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2. Another Vision of Empire. Henry Rider Haggard’s Modernity and Legacy
I/ Haggard’s projections of colonial space

Re-imagining Africa: revisiting Rider Haggard’s legacy in modern times with particular reference to South Africa



Haggard’s significance as a barometer of his age as a popular writer and as a writer of interest for the modern age still holds true. This article revisits some of the themes of that statement and assesses Haggard’s ongoing legacy in the modern era. It will draw on my books Imagining Africa: landscape in H. Rider Haggard’s African romances (2001) and also on the Introduction to Lives of Victorian Literary Figures: H. Rider Haggard (2009), a commissioned volume, which also evaluated Haggard’s legacy both in terms of academic interest and popular culture in the later twentieth century. My interest in writing this current piece is to look again at Haggard a decade on and update my earlier findings with contemporary references to Haggard, in terms of his literary, popular culture and academic legacies.

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1In 2001 Imagining Africa: landscape in H. Rider Haggard’s African Romances was published. In that book I summarised Haggard’s legacy as it seemed to my writing nearly 20 years ago:

In conclusion, […] the most enduring element of Haggard’s […] love affair with the African land and its peoples; his fresh romanticising of the landscape […] has often been debased. In the contemporary ‘green’ nostalgia of the late twentieth century, this impulse has been adopted and to some extent transformed as witnessed in the contemporary efforts to preserve parts of ‘Nature’ in (ironically) enclosed wilderness areas. […] Ironies aside, however, the fact that Haggard’s African romances – and particularly their symptomatic landscapes – can still resonate a century after the publication of his first major success speaks for the need to take Haggard seriously as mapper of his age’s anxieties and desires. (Stiebel Imagining Africa xiii)

2Haggard’s significance as a barometer of his age as a popular writer and as a writer of interest for the modern age still holds true. This article revisits some of the themes of that conclusion and assesses Haggard’s ongoing legacy in the modern era. It will draw on Imagining Africa and also on the Introduction to Lives of Victorian Literary Figures: H. Rider Haggard, a commissioned volume, which also evaluated Haggard’s legacy both in terms of academic interest and popular culture in the later twentieth century. The purpose of the volume Lives was to situate a selected writer – in this case, Haggard – in context, as he was seen by his contemporaries and by those whom he directly influenced after his death. The volume consists of several sections starting with his childhood through to his writing, both fictional and non-fictional. Each section comprises excerpts from many sources and archives including letters, newspaper columns, books and even cartoons generated by those around Haggard, and not by the man himself. It is a record of how he was seen by his milieu and of his posthumous influence.

1. Haggard’s Literary legacy

3Despite his unpromising start in life as the sixth son of Norfolk landed gentry whose resources were stretched, Henry Rider Haggard developed into one of the most popular and influential writers of the late-Victorian period. Haggard, despite his patchy school education, embraced a life opportunity when it unexpectedly came his way. His seven years in Africa as, initially, general factotum on Sir Henry Bulwer’s staff in Natal and then, rapidly, the youngest Master Registrar the country had seen, followed by a short farming spell, was the making of him. Etherington makes this same point:

No one, least of all himself, guessed that Africa was about to stir the vigorous imagination hid by his weak, dull exterior into extraordinary public activity, or that within a decade he would have written some of the most spectacularly successful novels to be published in late-Victorian England. (1)

4Haggard’s other stroke of luck was that the romance genre, or adventure story, which he found amenable to frame his tales drawn from Africa, completely suited the imperial age and mood. The romance with its grand dreams of wish fulfilment, its deeds of heroism and its binary opposite, the fear of failure, of dark menace from without, suited the late nineteenth-century British mood well. Africa, in particular, the last unknown space on the map to be colonised, provided a suitable site for romantic dreaming for a home nation undergoing quite considerable domestic changes.

5The bet Haggard took with his brother that he could not write something as good as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, a hit of 1883, proved the best bet he ever took. In three brief years, from 1885 to 1887, Haggard shook the Victorian public and publishing world alike by the rapid appearance of King Solomon’s Mines, She and Allan Quatermain. Almost overnight, Haggard changed from being an unremarkable solicitor and author of three unprofitable books, to being a publishing phenomenon. Published in September 1885, King Solomon’s Mines was reprinted four times by December. In its first year, it sold 31,000 copies which made it one of the biggest sellers of that year, and it has never been out of print since (Cohen 95). Similar spectacular sales were run up by his next few novels: Allan Quatermain written in the summer of 1885, Jess written in the autumn of the same year, and She, written between January and March 1886. Cumulatively, these works earned Haggard the title “King Romance”, and the income they generated meant that Haggard could give up his short-lived legal career. The sales figures of these early works indicate that Haggard had struck a deep chord in the reading public. Late-Victorian fears and desires found expression in their pages with the action set in faraway lands. The distance between domestic England and exotic Empire enabled a safe immersion in the frequently blood-drenched, thrilling tales Haggard told. Etherington notes:

