a psychological history that was compounded from Victorian middle-class conventions, all laid on rather too thick. His father imbued him with the code of the squirearchy, but failed to win his emotional allegiance. That was first held by his sensitive and cultured mother, and later by a succession of formidable women. Haggard’s father sent him to Africa with a view to curing him of his infatuation with an older woman, Lilly Jackson. Before her lover could return, Lilly married someone else. D.S. Higgins argues persuasively that Haggard consoled himself with a native mistress: for the rest of his life he was haunted by remorse for this ‘secret sin’, though he still found room in his novels for many a sultry African temptress.
In 1879, Haggard abruptly gave up his African career, returned to England, and contracted a proper marriage with the daughter of a neighbouring landowner (the timing is consistent with his African mistress having produced a child, though Higgins makes no mention of a possible embarrassment of this kind). When their first ardour had cooled, the Haggards settled into a gloomy mutual aloofness. The marriage, indeed, had little chance of success, since Haggard told his wife that their union was only physical and temporary. His real mate, he explained, was Lilly Jackson, and he expected to be reunited with her as soon as both had died. To round out the melodrama, Lilly left her husband after he had infected her with syphilis; she lived the last few years of her life in a house paid for by Haggard, slowly and horribly dying.
Haggard was never able to exorcise the inner terrors that these events had conjured up. Like his friend Kipling, he made his outer life almost aggressively conformist, even as he was privately driven by extreme, obsessive and unacknowledged fantasies. In the novels, these fantasies overflow in countless scenes of dismemberment, torture, cannibalism, female rule, witchcraft, mummification, slow death by hunger or thirst. Haggard’s upbringing had taught him that the nature of woman was both pure and simple; when experience threatened to refute these dogmas, he was thrown into an emotional confusion from which he could never emerge. He cannot have been helped by the coincidence, or more than coincidence, that his mother’s name was Ella, his beloved’s Lilly, his wife’s Louie, and his youngest daughter’s Lillias! Though he was never a major talent, in some early works his private obsessions are perfectly matched with exploitation of every trick of popular fiction. The product is Victorian kitsch of the first water.
Haggard’s biography cannot be an easy one to write: he buried his emotions very deep, he had a long career stuffed with minor offices, and he ended as a classic bore, writing yet another letter to the Times whenever the shoe of the modern world pinched. D.S. Higgins manages to penetrate some, at least, of Haggard’s defences: he sheds light on the probable African love affair, notes that Haggard had a Jewish grandmother (which may have contributed to his racial attitudes), and uncovers the identity of Haggard’s great love. Higgins’s attitude to his subject, unfortunately, is more that of a hobbyist than a critical biographer: he proudly relates how he tracked down Haggard’s old study chair and sat on it while writing his life! Morton Cohen’s 1960 study is still the best assessment – though neither biographer does much to solve the fascinating question of how minor talents like Haggard often become potent voices of their age. If the book itself is no longer read, the Africa that most Englishmen imagine is all too close to the land invented in She.