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III/ Haggard: imagining the ideal woman and man

“Whiffs of Darwinism” in Rider Haggard’s fiction1

Michel PRUM


À l’instar de nombreux romanciers victoriens et édouardiens, Rider Haggard fut influencé par Darwin et ses disciples. La continuité interspécifique, qui est l’une des marques du darwinisme, se retrouve dans les romans de Rider Haggard, qui dilue la frontière entre animaux et humains. De même le choix par les femmes de leur partenaire masculin, dans la tribu des Amahagger (dans She), rappelle la Sélection Sexuelle chez les animaux supérieurs exposée dans La Filiation de l’Homme (1871). Certes la réincarnation (qui signifie répétition et non évolution) est un trait récurrent qui n’est pas darwinien, mais évolution et variations se retrouvent aussi dans les romans de Rider Haggard. On y décèle également des échos de la théorie de la « récapitulation » ainsi que l’hypothèse du « chaînon manquant », qui s’inspirent en fait du biologiste darwinien Ernst Haeckel plus que de Darwin lui-même. Cet article s’appuie principalement sur l’étude de quatre romans de Rider Haggard : Elle (1886), Ayesha (1905), Elle et Allan (1921) et Heu Heu ou le Monstre (1924).

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  • 1 I would like to thank Patricia Crouan-Véron and Gilles Teulié for kindly introducing me to the worl (...)
  • 2 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1876. This edition, the 6th and last one, actually came out (...)

1When Charles Darwin published his epoch-making On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection on 24 November 1859, Henry Rider Haggard was a three-year-old boy, almost a toddler. When The Descent of Man came out, which concentrated on the human species and developed the theory of Sexual Selection, Henry was still a youth, aged fifteen. It is therefore legitimate to assert that Rider Haggard was brought up in a Darwinian world. To fully assess just how Darwinian England was in the Victorian and Edwardian period, one can pick up the analogy with Sigmund Freud drawn by Gillian Beer in her seminal Darwin’s Plots (1983). “[I]t is impossible, in our culture”, she writes, “to live a life which is not charged with Freudian assumptions, patterns for apprehending experience, ways of perceiving relationships, even if we have not read a word of Freud” (Beer 3, emphasis added). Likewise, Beer goes on to say, “[e]veryone found themselves living in a Darwinian world” (Beer 3) and they need not have read The Origin of Species2 or other works by Darwin to be influenced by his Weltanschauung. With Darwin as with Freud, “even those who query his views, or distrust them, find themselves unable to create a world cleansed of the [Darwinian]” (Beer 3). As Wendy R. Katz put it, Rider Haggard, like many late Victorians, “inhaled an odd whiff of Darwinism and its diverse interpretations from the atmosphere” (Katz 91) rather than consciously building on Darwin’s theories of evolution to write his novels. To be sure, as Grace Chen writes, “[t]hrough his correspondence and reading habits, Haggard does not appear to have had a great interest in scientific theory” (Chen 147). He probably never studied Darwinism as a theory and he may not have analysed The Origin of Species or The Descent of Man very carefully. Yet he was in some way familiar with the theory of evolution, as has been indicated by recent articles (Doyle, 60-74, Holterhoff 314-340). For instance “Smith and the Pharaohs”, a novella serialized in the Strand Magazine between 1912 and 1913, “uniquely illuminates Haggard’s concern with science and evolution” (Holterhoff 326). In his Preface to this text, he quoted Darwin’s Descent of Man, which indicates that he had read at least some part of the book (329). Doyle similarly reminds us that “[d]espite Haggard’s lack of a systemic approach to evolutionary theory, he does comment on flora and fauna in ways reminiscent of On the Origin of Species” (Doyle 64).

  • 3 Darwin online,, contains one reference to Rider Haggard, but it is in a (...)