Neither Haggard nor most of his readers saw the hidden themes with conscious eyes, and in this lay part of the reason for his enormous popular success. In Africa […] the beasts which Victorians feared to encounter in themselves could be contemplated at a safe remove. (50)

6What were some of the “hidden themes” which Haggard’s romances captured, and which so fascinated his public? One was certainly the tension between “civilised” and “primitive” levels of existence, and how this tension was revealed away from the trappings of the domestic Victorian world. Furthermore, Haggard seemed to suggest that “savages” had more in common with “civilised” people than was comfortable to contemplate; in fact, civilisation was a rather thin veneer which travel into challenging, unknown terrain could strip off rapidly. Following hot on the heels of the Darwinian revolution, Haggard “made brilliant use of his African experiences to give a literary expression to Darwinian ideas about race and evolution […]. His significance as a figure in literary and intellectual history lies in the way he stimulated the imagination of people of his own and later generations who were gripped by the same complex of ideas” (107). Certainly some of the great psychoanalytic minds of the day found Haggard’s theme of the quest for eternal love and youth, the dream quest, in She fascinating – Jung and Freud both commented on this novel finding in it elements of a “collective unconscious” in Jung’s case, and of the dream state in Freud’s.

7Early contemporary opinion of Haggard’s romances was certainly congratulatory in the main – among many others, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine hailed Haggard as “the avatar of the old story-teller”, Dial devoted an essay to his romances, and George Saintsbury praised his “return to the pure romance” (Cohen 116). Flushed with his success, Haggard published an essay, “About Fiction”, in an issue of Contemporary Review in 1887 which turned the tide somewhat. In the essay, he dismissed the bulk of British novels as “worthless”, while extolling the merits of “good romance writing”. The vehemence of the critical response to his rather pompous piece, which developed into an examination of Haggard’s own frequently shoddy style, and even charges of plagiarism, stung him and he thereafter shunned any further public forays into literary criticism.

8Indeed, increasingly, despite his prolific fiction output of forty-two romances and twelve serious contemporary novels, Haggard placed value on his ten works of non-fiction. Writing to an anonymous reviewer of his work in 1915, Haggard commented:

My name, as you remark, is connected in the public idea with a certain stamp of African story and especially with one famous character. Therefore, Editors and Publishers clamour for that kind of story reintroducing that famous character. If I write other things I am told they are ‘not so good’ though I well know them to be much better […].

[…] Oh, I grow weary of story telling and could it be managed would devote the days that remain to me to the problems of the Land, that greatest of all Causes, and to the service of my Country. (quoted in Cohen 268-269)

9And it was to “the Land, that greatest of all Causes” that Haggard devoted a good portion of his writing career. Unlike his fictional work which excited a mixed response once the initial overwhelming affirmation wore off, his non-fictional, public service-related writing earned him solid praise from his contemporaries, though of a less exuberant nature.

10In addition to partial friends, however, others also noticed and praised Haggard’s services to his country, service which always found expression eventually in published non-fiction works. Haggard was knighted in 1912 for his public service, not literature, and made a Knight of the British Empire in 1919 for his service during the war on the Royal Dominions Commission and the Empire Settlement Committee. Haggard, in his day, was “somebody” – a prolific, if uneven, writer; an energetic public servant and crusader particularly on land issues; a well-known farmer in his community, and friend to notables of the era. That he did not quite reach the heights of recognition for his public service was a source of disappointment for him, for that is where he chose to compete. However, his literary legacy, despite being undervalued by Haggard in his lifetime, was where he made his mark.

11Indeed, Haggard’s “world” entered the “cultural bloodstream of the English reading public” (Siemens 2) – it was a world of great effort and heroism, dogged by melancholy at a world passing even in the moment of its recounting, where civilisation was a contested term. Other writers who were most nearly touched by Haggard’s early magic were Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) whose Jungle Book was sparked off by Haggard’s Nada the Lily; Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) whose dark tales of changing identity echo Haggard’s world of doubles – most directly The Lost World (1911) written a year after Haggard’s Queen Sheba’s Ring (see Etherington 110-111); and John Buchan (1875-1940), particularly in Prester John (1910). Though Buchan cited Stevenson and Kipling as the authors he read as a boy, it seems clear in a work such as Prester John, with its hidden diamond treasure, powerful black male central character and, above all, landscape descriptions, that he had absorbed Haggard’s early African romances too. An example of the impression Haggard’s landscapes had on Buchan may be seen in the following two extracts from their works:

