Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Re-reading Rider Haggard

How long ago?

120 years (roughly) since he published the book I'm reading at the moment.

An awful lot can happen in 120 years.

Before one lays into Rider Haggard (or Conrad or Kipling) for their perceived racism one should remember that they belonged to the first generation of European novelists to acknowledge the existence of a world outside Europe and America. Give them some credit for that. They were pioneers. Their contemporaries were still mostly writing novels set in London drawing rooms. How many black or Asian characters in Henry James? Not many.

Haggard had farmed in Africa.  He was out there for less than a decade so he wasn't exactly an old Africa hand- and wasn't steeped in the culture the way Kipling was steeped in India (having grown up speaking Hindi)- but he had had an experience and he wanted to share it. And as far as his audience was concerned it was a new thing he was telling them.

His view of Africans was muddled. On the one hand he fully bought into the commonplace racial theories of the day and on the other he had a certain regard- even admiration- for African cultures- especially the Zulus. Yes, it is annoying how his black characters always defer to their white bosses and can be relied on to fall at the feet of any of the beautiful, stately white maidens who so prolifically people Haggards's veldt- but at least they're individualised and given a voice.

Course, you don't read him for his racial politics, you read him because has a mainline connection to the collective unconscious- lost cities, white goddesses- all that jive. Jung dug him. Also he writes nifty action sequences- and describes a battle so you can follow the action- and know where everyone is at any given time- and that's a real talent.

Personal note: A distant cousin who farmed in Kenya came over for a visit in the early 60s  (I'll guess I was about 11 at the time) and I cornered him, hoping for a tete a tete about Allan Quatermain, and told him how much I wanted to visit Africa because I knew all about it through Rider Haggard and he smiled and said maybe things had changed a little...
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