2Actually, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Butler, all the Victorian novelists were significantly influenced by Darwinism. And Darwin himself was influenced by the novelists, Swift, Defoe, Austen, and many others. His earlier life may be characterized as a period of “omnivorous reading” (Beer 27). When circumnavigating the world aboard The Beagle, he never separated from his volume of Milton’s Poetical Works and took it on his land journeys (27). In late Victorian Britain, literature and science were closely intertwined. Novelists could read scientific works just as easily as scientists could read literature, which incidentally is far from being the case today. Yet Darwin never had the opportunity of reading Rider Haggard as he died too early, on 19 April 1882, at a time when the future novelist, aged 26, had only contributed a few articles on Southern Africa to British magazines (1877) and was in 1882 to publish his first book, with limited circulation, a non-fiction work also based on his stay in South Africa, Cetywayo and His White Neighbours. Unsurprisingly, Rider Haggard is not mentioned in Darwin’s online exhaustive archives, with only one exception.3

3How far and in which way was Rider Haggard influenced by Darwinism is the question that will be dealt with in the present article.

4One of the greatest changes brought about by the publication of The Origin of Species concerned the position of the human race (or of “Man” as the Victorians used to say) in the world of the living. In pre-Darwinian times, the latter was divided into three kingdoms, the vegetable, the animal and the human kingdoms. In other words, Man was separated from and unsurprisingly placed above the animals. As Freud explained in 1917 in an illuminating article entitled Eine Schwierigkeit der Psychoanalyse (a difficulty with psychoanalysis):

  • 4 Sigmund Freud, „Eine Schwierigkeit der Psychoanalyse“, Imago, Zeitschrift für Anwendung der Psychoa (...)

In the course of the development of civilization man acquired a dominating position over his fellow-creatures in the animal kingdom. Not content with this supremacy, however, he began to place a gulf between his nature and theirs. He denied the possession of reason to them, and to himself he attributed an immortal soul, and made claims to a divine descent which permitted him to break the bond of community between him and the animal kingdom.4

  • 5 The ‘biological blow’ was, according to Freud, one of the three blows dealt to humankind, together (...)

5According to Freud, Darwin dealt the ‘biological’ blow5 to Man’s hubris by showing that we have not been made directly by God in His image but that we descend from the animal (and the vegetable) through infinite random mutations and as a result of the Natural Selection. There are only two living kingdoms and we must share one with the other animals.

6This came as a real trauma for the Victorians. As part of a defence mechanism, Darwinism was almost immediately mocked as the ‘monkey theory’ and ape-like caricatures of the naturalist flourished in the press. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce famously asked T.H. Huxley (Darwin’s ‘bulldog’) whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey.6 Many Victorians rejected this animal ancestry which they deemed infamous. John Ruskin denounced the ‘filthy heraldries which record the relation of humanity to the ascidian and the crocodile’ (Ruskin 59).

7Decades later, this blurring of the boundaries between humans and animals is to be found extensively in Rider Haggard’s fiction. In She (1886), it is first expressed in the characters’ anthroponomy. The reader is told by “She” herself that in the Amahagger culture, human beings are given animal nicknames. When Chief Billali talks to the European travellers, he “affectionately calls Holly a baboon, Leo a lion and Job a pig” (Chen 155), and the Arab Mohamed is “the black goat”. Yet even before the characters reach the Amahagger lands and are thus associated to particular animals, their own English names are clear references to other species of the living world. Thus, Leo is Latin for lion (leo, leonis) while Holly is a plant (Ilex). When his ward was fifteen in an Oxford College, Holly used to be called “The Beast” (Haggard She 14) ‒ as opposed to Leo who was called “Beauty” ‒, in reference to the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, published in London in 1756 by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Holly admits that he is so hideous that he once overheard a woman say that he “had converted her to the monkey theory” (5).

8Thus, the way the characters are named or nicknamed contributes to the confusion of species. The Africans are dehumanized and metamorphosed into threatening animals (Teulié 213). One scene in She is particularly emblematic of that unclear limit between humans and animals: the description of the Amahagger festivities in chapter 19. A troop of people are dressed up as animals. What is interesting is that they are not presented ‒ at least not always ‒ as humans disguised as animals but they are introduced as if they actually were animals. Thus, we can read: “After him [a man wrapped in an ox’s hide] followed a blesbok, then an impala, then a koodoo, then more goats, and many other animals” (Haggard She 140). Here the narrator is not just avoiding stylistic repetitions (after him followed a man dressed up as a blesbok, then another one disguised as an impala…). He is deliberately mixing up human and animal categories, thus yielding to specific confusion. As Chen points out: “Holly [the narrator] neglects to distinguish them as human at all. […] [T]he human aspect of these dancers eventually fades away” (Chen 156). The performance described by Holly “represents loosening boundaries between the human and the animal” (156).