The brook, of which the banks were clothed with dense masses of a gigantic species of maidenhair fern interspersed with feathery tufts of wild asparagus, babbled away merrily at our side […]The magic of the place, combined with the overwhelming sense of dangers left behind, and of the promised land reached at last, seemed to charm us into silence. (Haggard KSM 109)

12And then Buchan:

The wood was now getting like that which clothed the sides of the Berg. There were tall timber trees […] and the ground was carpeted with thick grass and ferns. The sight gave me my first earnest of safety […] Behind me was heathendom and the black fever flats. In front were the cool mountains and bright streams, and the guns of my own folk. (Buchan 130)

13An unusual direct literary link can be traced to the South African writer, Sol Plaatje (1876-1932), whose novel Mhudi, written in 1917 but published only in 1930, the author described as “a novel – a love story after the manner of romances; but based on historical facts […] with plenty of love, superstition, and imagination worked in between […] wars. Just like the style of Rider Haggard when he writes about Zulus” (quoted in Chennells 37). It is in the nostalgic depiction of traditional custom and interdependence of people and land that Plaatje most echoes Haggard. In describing the centuries-old ways of the Bechuana tribes in the central Kalahari region, Plaatje writes:

In this domain they led their patriarchal life under their several chiefs who owed no allegiance to any king or simple emperor. They raised their native corn which satisfied their wants, and, when not engaged in hunting or in pastoral duties, the peasants whiled away their days in tanning skins or sewing magnificent fur rugs. […] Their cattle, which carried enormous horns, ran almost wild and multiplied as prolifically as the wild animals of the day. (Plaatje 21)

14Earlier and similarly, Haggard evokes in the opening pages of Nada the Lily a pastoral idyll based on an agrarian society at peace, prior to its destruction by Chaka:

Before the Zulus were a people […] our tribe lived in a beautiful open country. My father, Makedama, was chief of the tribe, and his kraal was built on the crest of a hill. One evening when I was still little, standing as high as a man’s elbow only, I went out with my mother below the cattle kraal to see the cows driven in. My mother was very fond of these cows, and there was one with a white face that would follow her about. […] My mother sat down on the grass and nursed her baby, while played around her, and the cow grazed. (Haggard Nada 23)

15One link not mentioned by many commentators is that with Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), whose Heart of Darkness (1899) drew its title from Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, but which presented the nightmare underside of imperialism whilst Haggard’s forte was to sketch his ambivalent fantasies within a more sunlit aspect of the imperial project, albeit with far less style than Conrad. The famous words uttered by Kurtz referring perhaps to himself, or to the role of Europe in Africa, or to his experience in Africa itself - “the horror, the horror” (Conrad 94) - contrast strongly with Quatermain’s in King Solomon’s Mines describing a sunny African scene and his feelings toward it, “It was like Paradise” (Haggard KSM 109). Moving forward, Hammond and Jablow single out Laurens van der Post as “one who has given the most vivid portrayals of Africa and the Africans since Haggard. He has recaptured the wonder of the Africa of the early explorers” (146). Van der Post, born in South Africa, was a Jungian novelist whose closest link with Haggard was a similar belief in Africa as representing a primitive and vital phase of the European psyche with which the European had to come to terms in order to progress (see Stiebel 2001, Etherington 1984). Daphne Rooke is another writer whom it may be fruitful to explore in relation to Haggard in that both writers feature the same landscape and narrative devices in some of their novels. Rooke, also a popular writer in her time though not a romance writer in the Haggard mould, features Ghost Mountain and Zululand in her best work. Wizard’s Country (1957), very much like Haggard in Nada the Lily (1892), attempts to tell the end of the Zulu nation through a black narrator and from a ‘Zulu’ perspective. While Rooke reprises the same specific landscape as Haggard in her novel set near Ghost Mountain in Zululand, van der Post reprises Haggard’s wider preoccupation with an ‘African’ wild landscape as an antidote to Western urban malaise.

16Beside these immediate literary links in Haggard’s legacy, there were others in subsequent decades – writers as disparate as D. H. Lawrence, C. S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Henry Miller, Laurens van der Post, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Margaret Atwood and Frederick Forsyth have praised Haggard’s vivid imagination and the hold his fiction had on them, particularly during formative adolescent years. In contemporary modern times, a ‘Haggard’ legacy (by which is commonly meant an ‘African fantasy’ version of Haggard) can be traced through the sensationally lurid writings of international bestseller, Wilbur Smith – see, for example, The Sunbird (1972), “derived from the work of H. Rider Haggard” (Stotesbury 229); and, by extension, the adventure novels of Australian writer Tony Parks, whose “obvious role model is that great master of the colonial epic, Wilbur Smith, whose fans will not be disappointed to have found a spiritual heir” (Peter Millar review of African Dawn in The Times 5 November 2011 np). Parks is the popular author of 18 novels set in southern Africa, with the latest Last Survivor set for release in late 2020.

