Allan Quatermain, an English teen growing up in what is now South Africa, falls in love with Marie Marais, a Boer neighbour girl. Her father is against the marriage, favoring instead his wealthy nephew. He and the nephew put one obstacle after another in the lovers’ way, with tragic consequences.
I read H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines when I was very young, and eventually followed it with She and a few others in the She/Quatermain saga. I remember them as fun, if overwrought, adventure stories. I haven’t read them in a few decades, but found them for free, and thought it would be nice to read more of the series. As I’ve found with a few other re-reads, some things are better left alone.
Marie is the first in the Quatermain series, chronologically, and tells of how Allan met and lost his first wife. I didn’t remember much about Quatermain, but, while he does refer to his later exploits, I didn’t find it a problem.
The story opens well enough, with Allan just happening to be a supremely skilled and confident teenager. He never has to work at much, but that doesn’t mean things go his way. Marie’s father dislikes Englishmen, and that’s pretty much all the explanation we get for his more and more bizarre efforts to keep the two lovers apart. It’s a central question that Haggard never really tries to answer. For all that Haggard consciously steers clear of religion, there’s a fair amount of ex machina happening in the story. The villain’s final declamation belongs in a comic book. This casual approach to plot is one thing that keeps the story from being more than a casual adventure story.
The other thing that knocks you back from almost the first page is the story’s pervasive racism. Granted, the story was written in 1912, and granted, Quatermain is in some ways progressive for his time. I give leeway to books read well outside their time frame. The attitudes in this story, however, robbed it of much of its pleasure. One of many, many examples: Hans, Quatermain’s Khoikhoi (Hottentot) servant, comes in the middle of the night to warn Quatermain of danger to the Marais family. When he dares to mention the risk to Marie, Allan “thrust his fist through the window and struck the Hottentot’s toad-like face”, calls him a dog, and threatens to kill him. Gee, thanks, baas.
Hans, throughout the book, is clever, loyal, and helpful. His reward is to be treated badly and given scraps. He saves Allan’s life repeatedly, but is never given any credit at all. When it’s possible Hans has been killed, Quatermain doesn’t waste a thought on him. It’s reflective of the times, perhaps, but even a much stronger story wouldn’t have been able to save the book from its own attitudes. That’s not to say that Quatermain never treats Hans well; just most of the time. But then, that’s just what you do with natives, given their natural gloom, love of fighting, sly cunning, etc. To give Haggard his due, whites who misbehave really badly (such as murdering an African – ‘Kaffir’, as they’re called throughout) do end badly, but only if it can’t be helped. After all, “even savages love their lives and appreciate the fact that wounds hurt very much”. If only, Haggard implies, they were civilized, and knew how to make war properly. Quatermain appears mildly opposed to slavery, though the book suggests he later becomes a slave trader. I don’t recall that, but perhaps I didn’t read enough of the books.
White women fare slightly better. Marie is the classic damsel in distress, whose only real virtues are beauty and a constant love for her man. The book’s plot centers around which man she belongs to and can therefore marry her when she comes of age. To solve the problem of an African servant woman who falls in love with him, Quatermain marries her off, “somewhat against her will”. There are occasional derogatory references to other groups as well – including, ironically, criticism of people who treat their native servants badly. To Haggard’s credit, there is at least one very strong female character.
I wish I could say I’d been able to reawaken an interest in a childhood favorite. Only, Haggard wasn’t really a favorite, and reading this book killed my interest almost entirely dead. Some of the attitudes fit their time and might be overlooked with a grimace. Maybe in a much stronger story, I’d even be able to get past the treatment of Hans. In this case, though, I can’t, and I don’t think I’ll be going on to the rest of the series. Marie was written toward the end of Haggard’s life, suggesting that the earlier books would be even more difficult. I’m not interested enough to find out.