9Such continuity from animals to humans is to be found in Darwin’s Descent of Man. For instance, in Chapter 5, Darwin speaks of ‘Eskimos and other arctic animals’, which implies that Eskimos are animals (not because they are inferior people but just because they are a human group). He also regularly opposes Man and “the lower animals”, Man being thus a “higher animal”. Conversely, Darwin uses words that are normally reserved for human beings for animals. For example, in chapter XVII of the same Descent of Man, he refers to the females of seals as their “wives”. He also mentions the word “courtship” about dogs – the female resisting the “courtship” of male dogs. He likewise uses the terms “partners in marriage” about monkeys. Even when he refers to animals much lower down the scale of the living, like reptiles or fish, he sticks to his human centered vocabulary, with the phrase “marriage arrangements”.

10In Rider Haggard’s fiction, as in Darwin, we can thus see a position that runs counter to the Victorian rejection of humankind’s animal descent. The “filthy heraldries”, to quote Ruskin again, are cherished in the ceremony described in She. “Instead of distancing themselves from their animal ancestors”, Chen says, “the Amahagger people celebrate the connection” (156). Likewise, the last page of Darwin’s Descent famously eulogises “that heroic little monkey, who braved his dreaded enemy in order to save the life of his keeper” and “that old baboon, who descending from the mountains, carried away in triumph his young comrade from a crowd of astonished dogs” (Darwin Descent 644).

11In Rider Haggard, animals are seen as sensitive beings, not just as useful instruments. In Ayesha, for instance, the horses that are devoured by the death-hounds inspire pity and empathy (“our two poor, foundered beasts”‒ Haggard Ayesha 111). In the same way, the yak that accompanies the travellers on the mountains of Tibet, becomes a real character. When Leo and Holly finally have to eat it to avoid starvation, the consumption is not described just as ordinary meat eating. They are eating a friend. They first have to skin him. This is carried out not like some kind of horse knackery but like a religious ceremony. “So with affection, and even reverence, we performed this office for the dead companion of our journeyings, rejoicing the while that it was not we who had brought him to his end” (47).

12The boundary between humans and animals is therefore so thin that it can be lifted symbolically in the minds of the travellers. No wonder that when they actually swallow “the flesh” of the yak (the flesh and not the meat), and the “disgusting meal” is over, Holly concludes: “we felt like cannibals” (47). The border between meat-eating and anthropophagy has disappeared.

13This affectionate attitude towards the yak is ascribed by the narrator not to the influence of Darwinism, but to that of Buddhism:

Long residence among peoples who believed fully that the souls of men could pass into, or were risen from, the bodies of animals, had made us a little superstitious on this matter. It would be scarcely pleasant, we reflected, in some future incarnation, to find our faithful friend clad in human form and to hear him bitterly reproach us for his murder. (47)

14The reference to Buddhism is no coincidence. Ayesha takes place in Asia and Leo and Holly spend several months in a lamasery among monks whom they respect and admire for their exceptional wisdom. As noticed by Franklin, Ayesha is “saturated with Buddhism. [It is] not ‘about’ Buddhism, but Buddhism is pervasive in the margins and in the background” (Franklin 26). Rider Haggard himself had been fascinated since his childhood by spiritualism, owing to the influence of his mother, the poetess Ella Haggard (Göncüoğlu 284). The She novels are full of references to reincarnation and to death being the beginning of a new life.

15The belief in reincarnation, though it may contribute to blurring the boundaries between humans and animals (in the case of the yak becoming a human in another life, for instance), is nonetheless totally at odds with materialistic Darwinism. Reincarnation is repetition, not evolution. Evolution is best illustrated by Darwin’s famous cladogramme (a kind of tree of life) in chapter 4 of The Origin while reincarnation calls to the mind the image of an eternal circle (as in the very title Ayesha, The Return of She).