2. Haggard’s popular culture legacy

17An unusual medium in which to find a modern trace of Haggard is contemporary art. His influence has, however, been noted in the work of contemporary artist, Gary James, born and raised in Kenya but educated and resident in England. His exhibition called “A Voyage into the Interior” at the Everard Read gallery in Johannesburg in 1997 was described as:

a celebration of Africa sanctified by memory and myth, but with the precise, technically detailed view of an engineer and botanist … and alluring world reminiscent of Boys’ Own Paper and Rider Haggard, of rituals observed, of Western technology providing its users with a detached view of the exotic, the ‘other’. (The Sunday Independent 14)

18In terms of film and popular culture legacy, the swashbuckling Spielberg film series featuring the intrepid explorer, Indiana Jones, obviously have a Haggardian influence:

The adventuring spirit of Haggard lingers in twentieth century film versions of heroism, as popular in the 1980s as Haggard was in the 1880s. The stories of Indiana Jones, himself a descendant of Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, for instance, contain many underground passages and journeys into foreign territory, underground passages which threaten to consume the explorer as he travels deeper into otherness. (Stott 88)

19Closer to home, the South African television series Hidden City shot in Knysna’s forests and screened in 1997, relies heavily on the idea of a lost civilisation à la Haggard. In an echo of Haggard’s device of a framing ‘Editor’ the credits list Dr Tom Huffman as the ‘archaeology adviser’ for the series, thereby lending a note of authenticity.

20In more recent years, Black Panther (2018), the futuristic film based on the Marvel Comics superhero, can be argued to have some Haggard echoes when it comes to African lost world settings and lost tribes and peoples. There are a few specifically southern African links such as the fictional Wakandan language used in the film which is based on isiXhosa taught by John Kani - who portrays T’Challa’s father King T’Chaka – to other actors in the film. One thinks of Kukuanaland in King Solomon’s Mines and the Kukuana speaking subjects embroiled in a succession crisis involving Umbopa/Ignosi modelled on a Zulu tradition. In Black Panther, the country Wakanda was inspired by Lesotho, a mountainous country, able to protect its independence because of its terrain. The sets were inspired by various sub-Saharan countries including pre-colonial Mali and its capital Timbuktu. Set locations, such as Warrior Falls, inspired by Oribi Gorge in South Africa, the City of the Dead, and the Hall of Kings are juxtaposed with the more modern Afro-punk style of the Golden City, the capital. Rondavels were incorporated into the tops of Wakanda's skyscrapers, inspired by the appearance of mountains at Blyde River Canyon in South Africa. Special care was taken to create a “futuristic look that was not alien”.1 While one cannot say for certain whether the director and/or set designers are paying homage to Haggard in this film, there is an ‘echo’ as described above of Haggard’s exotic African landscapes and imagined communities as seen in his major African romances written from 1885 to 1892 and beyond.

21In its late twentieth century manifestation as a theme park site (see, for example, the Kingdom of the Lost City hotel resort in South Africa) or the set for a slapstick movie-star adventurer in a lost civilisation, the Haggard legacy has been diminished and degraded to the level of watered down commercial pap. It has lost touch with the complexities and occasional subtleties of the original Haggard “world”, particularly in his African romances, which captured the imagination of his age.

3. Haggard’s academic legacy

  • 2 In 1977, the Greater London Council erected a blue memorial plaque at 69 Gunterstone Road W14 which (...)

22Where it has seen a remarkable and multifaceted expression, however, has been in the world of academic literary criticism, and it is to this legacy that I now turn. By the time of his death in 1925, Haggard’s fictional star had been on the wane for some time. Though he still published novels fairly regularly as his chronology bears witness, his best romances were behind him. His non-fictional works, whilst well regarded and serious, did not earn him a wide audience and generally disappeared rapidly from public view despite their merits. Thus, it was that Haggard’s death did not occasion a grand funeral, nor many front-page obituaries and his final resting place was his local family church in Ditchingham, Norfolk. His home was not preserved in the National Trust, the bulk of his papers were deposited at the Norfolk Record Library and the rest scattered in various places, and few memorial plaques were prominently displayed.2 Scholarly interest in Haggard’s work prior to, and post, his death had also been muted. Siemens records that, excluding some “contemporary reviews of the novels, human interest features, and low keyed reminiscences by publishers, civil servants and fellow authors, not more than a dozen or so scholarly discussions were published, on Haggard as novelist before the end of World War II” (Siemens 2).

  • 3 Rider Haggard had been dead for twenty-five years before the first biography on his life appeared, (...)

