18 March 2021

Jess by H. Rider Haggard: love story or political rant?

JessJess by H. Rider Haggard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

H. Rider Haggard is probably best known for his fantasy-adventure stories of imaginary peoples in unknown lands. This one is romance-adventure in a known land -- known to Rider Haggard anyway -- the Transvaal before, during and after the First Anglo-Boer War.

Rider Haggard was there, for at least part of the time. He was the one who raised the British flag when a litlle group of part-time soldiers ands civil servants from Natal marched to Pretoria and annexed the South African Republic as the Transvaal, with hardly a mutter of protest from the eastwhile republican citizens.

A few years later, however, some of the republicans, dissatisfied with British rule, rebelled, and the result was the First Anglo-Boer War. The war lasted less than six months, from December 1880 to March 1881, and resulted in the retrocession of the Transvaal, which, this book makes clear, was a huge disappointment to Haggard.

In the story, John Niel goes to work on a farm near Wakkerstroom, owned by an old Englishman, Silas Croft, whose two orphaned nieces live with him. John Niel falls in love with both nieces, first one and then the other, and they both fall in love with him, and the main theme of the book is the conflicting romantic interests. The outbreak of war complicates things, and disrupts their relationships, and enables the chief villain of the story, Frank Muller, who has a crush on Bessie, to manipulate things in his favour..

This book, far more than his fantasy stories, is permeated with Haggard's racism and imperialism, and can be seen at one level as a piece of of political propaganda disguised as a love story.

The political background is this: Lord Carnarvon, who was Conservative Secretary of State for the Colonies 1874-1878, impressed by the Confederation of Canada in 1867, wanted to achieve a similar confederation in South Africa, which was then a patchwork of British colonies, Boer republics, and independent African principalities and kingdoms, the most powerful of which was Zululand under King Cetshwayo. Political tensions between these often led to British military intervention at great expense to the British taxpayer, and uniting them under one political authority on the Canadian model would, Carnarvon thought, reduce causes of conflict, and enable them to pay for their own military.

The first step to achieving this was to take over the Boer South African Republic (ZAR), which became the Transvaal Colony, where, as previously stated, H.Rider Haggard had raised the British flag. There had been a border dispute between the ZAR and Zululand, which the Natal colony adjudicated and found in favour of Zululand (the Keate Award), but having taken over the Transvaal they became a party to the dispute and reneged on the agreement. Britain therefore provoked a war with Zululand (the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879) in pursuit of the Confederation ideal, and having neutralised Zulu power also reduced the desire of Transvalers for British rule and protection, hence the rebellion of the Transvaal Boers, which became the first Anglo-Boer War, or the First War of Independence for the Transvaal Boers. During the two wars, in 1879 and 1881, the British military suffered its biggest defeats of the 19th century -- first at Isandlwana in the Anglo-Zulu War, and two years later at Majuba (near Wakkerstroom) in the Anglo-Boer War.

At the same time the Conservative government in Britain was replaced by a Liberal one, with William Gladstone as Prime Minister. The Liberals were far less imperialist than the Conservatives, and thought that Lord Carnarvon's Confederation plan was totally impractical and far too expensive, and so handed back the Transvaal to the victorious Boers, much to Rider Haggard's chagrin, expressed throughout Jess.

But the Liberal interlude was merely the calm before the storm. By the mid-1880s the New Imperialism and the Scramble for Africa had got under way, with Haggard's approval, expressed in a footnote in my edition of the book.

These words were written ten years ago, but since then, with all gratitude, be it said, a change has come over the spirit of the nation, or rather the spirit of the nation has re-asserted itself. Though the 'little England' party [ie the less-imperialist Liberals] still lingers, it exists upon the edge of its own grave. The dominance and responsibilities of our Empire are no longer a question of party politics and among the Radicals of today [ie the 1890s] we find some of the most ardent imperialists [eg the Conservative Secretary of State for Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, who was a Radical 'gas and water socialist;']. So may it ever be! H.R.H. 1896.
In Jess therefore, Haggard portrays the Boers in the worst possible light, since they are the enemies of the British empire. Most of the Boers in the book are caricatures, including the villain, Frank Muller. The Zulus fare slightly better, having been defeated by the British two years earlier (than the time of the story), but are still, in Haggard's eyes, very much an inferior race compared with the British, as are the Hottentots.

The villain, Frank Muller, seems a bit over the top. He oscillates wildly between uttering flattering endearments and violent threats to Bessie, whom he claims to love. No one in his right mind would imagine that such threats could persuade someone to love them; they are utterly incompatible with any kind of love. But perhaps Frank Muller is a rather extreme example of a psychopath and is portrayed rather well. If a psychopath is someone who has no conception of love at all, but is a person whose every utterance is calculated to manipulate other people, then perhaps Rider Haggard has portrayed Frank Muller very well as such a character.

I enjoyed the book at two levels: first, as a love story, it was well-written and had plenty of drama. Secondly, for its historical interest, it shows the British imperialist reaction to events of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Though his main characters may be fictional, the contemporary political figures Haggard mentions: Carnarvon, Gladstone, Shepstone, Lanyon, Kruger and others, are real, and we can learn something of Haggard's reaction to them as an ardent imperialist. Haggard clearly expected his readers to know who these people were and what they had done, because in this book he tells us in no uncertain terms what he thought of what they had done. On the other hand, Haggard's philosophical asides tend to become rambling and rather tedious, but perhaps that reflects the current taste for the "show don't tell" fashion of fiction writing.

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