16So the whole side in Haggard’s fiction that deals with metempsychosis clearly is un-Darwinian. Darwin called himself an agnostic, a word coined by his friend T.H. Huxley. He strongly diverged from Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-founder of the evolution theory, who, like Rider Haggard, showed strong interest in Spiritualism. Darwin, who was born into a Unitarian family and whose wife Emma Wedgwood was a deeply religious person, said after discovering the mechanisms of evolution that he did not need God any more to explain the world ‒ which did not make him an atheist as he could not prove either the existence or the non-existence of God. In 1876 he wrote:

I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic. (Darwin Autobiography 124)

17He did not need Buddha either. His closest friend, the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker spent several years in the Himalayas (1847-1851), in Northern India and Sikkim. Among the 1,400 letters the two men exchanged during their lives, Hooker’s letters from Asia show that Darwin knew of Buddhism through his friend. Unlike Rider Haggard, he remained indifferent to the siren calls of Eastern Spiritualism.

18In spite of his fascination for reincarnation, one can find in Rider Haggard awareness to evolution and the law of variations. Thus, in Stella Fregelius (1904) he wrote:

It seems to be a law of life that nothing can stand completely still and changeless. All must vary, must progress or retrograde; the very rocks in the bowels of the earth undergo organic alterations, while the eternal hills that cover them increase or are worn away. (quoted by Göncüoğlu 285)

19Haggard remained a man of his time and of his country (post-Darwinian England), who had woken up to the idea of an evolving world. To be sure, “[h]is curiosity regarding spiritualism and psychical phenomena and his deep belief in reincarnation [was] the means of his quest for answers” (289) but he was essentially ‒ a value he shared with Darwin ‒ “at bottom, a man of doubt” (290). Because he doubted, he did not choose between Spiritualism and Science, but followed both of them, as he admits in a passage from She and Allan:

[A]t one time we are all spiritual; at another all physical […] At one time we are full of faith, at another all such hopes are blotted out by a black wall of Nothingness, and so on ad infinitum. Only very stupid people, or humbugs, are or pretend to be, always consistent and unchanging. (She and Allan 18)

20Science at the time was of course dominated by the questions of evolution and selection. Darwin had invented two major concepts, the Natural Selection, which he presented in his Origin of Species (1859) and the Sexual Selection, on which he focused in The Descent of Man (1871), whose long title specified: and Selection in Relation to Sex. The Natural Selection selects the fittest individuals, male or female, that is to say those best adapted to the present surroundings, while the Sexual Selection results from the choice by the females of the males according to criteria that can include their strength but also their physical beauty ‒ their “various ornaments” being for instance, in the case of birds, large colourful feathers. Only the males are selected. The two different forms of selection can in some cases oppose each other, as explained in chapter 13 of Descent. Darwin mentions the ornaments of the males which “have been acquired at the expenses of greatly impeded powers of flight or of running” (Darwin Descent 417). Thus the “extremely long tail-feathers of the male widow-birds (Vidua) of South Africa render their flight heavy” (417) or the large branched antlers of the stag, an asset for intrasexual competition in the mating season, may be a liability in his struggle for survival as they are unwieldy and cumbersome. This is for males the opposition between being best equipped for fight and being the most attractive, that is to say the opposition between arms and charms (Tort Effet 115). “[B]eauty is even sometimes more important than success in battle”, Darwin concluded (Darwin Descent 418).

21In Rider Haggard’s She, the Sexual Selection is present in the Amahagger tribe, with “unfettered female sexual agency” (the ability of the female to choose mates), “and male display” (Doyle 65):

When a woman took a fancy to a man she signified her preference by advancing and kissing him publicly […].If he kissed her back, it was a token that he accepted her, and the arrangement continued till one of them wearied of it. (Haggard She 52)

22This is what happens with Leo. Holly is strong and far more intelligent than his ward, so in terms of Natural Selection he is undoubtedly fitter. Leo is a mostly unremarkable character ‒not a hero in terms of “brawn or brains” (Doyle 67) ‒ but his charms contrast with Holly’s ugliness and he is the one who “excite[s]” women’s attention “with his clear-cut Grecian face”. “When he politely lifted his hat to them, and showed his curling yellow hair, there was a slight murmur of admiration” (Haggard She 51). The long yellow hair is clearly the mane of Leo the lion, his main ornament (no pun intended). Ustane “deliberately advanced to him, and […] quietly put her arm round his neck, bent forward, and kissed him on the lips” (51). The Amahagger Queen’s behaviour is in keeping with Darwin’s descriptions of Sexual Selection among many animals.