23The first primary bibliography of Haggard, J. E. Scott’s A Bibliography of the Works of Sir Henry Rider Haggard: 1856-1925, appeared in 1947. This was followed by D. E. Whatmore’s H. Rider Haggard: A Bibliography (1987) which is an extremely full account of Haggard’s productive life but which, Siemens notes, contains many entries which are bibliographically incomplete and impossible to locate given the information provided. Siemens’ own annotated bibliography “The Critical Reception of Sir Henry Rider Haggard: An Annotated Bibliography, 1882-1991”, published in the journal English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 has pruned out peripheral entries and supplied short summaries of each entry under a variety of categories. Secondary bibliographies are to be found in a number of books on Haggard, most notably Morton Cohen’s Rider Haggard: His Life and Works (1960) which also marked the beginning of modern Haggard scholarship.3 This book was the first critical biography to appear and, in some respects, remains the definitive version of Haggard’s life. Meticulously researched with the advantage of access to family papers, this biography evaluated Haggard’s career as follows:

Unlike Stevenson, he never really tried to understand the gift of writing, nor did he honour it – never was he willing to put into his story-telling the effort he had put into Rural England and Government service. Time and again he refused to heed Jeaffreson, Henley, Lang, and Stevenson when they suggested he take more care with his work […] Nevertheless, long after the public servant, the reformer, the commissioner, the agriculturalist, have been forgotten, the story-teller still lives, and his writing today receives more critical attention than at any time since his death…In spite of the imperfections in his style, Haggard’s rough, simple, impetuous manner still carries the reader with him as in a flood. (Cohen 284-285)

24Cohen’s interest in Haggard also resulted in Rudyard Kipling to Rider Haggard: The Record of a Friendship (1965) which linked their letters and friendship into Haggard’s life and work.

25Peter Berresford Ellis’s succeeding biographical study H. Rider Haggard: A Voice from the Infinite (1978) highlights one of the themes that would capture later Haggard scholarship: Haggard’s attitude to race as being unusual for his era – ‘His tales remain remarkably free from the racial prejudices to which many of his contemporaries succumbed’ (Ellis 3). Together with Ellis’s work, and before that Cohen’s, three more biographies continued the reappraisal of Haggard. D.S. Higgins brought out Rider Haggard: The Great Storyteller (1981) which added, in narrative style, to what was already known of Haggard using examples of Haggard’s correspondence unearthed by him. Higgins was also the author of an edited down version of Haggard’s diaries which he kept from 1914 to 1925 with a view to their eventual publication as they documented a period of British political life and his role in it. Entitled The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1980), the volume edits the original 22 volumes of rough entries down to a single one, with an introduction and a footnote.

26A rich biography followed on from Higgins’: Norman Etherington’s book Rider Haggard (1984) thoroughly investigated Haggard’s life and legacy in context from an historian’s perspective. The book deduced that, though Haggard was “more complex than the novels of African adventure which made him famous, it is these same novels that have lasted”, owing to “their unique metaphorical expression of late-Victorian concepts of evolution, psychology, and anthropology whose influence remains strongly entrenched in Western minds to the present day” (118-119). Next was Tom Pocock’s Rider Haggard and the Last Empire (1988) which stated at the outset the angle the study would take – “This book attempts to look at Rider Haggard from a different standpoint, his own. He liked to see himself as a crusader for reform: first in agriculture, then in urban society, and finally in the British Empire itself” (Pocock xii).

27The most recent biographical study of Rider Haggard sees him as one member of a family whose life stories are all told and interwoven in this volume. To understand Rider, see him as part of his family is the subtext of Victoria Manthorpe’s Children of the Empire: The Victorian Haggards (1996). She tells an involved story of the seven sons and three daughters that made up the group. It is a novel way to look at Rider and adds to the public record the hitherto unknown fact of his illegitimate child and her death as an infant in Pretoria. This angle adds to the common perception that it was only Haggard’s own African experience that fed into his romances.

28Any future biography will undoubtedly build on these volumes mentioned above, yet present Haggard from a slightly different angle as befits the twenty-first century, a century which still sees reprints of the old favourites, particularly King Solomon’s Mines. Haggard researchers eagerly await the forthcoming biography by Stephen Coan, Haggard scholar and editor of Mameena and Other Plays: the complete dramatic works of H. Rider Haggard (with Al Tella, 2007) and Diary of an African Journey: the return of Rider Haggard (2000). Many new details of Haggard’s time in South Africa and further afield have been uncovered by Coan in order to present the fullest yet account of Haggard’s life.

