Allan’s Wife and Other Tales by Henry Rider Haggard (1889)

29 July 2012

Allan’s Wife and Other Tales is a collection of stories by Henry Rider Haggard about his African hunter hero, Allan Quatermain. The title story is by far the longest, describing Allan’s childhood, upbringing in Africa, and meeting with his wife, and is accompanied by three genuinely short stories, Hunter Quartermain’s Story, A Tale of Three Lions, and Long Odds. They were published separately in magazines in the first flush of Haggard’s success, then collected in this volume.

Allan’s Wife (1889) is a moving account of Quatermain’s sad English childhood (when his mother and three siblings die of fever his father emigrates to South Africa), robust African upbringing, and the adventures which lead to his marriage. Unlike Kipling’s often forced and exhausting knowledgeableness, Haggard’s familiarity with guns and hunting, the South African landscape, and the customs and language of Zulus, Masai, Boers etc comes over clearly and convincingly. Apart from the main narrative arc about Quatermain’s meeting, wooing and wedding his wife, Stella, there are two striking features:

The African medicine man, Indaba-zimbi, accompanies Quatermain from early in his adventures and establishes himself as a voice of ancestral African wisdom, giving good advice and performing miraculous magic at key moments. Their first meeting at a competition with his rival to draw down lightning from an electrical storm is pretty dramatic. Repeatedly he says you white men are clever, but you don’t know everything. Thus, as in all the Quatermain stories, a black African is a key figure, representing wisdom, dignity, cunning and endurance.

The baboon lady Key to the plot is the notion that Allan’s wife-to-be, Stella, and her father, years earlier, had rescued a woman, Hendrika, who’d been captured as a baby and brought up by baboons and who, as a result, had extraordinary climbing skills and could communicate with the baboons (rather like Mowgli the man-cub can communicate with wolves and all the other jungle animals in the Jungle Books). This unexpectedly turns out to be the trigger for the crisis of the story, when she and her baboon army kidnap Stella and take her off to a cave in the hills.

As a footnote, it’s worth pointing out that, even here, there is a Lost World since Stella and her father, deep in inaccessible Africa, have reinhabited mysterious marble houses which they found abandoned by some previous, highly sophisticated, culture. In fact, though short, Allan’s Wife, packs in a load of the tropes and types of incident which made Haggard’s reputation.

Illustration of Quatermain finding his wife in the cave

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