The hopes of civilisation by William Morris (1885)

‘Hope’ is Morris’s key word, a central concept in his writings. It occurs 58 times in this essay, a fact which might give the impression the text is a wishy-washy set of liberal hopes for the amelioration of the wretched state of the Victorian working classes. In fact, this is by far the toughest-minded, theoretically advanced and historically grounded of Morris’s essays. He has been reading Marx and Marx has colonised his thought with a vengeance.

This lecture was delivered to the Hammersmith Branch of the Socialist League at Kelmscott House on 14 June 1885. In the preceding months he had been reading Marx and other advanced socialist economists – some of his other essays and lectures of the time go out of their way to explain Marxist concepts such as surplus labour in great detail: ‘On the whole tough as the job is you ought to read Marx if you can: up to date he is the only completely scientific Economist on our side.’ (Letter to J Carruthers, Feb 1885)

The hopes of civilisation amounts to a long and detailed recapitulation of the claim from The Communist Manifesto that all history has been the history of class struggle and proceeds to describe these class struggles in great detail. Early on there is some of the old medievalising Morris we’re used to:

Not seldom I please myself with trying to realize the face of mediaeval England; the many chases and great woods, the stretches of common tillage and common pasture quite unenclosed; the rough husbandry of the tilled parts, the unimproved breeds of cattle, sheep, and swine; especially the latter, so lank and long and lathy, looking so strange to us; the strings of packhorses along the bridle- roads, the scantiness of the wheel-roads, scarce any except those left by the Romans, and those made from monastery to monastery: the scarcity of bridges, and people using ferries instead, or fords where they could; the little towns, well bechurched, often walled; the villages just where they are now (except for those that have nothing but the church left to tell of them), but better and more populous; their churches, some big and handsome, some small and curious, but all crowded with altars and furniture, and gay with pictures and ornament; the many religious houses, with their glorious architecture; the beautiful manor-houses, some of them castles once, and survivals from an earlier period; some new and elegant; some out of all proportion small for the importance of their lords. How strange it would be to us if we could be landed in fourteenth century England; unless we saw the crest of some familiar hill, like that which yet bears upon it a symbol of an English tribe, and from which, looking down on the plain where Alfred was born, I once had many such ponderings, we should not know into what country of the world we were come: the name is left, scarce a thing else.

The middle ages which epitomised everything he felt was good about life. But the rest of the essay is tough-minded and merciless in its Marxist analysis: all eras, of Elizabeth, the Stuarts, the civil wars and Restoration and Glorious Revolution etc are seen through the lens of the class struggle between landowners and the nascent businessmen on the one hand, and the propertyless journeymen labourers on the other, who will form the basis of the capitalists and industrial proletariat of his own day.

Now, in all I have been saying, I have been wanting you to trace the fact that, ever since the establishment of commercialism on the ruins of feudality, there has been growing a steady feeling on the part of the workers that they are a class dealt with as a class, and in like manner to deal with others; and that as this class feeling has grown, so also has grown with it a consciousness of the antagonism between their class and the class which employs it, as the phrase goes; that is to say, which lives by means of its labour. Now it is just this growing consciousness of the fact that as long as there exists in society a propertied class living on the labour of a propertyless one, there MUST be a struggle always going on between those two classes–it is just the dawning knowledge of this fact which should show us what civilization can hope for–namely, transformation into true society, in which there will no longer be classes with their necessary struggle for existence and superiority.

His previous lectures cared very little about the situation on the Continent. With his new, post-Marxist cosmopolitanism, this lecture has sections giving precise Marxist analyses of the French Revolution and the Commune, the situations in Germany or Russia, more or less copied from Marx and his epigones.

The defeats and disgraces of [the Franco-Prussian] war developed, on the one hand, an increase in the wooden implacability and baseness of the French bourgeois, but on the other made way for revolutionary hope to spring again, from which resulted the attempt to establish society on the basis of the freedom of labour, which we call the Commune of Paris of 1871. Whatever mistakes or imprudences were made in this attempt, and all wars blossom thick with such mistakes, I will leave the reactionary enemies of the people’s cause to put forward: the immediate and obvious result was the slaughter of thousands of brave and honest revolutionists at the hands of the respectable classes, the loss in fact of an army for the popular cause: but we may be sure that the results of the Commune will not stop there: to all Socialists that heroic attempt will give hope and ardour in the cause as long as it is to be won; we feel as though the Paris workman had striven to bring the day-dawn for us, and had lifted us the sun’s rim over the horizon, never to set in utter darkness again: of such attempts one must say, that though those who perished in them might have been put in a better place in the battle, yet after all brave men never die for nothing, when they die for principle.