23Yet, Darwin specified that this phenomenon was reversed in the human race and the choice of sexual partners in humankind was incumbent upon men. As Doyle reminds us, “Darwin himself played down the possibility of female sexual agency for humans, and especially for nineteenth-century European women” (Doyle 65).

24For Darwin, as for Rider Haggard, giving civilized women the role of choosers is unconceivable. Thus Sexual Selection, whether among animals or among modern Europeans, always gives females the role of the “bad ones”. Among birds or mammals, females are responsible for selecting charms at the expense of arms, thus meddling with the Natural Selection process and producing an offspring that might be less adapted. Among humans, again as a result of Sexual Selection, women are prettier, more frivolous and weaker. In both cases, females have it wrong. This, of course, tells us more about the Victorian society than about Science. Darwin and after him Rider Haggard just mirrored 19th century Britain, in which men wore grey suits and sober black raiment, as opposed to the 17th or 18th centuries, when the male members of the aristocracy displayed all sorts of colourful garments as charms to attract female partners, an extreme example being the “macaroni fashion” in mid-18th century England.

25Now Rider Haggard imagines his “history of adventure” in the lost world of Kôr, in the middle of Africa, with a tribe of “primitive humans” who “hark back to an evolutionary past that still permits women the ultimate power in mating” (Godfrey 75). Thus, he does not diverge from Darwin in terms of female agency but assumes that these “primitive” humans are closer to animals than to civilized people as far as Sexual Selection is concerned.

26The other type of selection ‒ the one Darwin presented extensively in 1859 in his opus magnum ‒ is of course the Natural Selection. This metaphor implies that Nature, like a wise breeder or a cautious gardener, selects the fittest individuals out of the variety of beings produced by constant mutations. In The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868) then in the 5th edition (1869) of Origin, Darwin introduced the phrase “survival of the fittest” which he had borrowed from Herbert Spencer. Yet this phrase, however clear it may have been, was almost immediately misread and understood as the “survival of the strongest”. Now “the fittest” does not mean the strongest: a small and weak individual may survive more easily in some circumstances than a strong and big one. Darwin himself was partly responsible for such misreading of his theory, as he did not publicly contradict the numerous publications that came out in the wake of his book and justified the elimination of the weakest. He finally did so twelve years later in The Descent of Man (1871), but it was too late and Descent in its turn was misread and misunderstood and Darwin’s emphasis on the “social instincts” of altruism and solidarity were just ignored (see Tort Ce qui). He had unwittingly paved the way for a doctrine usually called Social-Darwinism, which justified cut-throat competition in the struggle for life.

27No wonder that Rider Haggard referred to the Selection of the Fittest in such terms. The “odd whiff” of Darwinism he inhaled was probably a whiff of Social Darwinism ‒ or Spencerism, as it should more accurately be called. He had this “scheme of things” articulated by She in the eponymous novel in such unambiguous terms:

[D]ay by day we destroy that we may live, since in this world none save the strongest can endure. Those who are weak must perish; the earth is to the strong, and the fruits thereof. For every tree that grows a score shall wither, that the strong one may take their share. We run to place and power over the dead bodies of those who fail and fall; ay, we win the food we eat from out of the mouths of starving babes. It is the scheme of things. (Haggard She 129)

28Ayesha in the same book defends what Mousoutzanis questionably calls her “eugenics” (Mousoutzanis 218) ‒ a word coined three years before the publication of She by Francis Galton (1822-1911), Charles Darwin’s half-cousin. Mousoutzanis refers to She’s racial engineering. Ayesha admits that she has manipulated the Natural Selection to obtain a breed of deaf-mutes who serve her.