29The biographical studies introduced above, while containing some critique of Haggard’s writing, focus more solidly on the writer’s life than his works in any analytical depth. This next section, then, considers Haggard critical scholarship which, in particular, has gathered steam in the decades since the author’s demise. After a slow start, no doubt attributable to Haggard’s decline in popularity with the literary establishment given his perceived shoddy style, it has been the modern preoccupation with the postcolonial condition which has found in Haggard food for thought. Whilst all praise his vivid imagination, most Victorian and Edwardian critical appraisals – bar the psychoanalysts for whom the lava flow of emotion was significant in itself – found Haggard stylistically lacking in one way or another.

30One of the earliest critical works of the ‘modern’ era cited in Haggard scholarship is that by Alan Sandison who devoted part of his study, The Wheel of Empire (1967), to an evaluation of Haggard’s prose. Sandison focussed on Haggard’s cultural relativism and found, rather generously, that “there are very few traces of the familiar Victorian paternalism which contact with ‘natives’ normally elicited” (30-31). Wendy Katz, by contrast, in her book Rider Haggard and the Fiction of Empire (1987) written twenty years later, refutes Sandison’s finding: “Haggard’s racism is transparently clear; social antagonisms are built right into his manner of thought” (135). Katz in a sense, critical as she was of Haggard’s ideological positioning, signalled a renewed interest in Haggard scholarship, especially as regards his African romances which remained his enduring legacy.

31The 90s saw two works of Haggard scholarship emerge – Norman Etherington’s densely annotated and introduced edition of She (1991), and Shirley Addy’s Rider Haggard and Egypt (1998), both works situating Haggard and his novels in deeply researched historical context. A steady stream of articles also appeared in this period from feminist and Marxist scholars, focussing by and large on King Solomon’s Mines and She – the former seen, variously, as “a contemporary response to [the] emergence of imperial capitalism” (Chrisman 24) or, as a story which “illuminates not only relations between the imperial metropolis and the colonies but also the refashioning of gender relations in South Africa” (McClintock 233) whilst, for example, the latter tale of African exploration “expresses white masculine fears about white female sexuality: that beneath the veneer it is black female sexuality, primitive, sadistic, active and death threatening” (Stott 81). Undoubtedly the 80s and 90s, the high period of Marxist and feminist schools of literary theory, found in Haggard’s popular texts much to analyse.

  • 4 See also the comic book series: The League of the Extraordinary Gentlemen written by Allan Moore an (...)

32In the twenty-first century, post-colonial theorists have kept Haggard scholarship au courant. My own work Imagining Africa: Landscape in H. Rider Haggard’s African Romances (2001) looks at how Haggard’s ‘African topography’ provided a screen onto which he “projected his contradictory imperialist impulses, his intense and fearful sexual desires, his misgivings on some of the central issues of his age, such as civilisation and barbarism, and cultural relativity” (xi). Chrisman has extended her densely scholarly work on Haggard in a chapter of a second book entitled Postcolonial Contraventions (2003). Gerald Monsman has published an edition of King Solomon’s Mines (2002) complete with introduction and various appendices concerning imperialism and the book’s Victorian reception, and published H. Rider Haggard on the Imperial Frontier (2006) which categorises Haggard’s African romances in terms of their regional settings. Interestingly, two relatively recent articles have focussed on the relationship between text and image in Haggard’s She, indicating a potential contemporary interest in readings of Haggard together with the illustrations that accompanied the first editions. Fischer’s article “The Graphic She: Text and Image in Rider Haggard’s Imperial Romance” (2007) highlights the complexity of text-image-relations in Haggard’s imperial romance by examining two levels of interaction between word and image: between text and illustrations and between illustrated novel and the journal in which it was serially published.4 Martin’s chapter on She similarly argues for the importance of reading She in the late-Victorian era together with the Greiffenhagen illustrations of the first edition. Rather than modern readings which see Ayesha as overcoming Leo in some ways, Martin argues that the original illustrations proved a “powerful visual narrative that both sustains and amplifies Haggard’s textual one, in which Ayesha is cast as the cruel temptress whom he finally vanquishes” and “that sees the status quo restored” (Martin 64). Internet searches show a number of scholarly articles coming out in recent years on Haggard’s African romances, notably She, as witnessed above. One by Reid follows the contemporary trend of reading this novel and Haggard more generally, in his day - the essay rehistoricizes She and argues that the novel's original serial publication in the Graphic “illuminates the uneasy relationship between romance, commerce, and empire at the fin de siècle” (Reid 152). Finally, the most recent book length study on Haggard is The Sexual Imperative in the Novels of Sir Henry Rider Haggard (Reeve 2018), a suitably modern title and point of focus. In summary, the book argues that many of Haggard's novels focus on the impact of potentially destructive sexual and emotional urges, primarily upon the male. Haggard expresses these urges in terms of a conscious but wholly irresistible psychological imperative, a fundamental part of human existence, offering the possibility of ultimate happiness but, more likely, emotional chaos and attendant guilt. In its focus on the male psyche, the book differs from earlier feminist approaches.