Here we can hear the true Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, the vaunting vainglorious rhetorical style which came to characterise communist regimes in the twentieth century. It is strange that it’s an essentially Victorian rhetoric, one which had to be abandoned by even its most jingoistic supporters in the West after the Great War, and yet lived on in the world’s communist regimes, sounding with ever-more ludicrous hollowness, enduring into the 1970s and 80s in the Eastern bloc, and still surviving in bizarre anachronisms like North Korea even today.

The essay ends with a detailed critique of all the possible responses to the current political crisis, as Morris sees it: he itemises the possible responses and then witheringly explains how every one is inadequate, short of full-scale Revolution and the overthrow, probably by violence, of the besieged Capitalist classes, before the new day of freedom can dawn.

Once he had taken the plunge, once he had joined the Socialist League, Morris wrote to all his friends, writers like Swinburne or his mentor, Ruskin, his artist colleagues Burne-Jones et al strongly suggesting they also join. It was the only way he could see out of the artist’s indefensible isolation from his fellow men and the guilt of living a fulfilled happy life in a society based on slavery. It would be interesting to anthologise the apologetic and sheepish replies he had from his correspondents as, one by one, they backed away and failed to make the great leap forward which meant so much to Morris.

Related links

A meeting of great beards!

A meeting of great beards!

A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)

Happy Thought

The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the very simple poems collected in A Child’s Garden of Verses between 1881 and 1884,  in between work on Treasure Island and severe bouts of illness. It was originally meant to include illustrations by the (then) famous book illustrator, Randolph Caldecott, but he died in 1884 and the book was published unillustrated.

Numerous editions have been published since then, illustrated by various artists. My Penguin edition is illustrated with lovely black and white line drawings which it claims are by Eve Garnett (1900-91) whose work is sort of relaxed and scatty in a 1940s and 50s way. Except they’re not by her. Research on Google Images reveals they’re by the much more precisely drawn (and old-fashioned and twee) Millicent Sowerby (1878-1967).

Reviewers on Amazon suggest the optimal age of the audience for these poems is four. Sounds about right.

The Land of Counterpane

When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills.

And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.

I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain
The pleasant Land of Counterpane.

Millicent Sowerby Illustration to 'A Child's Garden of Verses'

Millicent Sowerby illustration to ‘A Child’s Garden of Verses’ by Robert Louis Stevenson

My Shadow

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885)

Stevenson followed the New Arabian Nights (1882) with More New Arabian Nights (1885), a set of intricately (and preposterously) interlinked stories, beginning with a man walking blandly home through London and then taking us to the American mid-West, to Paris, Glasgow and beyond with tales of murder, extortion, starvation and survival, grand deceit, escapes from the police, disguises and terrorism. I struggled with New Arabian Nights and have to confess I abandoned reading this book.

Conan Doyle and Stevenson The Story of the Destroying Angel is set among trekking Mormons in the 1860s and 70s. The religion is portrayed as a sinister cult, with its members liable to extortion and even murder at the hands of its terrifying leaders whose revenge extends even overseas. This is exactly the same setting Conan Doyle uses for the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study In Scarlet, which he wrote the year after MNANs was published, 1886.

London-centric For all that Stevenson is thought of as a historical novelist or a Scottish novelist, the core setting of all these stories is London, and they are based on a kind of core assumption that London – the largest city in the world with over 4 million inhabitants – the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever seen – offers endless opportunities for adventure and excitement. The word ‘London’ occurs 24 times, its roar and fogs as omnipresent as in Sherlock Holmes.

Structure Three men down on their luck bump into each other near Leicester Square. One of them takes the others to the comfy cigar shop run by the down-on-his-luck hero of the New Arabian Nights, Prince Florizel. Over a puff they vow to each go out of their way to have an adventure; they leave the shop and – surprise – each then has an adventure. Not so subtly these adventures turn out all to be interlinked.