I bred them so ‒ it hath taken many centuries and much trouble; but at last I have triumphed. Once I succeeded before, but the face was too ugly, so I let it die away. […] Once, too, I reared a race of giants. (98)

29Whether this is “eugenics” is more questionable. Eugenics does not concern individual decisions or attitudes, but a State policy applied to large populations. Here Ayesha acts upon a small group of servants for her own sake. Her cynicism, expressed in her merciless choice to let ugly people “die away” is radically different from Darwin’s position on eugenics, as expressed in chapter V of The Descent of Man:

[I]f we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind. (Darwin Descent 139)

30But in 1886 eugenics and Social Darwinism were part of the zeitgeist and may have appealed to Rider Haggard.

31He also came across the recapitulation theory which influenced his description of Ayeshas’s “death”. In probably the most famous scene in the novel, She has taken the travellers to a cave with a pillar of fire that gives eternal life. As Leo hesitates to enter it, she gets into the fire to show him that it is safe. But the fire which had given her eternal life two millennia ago this time gives her death. She shrinks, her skin turns “dirty brown and yellow”, her hand is changed into “a claw”. “Smaller she grew, and smaller yet, till she was no larger than a monkey” (Haggard She 186). The reference to the “monkey” has been widely interpreted as Darwinian (the “monkey theory”), even though Darwin himself never said that “Man” descends from the Ape (both have a common ancestor and could be better defined as “cousins”).

32It would be more accurate to refer the scene not to Darwin himself but to Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) a German biologist who popularised Darwin’s works in Germany. To better understand his contribution to Darwinism, we should first get back to the opposition between ontogeny and phylogeny. Ontogeny is about the development of a single organism from the stage of the fertilised egg to that of the adult ‒ thus covering the entire lifespan. Phylogeny concerns the evolution of species and the evolutionary relationship between them. Haeckel invented the “theory of recapitulation” (or biogenetic law), according to which the embryo of an animal goes through stages resembling successive adult stages in the evolution of its ancestors. For instance, a human embryo goes through a “fishlike” developmental stage, with gill slits in its neck. Thus, every animal embryo (at the level of ontogeny) recapitulates the history of species (phylogeny). Haeckel, who had presented his theory at the time when She was written, summarized it in the famous sentence: die Ontogenese rekapituliert die Phylogenese (ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny).

33What is original about Haggard’s treatment of Haeckel’s recapitulation theory is that he puts it upside down. With Ayesha’s death, evolution is reversed. “Evolutionary theory seems to have been turned backwards” (Mazlish 735). Evolution becomes “devolution” (Doyle 62). Ayesha ‒ “the post-Darwinian female Faustus” (Hinz 429) ‒ recapitulates backwards, she gets smaller, becomes a wild animal with claws (possibly a reference to Tennyson’s “red in tooth and clawˮ ‒ a kind of anticipation of the struggle for life a decade before The Origin of Species) and then she becomes the monkey ancestor. Whether Haggard thought about Darwin or Haeckel when he imagined this winding back of time does not really matter. What is relevant is that this very dramatic scene is set in a purely evolutionary context and could not have been conceived in pre-Darwinian Britain.

34Haeckel also contributed to popularising the “missing link” concept, which, though it sounds Darwinian, has never been actually used by Darwin himself. In his 1868 (surprisingly entitled) Natürliche Schopfungsgeschichte (which was translated into English in 1876 under the title History of Creation), Haeckel expressed the view that between the gibbon and man in the chain of evolution there must have been “the missing link”, a kind of “ape-man” (Menschenaffe or Pithecanthropus) whose fossil was yet to be found ‒ probably in Java, where gibbons lived (Kühn 115). In the wake of the publication of The Origin of Species which placed humankind at the end of a long evolutionary line, the “missing link” between Ape and Man became the centre of anthropological quests. Many articles were published on the question. Expeditions were sent to remote parts of the world to find the famous link (Teulié 170).

