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  • Rider Haggard & the Sexual Imperative
  • Katy Brundan

Richard Reeve. The Sexual Imperative in the Novels of Sir Henry Rider Haggard. London: Anthem Press, 2018. ix + 203 pp. $115.00 £70.00

"SEXUAL PASSION is the most powerful lever with which to stir the mind of man," Haggard wrote in 1887, a logic which generated a very large number of both his best-selling and his less profitable novels. Haggard is known for braiding unconscious sexual urges and imperialist desire in his novels, most famously through the devastating sexual allure of Ayesha, the two-thousand-year-old heroine of She. The [End Page 289] novelist's personal life had its unusual moments too; at one time he slept with a sarcophagus and Egyptian mummy in his bedroom (until its presence became too unsettling), reflecting the intriguing overlap of fin-de-siècle colonial and sexual fantasies. Haggard's sexualized imagination has duly furnished studies examining race, the New Woman, psychoanalytical undercurrents, sexualized landscape, imperialist discourse, and masochism in his works.

Reeve's monograph takes a biographical approach to Haggard's work, examining in particular ten of the lesser-known novels for the way they rework in an "obvious, and plainly conscious" manner Haggard's earlier sexual and romantic experiences (1). In so doing, Reeve steers well clear of the unconscious and even imperialism, despite their centrality to Haggard's fictional imagination. The book's title, with its references to "Sir" Henry and the "Sexual Imperative" (which is never explicitly defined), betrays the fact that this is a work of literary criticism beholden to an older paradigm. Reeve was educated at King Edward's School in Bath and Trinity College, Cambridge, in the 1960s, a time when public-school boys devoured Haggard's books as a matter of course. After a career in the British Diplomatic Service, Reeve has returned with impressive thoroughness to what I presume was his youthful literary love. In spite of its limitations, the book's strength lies in an encyclopedic, if somewhat laborious, presentation of Haggard's lesser-known works and biographical sources.

The Sexual Imperative takes some time to delve into any actual sex. We must traverse a lengthy discussion of the distinction between novels and romance, a full description of the anti-vaccination novel Doctor Therne, Haggard's writing about agriculture, and his relationship with his parents before achieving our goal. Reeve is quite coy about discussing wider issues of sexuality. He fails to mention the homoerotic relationships between Haggard's male heroes, for example, in favor of exploring "sinful" heterosexual liaisons versus "spiritual" love. Even though many of Haggard's heroes seem ambivalent towards women, Reeve does not consider anything other than a strictly heterosexual sexuality. The mummy in the bedroom does not merit a mention, although Haggard's necrophiliac fascinations might have generated some interesting observations on this front. Instead, Reeve sees the novels as reenactments of Haggard's personal betrayals by and relationships [End Page 290] with women, a point made by others. However, The Sexual Imperative offers more detail in relation to this theme than Haggard's biographers.

Chapter two outlines these influential personal experiences. Haggard was scarred by what he considered to be the betrayal by his first love, Lilly Jackson, who married another man after Haggard left for colonial service in South Africa, dealing what he described as a "crushing blow." Haggard did not entirely abandon her, sheltering the syphilis-ravaged Lilly in her dying years. Lilly's actions fueled Haggard's fictional "themes of sexual betrayal and a lost first love" (31). A parade of female betrayers and sexually predatory sirens appears in the next half-century of fiction, ranging from Dawn (1884) to Belshazzar (1930). Haggard also had an affair with a white married woman in South Africa in the 1870s, resulting in an infant who died. His subsequent marriage to the heiress Louisa Margiston, meanwhile, produced a son who also tragically died as a child, leaving Haggard emotionally scarred and his fiction dotted with child deaths.

Chapter three moves to a discussion of Dawn, The Witch's Head, Colonel Quaritch V.C and Joan Haste, which are "the most transparently angry of Haggard's early novels...


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