  • “Prologue of the Cigar Divan”. Three down at heel gentlemen meet and take a cigar and discuss having adventures.
  • “Challoner’s adventure: The Squire of Dames”. Challoner is walking through a quiet London street in Putney when he hears a bang and smoke escaping from a house quickly followed by two men and woman running out. He follows the woman and tries at tedious length to get her to tell her story…
  • “Story of the Destroying Angel”. The woman tells a long cock-and-bull story about how her father trekking West in America comes across a party of Mormons escaping persecution; rescuing them he becomes a respected member of the settlement they found. But Mormon tyranny eventually leads him to be persecuted and then assassinated. The young lady flees Utah to England, Liverpool and London helped by the loyal doctor who has always been a friend of the family. He promises his son will rendezvous with her in London. Instead she is amazed when the doctor himself arrives and announces he is working on an Elixir of Eternal Youth: once he has completed it and drunk it he will be as young as a son and a worthy suitor for her. He calls her to witness him adding the finishing touches to the potion but instead of becoming the Elixir it explodes in a cloud of smoke. This is the explosion she claims Challoner saw as he walked past the house in Putney…
  • “The Squire of Dames (Concluded)” She says Challoner must immediately catch a train to Glasgow and meet the only man who can rescue her. With misgivings he goes, knocks on the door to find a terrified man who reads the letter he is bearing, runs round the house then exits with a slam of the door. Challoner finds the letter he’d been carrying which describes him, Challoner, as a foolish oaf whose sole purpose is to warn the inhabitant of the house that the police are on their track. At that moment the police knock on the door! and, terrified, Challoner flees into the garden where he finds a ladder, leans it against the wall, climbs up and over to find himself received by conspirators who whisk him off to a safe house. He is caught up in some kind of dastardly conspiracy!
  • “Somerset’s adventure: The Superfluous Mansion” the narrative cuts to another of the loafers who had met in the cigar shop, Somerset who, walking home, encounters an old lady who takes him to her house. There she tells him the following story:
  • “Narrative of the Spirited Old Lady” As a young lady she rebelled against her parents and arranged to elope with a family friend, so she fled to London but the friend bottled out and never appeared. Thus flung on the world she took rooms but quickly found herself in debt. She tries to sneak out of her rented rooms with a heavy case and luckily finds a dashing young man to help her. They take a cab to a house where he reveals himself as an immensely rich aristocrat who proposes to her on the spot. They are happily married for years and have a daughter who, however, gets involved with political causes and runs away. the husband passes on. The old lady inherits her husband’s wealth and the house where they are now talking…
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Continued)” She tells him a further long account of how she was once loitering near her house, which she had rented out to strangers, when she noticed some odd behaviour. A man approaching, then going away from, then again approaching her house. She sneaks in the back way and discovers an assassin with a bomb in the pantry (and locks him in) and then a young man in colloquy with Prince Florizel (for it is he!). the young man realises his plot (whatever it is) has been found out and promptly swallows poison but the old lady is swift and administers an emetic (lots of vinegar). there is a muffled explosion from below where the other young man, realising his plot has been foiled, shoots himself!…
  • “Zero’s Tale of the Explosive Bomb”
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Continued)”
  • “Desborough’s Adventure: The Brown Box”
  • “Story of the Fair Cuban”
  • “The Brown Box (Concluded)”
  • “The Superfluous Mansion (Concluded)”
  • “Epilogue of the Cigar Divan”

Silliness There’s probably lots to say about how Stevenson’s use of interlinking narratives, of contrasting point of view and so on claim him as an early Modernist or post-Modernist. But from the reader’s point of view this elaborate structuring has a fatal flaw: I don’t care about the stories. They are so obviously made up, padded out, and badly written, they are such wretched examples of Victorian melodrama at its worst, that I gave up being interested in any of the characters or what happened to them, and eventually abandoned reading the book altogether.

Stage melodrama The word ‘terror’ occurs 23 times, often with no justification. It is used to assert the thing, not to create it through narrative. And to create stagey moments of arch melodrama:

‘Thank you a thousand times!  But at this hour, in this appalling silence, and among all these staring windows, I am lost in terrors—oh, lost in them!’ she cried, her face blanching at the words.  ‘I beg you to lend me your arm,’ she added with the loveliest, suppliant inflection.  ‘I dare not go alone; my nerve is gone—I had a shock, oh, what a shock!  I beg of you to be my escort.’