35Rider Haggard drew upon this mythical “missing link” in his novel Heu Heu or the Monster (1924). Allan Quatermain, and his Hottentot servant Hans, travel not to Java but to a remote part of Central Africa, never reached by any European traveller so far. At the end of a long and perilous journey, Allan enters a nightmarish and oppressive landscape and he expresses the view that his enterprise is a “departure from the familiar things of life into something unholy and unknown” (Haggard Heu Heu 57). The discovery of the “missing link”, which he is about to make, is “unholy” as it departs from the Christian tradition of Man being directly created by God in His image. Allan discovers a new species, half way between apes and humans (Menschenaffe), whom he calls the Hairy Men or the Heuheua as they worship the God Heu Heu. They live in the woods and attack the travellers’ canoe while the latter sail on the river through the forest. The sound the Heuheua produce, “a sound of indescribable weirdness” (58) is also half way between human language and animal shrieks: “half an animal grunt and half a human cry” (58). Their heads are “beast-like” yet “undoubtedly human” (59). Allan actually hesitates between the two categories: “the man or beast” (59). Then as these creatures pay tribute to the female Heuheua that Hans has shot dead and they lift the dead body out of the stream instead of leaving it behind as animals would have done, Allan concludes that “although they had the shape and the covering of beasts, in fact they were humans” (59). The divide between humans and lower animals is thus characterised here by the relationship to the deceased: “wailing over the dead” (60) is considered as a distinctly human behaviour, though Curtis who listens to the story remarks that “elephants will do as much” (59), thus blurring the border again. Allan understands that he has discovered the famous link in the evolutionary chain. “[W]ith a shock I realized that I had stumbled on the Missing Link, or something that resembled it very strongly” (60). This idea fills him with emotion. “I reflected that I ought to be proud, for I had made a great discovery” (60).

36Curtis’s remark that “elephants will do as much” is probably more Darwinian than the whole story about the missing link. Darwin always played down the differences between animals and humans and, as we have seen, he insisted on the continuity in the animal kingdom (including humans). This is why he did not need the “missing link”. He did not need to fill a gap between animals and humans as for him such gap did not exist. In Chapter III of The Descent of Man, he posited that “there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculty” (Darwin Descent 70). Animals have the same emotions as we do; they also reason; they can use tools; they have a sense of beauty. Even religion ‒ or rather the belief in invisible or spiritual agents ‒ may be found in higher animals. Darwin famously mentioned his dog whom he had observed at a distance “lying on the lawn” and as the animal saw an open parasol move because of a slight breeze while no one was nearby, the dog “reasoned to himself in a rapid and unconscious manner, that movement without any apparent cause indicated the presence of some strange living agent” (99), i.e. the beginning of a religious feeling.

37The continuity of the chain of evolution is certainly one of Darwin’s main contributions to the understanding of the living world. He fiercely opposed Saltationism (the idea that Nature sometimes leaps from one stage to another) and he totally disagreed with St. George Mivart (1827-1900) who defended the “saltation theory” (discontinuity of evolution) in The Genesis of Species (1871). Rider Haggard “inhaled whiffs of Darwinism” but also whiffs “of its diverse interpretation” (Katz 91). The words he put in Ayesha’s mouth were sometimes closer to Spencer than to Darwin, his references to recapitulation or the Missing Link drew upon Haeckel more than upon The Origin or The Descent. His fascination for Spiritualism made him closer to Eastern philosophies or possibly Wallace’s evolutionism. Yet, in spite of his taste for reincarnations and endless beginnings, as expressed in the She cycle, he was clearly influenced by evolution, Natural Selection, Sexual Selection and by a change in the relationships inside the animal kingdom ‒ and the language of Science (evolutionary Science) was never far away. In Giants of the Past, Popular Fictions and the Idea of Evolution (2004), Lisa Hopkins wrote that “the hand of Darwin lies heavy” in She (Doyle 64). Whatever the metaphor ‒ whether a heavy hand or deep inhalations ‒ Darwin was present and influential in Rider Haggard’s narratives. Science historian Isabelle Stengers coined the term “nomadic concepts” to qualify those scientific concepts that migrate from one scientific field to another, but also from the “hard” sciences to the “human” ones and to literature (Letissier 208). Darwin’s main concepts migrated to Victorian literature and beyond and they certainly infiltrated the dreams and adventures of Holly, Allan Quatermain and other Haggardian heroes.

