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  • "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
  • Julia Reid

By the 1980s, critical consensus cast Haggard's fiction, and the romance revival more generally, as the uncomplicated expression of a crudely jingoist, racist, and misogynist imperialism (see Bristow 127-46, Gilbert and Gubar 5-46, Katz, and Showalter 78-89). According to this consensus, Haggard and other late-Victorian imperialists also disavowed the commercial aspects of empire, its "material reality" (Katz 108). The readers of romance, scholars suggested, uncritically absorbed the genre's prejudices: for Wendy Katz, Haggard's readers were "the passive watchers of their world" (130). A more sophisticated analysis has developed since the early 1990s, as critics have explored the tensions underlying the late-Victorian romance and imperial discourse more broadly. Haggard's work has enjoyed at least a partial rehabilitation, as attention has turned to his novels' complex and ambivalent representation of imperialism (see Arata, Chrisman, and Gold).

However, critical discussions of Haggard's representation of imperial commerce have not yet challenged the contention that his novels fraudulently idealized the British Empire and effaced its material, money-making aspects. Anne McClintock, for example, reads King Solomon's Mines (1885) as enacting a disavowal or repression of black productive power (232-57). There has been little analysis of the representation of imperial capitalism in Haggard's other novels, including She—a work that, although less obviously engaged in debate about the commercial nature of empire, interrogates imperial commerce in interestingly self-reflexive ways. Moreover, the recent emphasis on the formal [End Page 152] fissures of imperialist discourse, in Haggard's work and in the romance genre, is sometimes problematic. As Robert Young has noted, such analysis locates the ambivalence of imperial discourse not at the time of its original articulation and reception but "with the present day historian or interpreter" (152). The original publication and reception of She is strikingly absent, for example, in Barri Gold's recent reading, which announces the desire to read "against the grain" and urges that "as readers" we should "create space for our own counterintuitive and potentially subversive interpretations" (324-25).

The present essay rehistoricizes She and argues that the novel's original serial publication illuminates the uneasy relationship between romance, commerce, and empire at the fin de siècle. At the heart of this relationship was a paradox: the champions of the romance revival offered imperial adventure as an antidote to the effete world of high capitalism, yet the romance form itself was complicit in commodifying empire. For Haggard and his cheerleader, the classical scholar, critic, and folklorist Andrew Lang, romance offered a primitive, rejuvenating release from the sterility of civilized life: Haggard polemically claimed that the romance "appeal[ed], not to a class, or a nation, or even to an age, but to all time and humanity at large" ("About Fiction" 180). Lang also championed romance's appeal to a universal, primitive human nature, and he derided the reader of realist fiction as "bald, toothless, highly 'cultured', and addicted to tales of introspective analysis" ("Realism and Romance" 689). Haggard's protagonists are manly heroes, for whom empire represents a revitalizing escape from a commercial, effeminate home life. In Allan Quatermain (1887), Curtis articulates the squirearchy's sense of dispossession in industrial Britain and its hankering after a conservative feudal past. Traveling into Central Africa, Curtis and his fellow heroes find this past incarnated in the Zu-Vendi, whom he vows to protect from the corrupting knowledge of "telegraphs, steam, daily newspapers, [and] universal suffrage" (282). Haggard's novels are an attempt to retreat from the world of the "daily newspapers" and offer a different kind of literary pabulum: what a fellow-romancer, Robert Louis Stevenson, hailed as "the real art...of the first men who told their stories round the savage camp-fire" (284).

Despite his scorn for a commercialized literary market, Haggard was, ironically, in the vanguard of the new mass production of literature. The late-Victorian period saw a reorganization of the commercial business of literature and of attitudes towards authorship. In 1884 Walter Besant, one of a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1512
Print ISSN
0039-3827
Pages
pp. 152-178
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-04
Open Access
No
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