Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925)

17 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) virtually invented the late-Victorian ripping yarn. His most famous books are King Solomon’s Mines (KSM) and She but he wrote over 70 novels, 14 or so featuring the action hero, Allan Quatermain.

Haggard was one of 10 children born to a Jewish barrister living in Norfolk. Considered a duffer he was sent to Africa in 1875, aged 18, to make his fortune, his parents scraping him a job as assistant to the secretary to the governor of Natal. He was not only present in Pretoria in April 1877 when the British annexed the Boer Republic of the Transvaal, it was Haggard himself who raised the Union flag and read out much of the proclamation when the official in charge lost his voice.

In 1880 he married and in 1882 returned to England to settle in Norfolk and study law. He didn’t like it, and moved to Hammersmith in 1885 to concentrate on his writing. His first book, King Solomon’s Mines, was an immediate bestseller and he never looked back.

KSM introduces the hero Allan Quatermain, a slight but hardy African hunter, who meets a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis, and ex-navy sidekick Captain Good, who are seeking Curtis’ brother who disappeared into the African interior two years previously in search of a legendary kingdom. Quatermain just happens to have come into possession of a map of the way there, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer, and so the three set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and a striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot.

Haggard joined a select band of 1880s authors who were pioneering short, punchy fiction with gripping characters and sensational plots, often set in the exotic lands opened up by Imperial conquests. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island had appeared in 1883 and Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes, was to make his debut a few years later in A Study In Scarlet (1887), Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, exotic in location if not gripping in plot (1888).

Portrait photo of Henry Rider Haggard

Rider Haggard fans point out that without Allan Quatermain there’d have been no Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981), although the films of Haggard’s novels have been mostly poor. There are film versions of KSM starring Paul Robeson (1937), Stewart Granger (1950), Richard Chamberlain (1985) and Patrick Swayze (2004), and numerous spin-offs including The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003) where Quatermain is played by an ageing Sean Connery, and bastardisations, eg the Michael Douglas movies Romancing The Stone (1984) and The Jewel of the Nile (1985). All of these films feature women as love interests. The original novels do not.

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