38They also migrated from the 19th to the 21st century. As Gillian Beer wrote in her preface to the second edition of Darwin’s Plots (1999), “Darwin has grown younger in recent years” (Beer xvii). Each generation reads extinct (and extant) authors with their own particular lenses. 21st century readers certainly do not look at Darwin or Rider Haggard in the same way as Victorians did. Darwin “is no longer the authoritative old man with a beard substituting for God”, Beer remarked (Beer xvii). Among other things, he is also a young courageous traveller. “[S]o far as Darwin’s theories go”, Beer went on to say, “everything started with a young man, eager for knowledge and adventure, who set out on a journey round the world” (Beer xvii). Rider Haggard was also a young man, eager for adventure (if not knowledge) who travelled to and lived in Southern Africa. Darwin’s land expeditions on horseback in South America, as reported in his Voyage of the Beagle (1839), sometimes read like adventure stories, not so very different from Rider Haggard’s narratives in Africa. So the two men ‒ even if one is a world famous scientist and the other a novelist ‒ share some common ground. We can suppose that both of them evolved in their readers’ eyes over the generations and the centuries and that the Darwinian influence on Rider Haggard is also felt differently today. Ruskin’s “filthy heraldries” are no longer a taboo. Neither is the choice of male partners by women, to take just two examples. So Darwin has “grown younger”, but he may have given Rider Haggard some of his new youth, or, to use a Haggardian metaphor, he may have taken him ‒ successfully this time ‒ into the Pillar of Fire.

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1 I would like to thank Patricia Crouan-Véron and Gilles Teulié for kindly introducing me to the world of Haggardian Studies and giving me precious bibliographical advice. This article is based on the study of essentially four novels, She, Ayesha, She and Allan and Heu Heu. King Solomon’s Mines, by far the most famous and therefore the most widely explored book, has not been made part of the present corpus. The selection spans almost 40 years (1886-1924) of Rider Haggard’s literary production.

2 Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1876. This edition, the 6th and last one, actually came out in 1872 ‒ one year after the 1st edition of The Descent of Man ‒, and only a few very minor typographical corrections were added in 1876. The preposition ‘On’ was suppressed from the title of this 6th edition, making it not just a reflection on the origin of species but a full-fledged book.

3 Darwin online,, contains one reference to Rider Haggard, but it is in a book on (and not by) Darwin, namely Charles Darwin and the Theory of Natural Selection, London: Cassell & Co, 1896, by Edward Bagnall Poulton, which just mentions King Solomon’s Mines in its index.

4 Sigmund Freud, „Eine Schwierigkeit der Psychoanalyse“, Imago, Zeitschrift für Anwendung der Psychoanalyse auf die Geisteswissenschaften, vol. V, 1917, 1-7. The text first came out in the same year in the Hungarian journal Nyugat. For the English edition, see Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, ed. James Strachey, London, 1953-6, 17:140-1.

5 The ‘biological blow’ was, according to Freud, one of the three blows dealt to humankind, together with the ‘cosmological blow’ (dealt by Copernic’s heliocentrism against geocentrism) and the ‘psychological blow’ (dealt by Freud himself, which further de-centred Man ‒ I am not the Master in my own house, the Unconscious is).

6 This was in the debate that took place on 30 June 1860 at the Oxford University Museum between Creationists and Evolutionists. Darwin was bedridden and had sent Huxley as his mouthpiece.

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Michel PRUM, « “Whiffs of Darwinism” in Rider Haggard’s fiction »E-rea [En ligne], 18.1 | 2020, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2020, consulté le 03 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Michel PRUM

Université de Paris
Michel PRUM is Professor Emeritus at Université de Paris. He has been coordinating the French translation of Darwin’s Complete Works for Slatkine (Geneva) and Honoré Champion (Paris). He founded the GRER (Research Group on Eugenics and Racism) in 1998 and the ‘Racism & Eugenics’ book series at L’Harmattan in 2003.
Michel PRUM, Professeur Émérite (Université de Paris), coordonne la traduction française des Œuvres complètes de Darwin pour Slatkine (Genève) et Honoré Champion (Paris). Il a fondé le GRER (Groupe de Recherche sur l’Eugénisme et le Racisme) en 1998 et la collection « Racisme & Eugénisme » chez L’Harmattan en 2003.

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