Rubbish.


Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

King Solomon’s Mines by Henry Rider Haggard (1885)

20 July 2012

Henry Rider Haggard, age 29, was on a train journey with his brother. He was back in England after a five years’ sojourn in South Africa and the two were discussing the merits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, still wildly popular after its publication in 1883. Henry says, “Oh there’s nothing special about the book, really.” His brother says, “Well I bet you five bob you can’t write something better.” So Henry sat down and wrote King Solomon’s Mines in 12 weeks, for a bet. It was published in 1887 by Cassels, the same firm who had published Treasure Island, and has gone on to become one of the great classics of adventure fiction, and one of the great bestsellers, of all time.

Reading King Solomon’s Mines in 2012 is rewarding on a number of levels:

Identifying with the hero At the simplest level it’s a boy’s own adventure, full of thrills and spills designed to test and exercise and reassure the white adolescent male reader: the men are strong and heroic; they survive extreme physical tests; they triumph against overwhelming odds; some natives are trustworthy unto death; others are cruel savages who must be tamed; there are no white women (‘petticoats’ as Haggard calls them) to distract our heroes; though there are plenty of ‘preposessing’ and scantily clad African maidens! There is treasure beyond counting! Vicariously, the reader experiences all these excitements, and triumphs and lives.

It is fiction at its most primitive: total identification with the Hero Who Overcomes.

The gang Except there isn’t just one hero; it is about a gang with attractive attributes distributed among them. Thus the (male) reader can choose whether to identify with Quatermain, experienced, self-deprecating; Henry Curtis, a lion of man, the pick of the white race, a heroic Englishman; Captain Good, a comedy figure, running to fat, wearing his comedy eyeglass, eternally fussing about his clothes and with a weakness for the fairer sex; or the brave and physically superb Zulu, Umbopa. For some reason the combination of the plucky with the comic, and the idea of a small group of heroes,  reminds me of Tintin (and also because the plot hinges on our heroes impressing the natives by predicting a solar eclipse, as Tintin does in ‘Prisoners of the Sun‘).

The Plot On board ship to Durban, South Africa, Quatermain, an ageing but hardy African hunter, is introduced to a giant of a man, Sir Henry Curtis and his 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 route, years earlier, from a dying Portuguese explorer. And so the three team up and set off, accompanied by some ill-fated Kaffir helpers and the striking Zulu, Umbopa, who is to play a key role in the plot. You can read the book, free, on Project Gutenberg.

Tone and humour The text isn’t as dated as you’d expect. It is kept fresh by the rhythm and pacing of Haggard’s plot, moving confidently from one tense action scene to another. And it is written in an open, serviceable prose, very unlike the clotted Latinate phrasing of ‘literary’ authors of the time. The prose is frequently adorned with hilariously over-the-top poetic descriptions of the African scenery or 5th form thoughts about the meaning of Life. And Haggard’s  good humour (English and self-deprecating and often schoolboyish) comes through in every line:

       I shook my head and looked again at the sleeping men, and to my tired and yet excited imagination it seemed as though death had already touched them… All sorts of reflections of this sort passed through my mind – for as I get older I regret to say that a detestable habit of thinking seems to be getting a hold of me – while I stood and stared at those grim yet fantastic lines of warriors sleeping.

       ‘Curtis,’ I said to Sir Henry, ‘I am in a condition of pitiable funk.’

Not as racist as expected Haggard’s attitude to Africans is noticeably sympathetic. Early on he says he’s met plenty of blacks who are true gentlemen and plenty of whites who are not – and many overtly heroic deeds are performed by Kaffirs and blacks. One black servant dies very nobly saving Good from a rampaging elephant. And Umbopa the Zulu grows in regal stature throughout the book. When the adventurers come among the lost people of Kikuana land the black natives are highly differentiated; the king Twala may be a sadistic tyrant, the crone Gagoola an uncanny witch, but the maidens who attend them are courteous and beautiful and other leading Kikuaners like Ignosi are honest and valiant. The point is Haggard depicts blacks as variegated individuals, nothing like the appalling racism found among, say, the Boers of the same time and place.