4. Haggard’s environmental legacy

33Perhaps Haggard’s most contemporary and relevant legacy registers not in words, or images, or in popular culture “worlds”, but in his views of land, nature, and the environment, together with humankind’s relationship to the land specifically. Much can be said about this and the many works of non-fiction Haggard wrote concerning farming practices and rural communities. Suffice it to say, in brief, that Haggard spoke frequently on the importance of maintaining a close relationship between people and the land. As Manthorpe observes, he was:

[n]o traditionalist, he was well ahead of his time in his withdrawal from blood sports, while his appreciation of the importance of maintaining the spiritual equilibrium between man and nature is in line with the whole environmental movement of the later twentieth century. (217)

34Haggard fervently believed that “[t]he strength of a people … is not to be found in their Wall Streets, it is to be found in the farms and fields and villages” (Haggard The Days vol.2, 271-272); in other words, in the relationship of humankind and nature. The drift of agricultural workers from the land to the city was a subject about which he thought very seriously. Its imaginative corollary was the romantic African topography he so successfully created in his African romances which, however, he rated less highly than his ‘serious’ studies on land reform. In his fiction he created “a romantic and sexualised landscape whose twentieth-century equivalent can be seen in the national game reserves that maintain the safety and secrecy of the wilderness areas” (Stiebel Imagining Africa 133). Haggard’s appreciation of the power of landscape, of the importance of wilderness and the subsequent effort to preserve “Nature” as wilderness, enclosed and contained for future generations, is one of the most positive spinoffs from Haggard’s romanticisation of the African landscape he so loved. Increasingly in the 21st century, wracked as it has been by environmental damage and fears for the future, Haggard’s call to preserve the land sounds loudly.


35Haggard’s own response to his life’s work and possible legacy was characteristically subdued and self-deprecatory, a little wounded:

For myself, I can only say that I have tried to carry out this task – not the task of speaking, but the bigger one – with a single heart, because I believe in its necessity, because I believe that no man can serve his generation better than by trying to point out these things and try to make the people think. If I have done that, gentlemen, I have not lived in vain. All that I should ask to be said of me when I am gone is this: ‘He did his best’. (Haggard The Days 271-272)

36As remarked earlier in this paper, there is no Rider Haggard Museum in England where he lived the most part of his life, and died; nor is there one in South Africa where Haggard spent very formative years of his life as his African romances - for which he remains best known – attest. Whilst there are no museums dedicated to Haggard, there are sites of interest and efforts to record his influence: one such is the farmhouse in Newcastle, South Africa, where Haggard lived with his young family and farmed ostriches. Haggard lived there in 1881 on the farm Rooi Point. The farmhouse, Hilldrop, is now a national monument, and is now run as a guest house. The farmhouse contains Haggard memorabilia including a dedication to Haggard’s only son Jock who was born there on 22 May 1881. This farmhouse, plus other stops linked to Haggard, feature on the Rider Haggard Trail constructed in 2005 by Coan and Stiebel as part of a literary tourism research project.5 Further points of interest on the trail include Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Newcastle and Ghost Mountain Inn at Mkuze where Haggard is incorrectly thought to have written Nada the Lily (1892), though he certainly was inspired by the landscape and peoples of Zululand for this work.

37Not all efforts to preserve Haggard’s memory, whether in England or South Africa, have been successful. The lost whereabouts of the following pieces of Haggard memorabilia illustrate some of the problems in trying to remember the person, even while his works live on. Coan reports that after Haggard’s death in 1925, his widow Lady Louisa Haggard donated a bust of Haggard and seventeen other items connected with her late husband to the Pretoria Publicity Association in 1932:

These included a single barrelled rifle made by J. Purdey of London in 1835 used by Haggard in life and in his books by his fictional alter ego Allan Quatermain. This was accompanied by Haggard’s stirrups, some Zulu artefacts and several Martini-Henry cartridge cases retrieved from the battlefield of Isandlwana by Haggard in 1914. There were also some photographs: one of the raising of the British flag over Pretoria on the occasion of the British Annexation of the Transvaal in 1877 and two of ‘Jess’s Cottage’. These latter images indicative of Haggard’s substantial links to Pretoria which prompted Lady Haggard’s donation.

38Sadly, however, these artefacts disappeared sometime after 1955 and the project to keep ‘The Palatial’ aka ‘Jess’s Cottage’ - where Haggard and Cochrane spent their heady bachelor days in Pretoria – failed, given Haggard’s anti-Boer/Afrikaner positioning perceived in his writing. The cottage was demolished and, in its place, now stands a car manufacturing company close to a small cul-de-sac named Rider Haggard Street. It seems that while there is as yet no Haggard place one can visit to remember this significant writer, his legacy lives on in the works he wrote, particularly his African romances, and their surprisingly contemporary echoes.

