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Reviewed by:
  • Lindy Stiebel (bio)
H. Rider Haggard on the Imperial Frontier: The Political & Literary Contexts of His African Romances, by Gerald Monsman; pp. ix + 294. University of North Carolina at Greensboro: ELT Press, 2006, $40.00.

Gerald Monsman's H. Rider Haggard on the Imperial Frontier aims "to revise the image of Haggard as a mere writer of adventure stories or as an unreconstructed British imperialist" (1). In recent years, postcolonial critics such as Anne McClintock (1995) and Laura Chrisman (2000, 2003) have also turned their attention to Haggard's writing—though not as Haggard supporters—reading him variously as an important (given his popular readership) indicator of public opinion on matters African, and representative of British imperial presence in southern Africa. My own work, Imagining Africa: Landscape in the African Romances of H. Rider Haggard (2001) posits Haggard as a more contradictory and ambiguous "imperialist" than McClintock and Chrisman allow. Monsman, however, is careful to distance himself from this mainstream of postcolonial criticism, referring to such critics as "self-contradictory," even "sentimental" (9) in their analysis. The reader is prepared from the outset for a divergent reading.

H. Rider Haggard on the Imperial Frontier is organised into eight chapters with the first two devoted to presenting a historical context for Haggard's South African years and his subsequent writing career, while the rest rather idiosyncratically divide his African romances into geographical regions according to their settings: there are chapters on Zululand, Zululand to the Far Interior, the Lakes Region, and from Cape to the Zambezi. Given this rationale, chronological or thematic progression through the works is not possible, and a fair bit of time-jumping is required: for example, discussion of The Wizard (1896) appears after Finished (1917). For this reader, the links between chapters and sections within chapters could have been more clearly motivated and announced.

A more serious criticism, however, must be made of worrying discrepancies within the text. Stephen Coan (editor of Haggard's Diary of an African Journey [2000]) is listed as the editor of Haggard's Private Diaries (1980) (261) instead of D. S. Higgins; Isandlwana appears misspelt as Islandhlwana (38–39); the Vaal River's name does not mean "foul" (131) as in Afrikaans "vuil" meaning "dirty," but derives from the Afrikaans word for "pale" or "grey"; conjecture about Haggard's affairs with Zulu women is [End Page 379] repeatedly made with no reference to supporting sources (127); no reference is made to Norman Etherington's influential biography on Haggard (1984), while current South African scholarship on Haggard (see Coan [2001]) receives scant attention.

What the author thoroughly covers, however, is the literary link between Olive Schreiner and Haggard. This interest in Schreiner is not surprising given Monsman's earlier work on her (Olive Schreiner's Fiction: Landscape and Power [1991]). Haggard and Schreiner met first in 1885, and later on a few other occasions, and exchanged a small correspondence. Before their first meeting, Haggard sent Schreiner a copy of his first novel, Dawn (1884), and expressed interest in making Schreiner's personal acquaintance, saying "Your book [The Story of an African Farm] made a great impression upon me" (letter 21 October 1884; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center). Haggard later remarked in a letter to his brother that he was attracted by Schreiner's intellect, but admitted that he was repelled by her "complete and overpowering atheism" (letter 17 February 1885 MS67f; Brenthurst Archives). Strange associates as they may seem, both Haggard and Schreiner were engaged in the central questions of their age, one of which was how the European individual tried to meet the challenge of a totally "other" environment. But Monsman does not merely point to their shared involvement in such questions; he claims that they influenced each other directly. The culminating spectacle of Hokosa's tree crucifixion in Haggard's The Wizard, for instance, shows the "direct influence" of a similar scene in Schreiner's Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897) (182).

Such unexpected linkages are typical of this book. Isak Dinesen and Nadine Gordimer are drawn together as "Euro-centred authors who were born or had settled for a period in Africa" (14); and elsewhere Schreiner...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2052
Print ISSN
0042-5222
Pages
pp. 379-380
Launched on MUSE
2007-08-06
Open Access
No
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