Imperialism of the imagination Nonetheless, whatever Quatermain’s sympathy for and admiration of native Africans, it is crystal clear that the white Englishmen have an innate superiority over all natives, all women and indeed all other white men. White Englishmen just are naturally superior, why else would the British Empire be the greatest the world had ever seen? Reading this as a white Englishman it is hard to resist the repeated signals in the text as to my superiority. I can smile at its naivety but it still tugs at my imagination. The text flatters me. I can well imagine all women and non-white people finding this pretty tedious, if not offensive. The inscription to the sequel, Allan Quatermain, says it all:

I inscribe this book of adventure to my son ARTHUR JOHN RIDER
HAGGARD in the hope that in days to come he, and many other
boys whom I shall never know, may, in the acts and thoughts of
Allan Quatermain and his companions, as herein recorded,
find something to help him and them to reach to what, with Sir
Henry Curtis, I hold to be the highest rank whereto we can
attain — the state and dignity of English gentlemen.

Women One stereotype which is conspicuous by its absence is there are no white women at all in the book. Scantily clad African women, yes, but no ‘petticoats’, as Haggard puts it. Presumably this reflected the physical reality of the time – reading Kipling’s frontier stories, there was continual warfare with native tribes and the Zulu Wars in South Africa had only just ended. It’s dangerous frontier territory.

But it’s striking how all the screen versions of KSM do include women, as love interest and as ‘terror-prompts’ ie woman cornered by fierce beast/dinosaur/native who has to be rescued by gallant white hero. What does the addition of the Woman In Peril cliche – not necessary in 1885 but indispensable from the 1920s onwards, up to and including Romancing The Stone and Indiana Jones – tell us about the 20th century, and about us?

King Solomon’s Influence The biggest obstacle to reading the text is the fact that I seemed to have read or seen so much of it before. This book has been copied in scores of other novels, films, TV dramas and comics. What must have been extraordinary incidents to its original audience have been worn smooth by over a century of assimilation. Just one example, the treasure chamber is entered by a massive rising & descending stone door; while our heroes are distracted by the chests full of treasure, the wicked crone Gagool triggers the lowering mechanism in order to trap them; she stabs the (prepossessing) serving maid who has accompanied them to the chamber and makes to escape but the dying maiden grabs her foot and so the crone tries desperately to wriggle free even as the vast doorway slowly descends until it gruesomely (and noisily) squashes her to a pulp.

In how many films and TV dramas have you seen a mechanical doorway inexorably descending as a protagonist tries to slip under it to safety? Was this the first time this trope, this meme, this cliche, was ever used?

Stereotypes One of the great pleasures of reading King Solomon’s Mines is in savouring the gorgeous tapestry of cliches and stereotypes. The whole text is built of cliches. Possibly the text could be represented visually as sets of overlapping boxes or diagrams, each containing a plot or character device. They’re like jigsaw pieces laid out at the start of the text, which are then dovetailed together as the plot unravels, with satisfying clicks. Everything about it seems familiar:

  • the brave band of adventurers
  • the Quest to an Unknown Land
  • the plucky native assistants who one by one are picked off in mishaps
  • our heroes almost dying in the desert ie pushed to the limits of human endurance
  • their sudden arrival in a land of plenty and marvels
  • the mysterious carvings on the mysterious road
  • the way they fool the tall, strong blacks who suddenly surround them that they are gods ‘come from the stars’
  • the cruel leader of the lost tribe (Twala) who suspects they are ordinary men after all

On and on it goes, every element seeming familiar as if from a dream, and in fact from hundreds of films, TV series, comics which I consumed avidly as a boy. If Haggard really is the source of these scores and scores of climactic scenes and sensational scenarios, then he’s one of the most influential writers of all time, his adventure memes a permanent part of the pulp imagination of all of us.

Conclusion There are so many superficial reasons for objecting to King Solomon’s Mines (the casual racism, the sexism, the violence) that there is, ultimately, no point objecting. Either you buy into the conventions of a genre or you don’t. If you know you’re going to see an adventure movie, don’t be upset if it features strong heroes, cowardly baddies, damsels in distress in exotic foreign locations populated by unreliable locals. The interest is in feeling Haggard shape and develop the stories, stereotypes and cliches which were to help form the popular imagination of our culture. Without Allan Quatermain – no Indiana Jones.

Illustration of ‘King Solomon’s Mines’

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