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Buchan, John. Prester John. London, Penguin, (1910), 1956.

Chennells, Anthony. “Plotting South African History: narrative in Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi”. English in Africa vol. 24, no. 1, 1997: pp. 37-58.

Chrisman, Laura. Empire and Opposition: Literature of South Africa 1830-1920. DPhil thesis, Oxford University, 1992.

Coan, Stephen. “Rider Haggard – Lost in Pretoria?” The Heritage Portal 11 September 2018 Accessed 14 July 2020.

Cohen, Morten. Rider Haggard: his life and works. London, Hutchinson, 1960.

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Haggard, Henry Rider. The Days of My Life vol. 2. London, Longmans, Green and Co., 1926.

Haggard, Henry Rider. Nada the Lily. London, MacDonald, (1892), 1949.

Haggard, Henry Rider. King Solomon’s Mines. Oxford University Press, (1885), 1992.

Hammond, Dorothy and Alta Jablow. The Africa That Never Was: four centuries of British writing about Africa. Woodbridge, Twayne Publishers, 1970.

Katz, Wendy. Rider Haggard and the Fiction of Empire. Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Manthorpe, Victoria. Children of the Empire: the Victorian Haggards. London, Victor Gollancz, 1996.

Martin, Alison E. “Potentially the Noble Creature? Picturing Heroism in Rider Haggard’s She”. Heroes and Heroism in British Fiction since 1800, edited by Barbara Korte and Stefanie Lethbridge. Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

McClintock, Ann. Imperial Leather: race, gender and sexuality in the colonial context. London, Routledge, 1995.

Millar, Peter. Review of African Dawn by Tony Parks. The Times 5 November, 2011.

Plaatje, Solomon. Mhudi. New Providence, Quagga Press, (1930), 1975.

Pocock, Tom. Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire: a biography. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.

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Reid, Julia. 2011. "Gladstone bags, shooting boots, and Bryant & May's matches: Empire, Commerce, and the Imperial Romance in the Graphic's Serialization of H. Rider Haggard's She”. Studies in the Novel vol. 43, n. 2, 2011, pp. 152-178.

Rooke Daphne. Wizard’s Country. London, Gollancz, 1957.

Sandison, Alan. The Wheel of Empire: a study of the imperial idea in some late nineteenth and early twentieth century fiction. London, Macmillan, 1967.

Siemens, Lloyd. “The Critical Reception of Sir Henry Rider Haggard: an annotated bibliography, 1882-1991”. English Literature in Transition 1880-1920. ELT Special Series, 5, 1991.

Stiebel, Lindy. Imagining Africa: landscape in H. Rider Haggard’s African romances. Westport, Greenwood Press, 2001.

Stiebel, Lindy. Lives of Victorian Literary Figures: H. Rider Haggard. vol 7. London, Pickering and Chatto, 2009.

Stotesbury, John. Apartheid, Liberalism and Romance. A Critical Investigation of the Writing of Joy Packer. Umea University Press, 1996.

Stott, Rebecca. “The Dark Continent: Africa as female body in Haggard’s adventure fiction”. Feminist Review 32, 1989, pp. 69-99.

The Sunday Independent 20 July 1997, p. 14.

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1 See Accessed 14 July 2020.

2 In 1977, the Greater London Council erected a blue memorial plaque at 69 Gunterstone Road W14 which reads ‘Sir Henry Rider Haggard, 1856-1925, novelist, lived, here, 1885-1888’. These were the years during which King Solomon’s Mines, She, and Jess were published. Accessed 19 July 2020.

3 Rider Haggard had been dead for twenty-five years before the first biography on his life appeared, written by his youngest daughter, Lilias. The Cloak That I Left (1951) is understandably written to show Haggard in a sympathetic light, but yet manages to create some distance between author and subject.

4 See also the comic book series: The League of the Extraordinary Gentlemen written by Allan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, 4 volumes, first published in 1999.

5 See for the full Rider Haggard Trail, together with seven other writers’ trails linked to the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Accessed 19 July 2020.

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Electronic reference

Lindy STIEBEL, Re-imagining Africa: revisiting Rider Haggard’s legacy in modern times with particular reference to South Africae-Rea [Online], 18.1 | 2020, Online since 15 December 2020, connection on 19 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author


University of KwaZulu-Natal
Lindy Stiebel is Professor Emerita of English Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her research interests include South African literature, Indian Ocean studies, and literary tourism. Her books on Haggard include Imagining Africa: landscape in H. Rider Haggard’s African romances (2001) and Lives of Victorian Literary Figures: Henry Rider Haggard vol 7 (2009).

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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