H. Rider Haggard Biography

I. Early Life Maiwasrevengelongmans1923cover

Sir Henry Rider Haggard was the eighth child of ten born to Squire William Meybohm Rider Haggard (1817-93) and Ella Doveton Haggard (d. 1889) on a modest estate in Bradenham, Norfolk. Ella was an empathetic influence in young Haggard's life, and later the novelist would attribute many of his artistic sensibilities to her. Conversely, the relationship between Haggard and his temperamental and exacting father was frequently antagonistic. In perhaps the most severe slight, Haggard was not given the gentleman's education afforded to William and Ella's other six sons. Although Haggard's perceived dullness and want of concentration convinced Squire William to withhold the privilege of a University education, his schooling was not wholly neglected. After studying at London day schools and with a clergyman in Oxfordshire, Haggard spent several years at Ipswich Grammar School. Eventually William determined that his son should pursue a career in diplomatic service, so in 1873 Haggard moved to London to prepare for the Foreign Office examination. As circumstances would have it he never had the opportunity to take the exam. Instead, owing to William's quick negotiating, he secured for his son the position of aide to Sir Henry Bulwer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Natal, and in July 1875, Haggard left for South Africa.

Haggard's experiences in Africa impressed his life and literary productions dramatically. For one thing, the young Englishman's tenure in the colonial service made him a vocal advocate for British imperialism. In 1877 Bulwer's enthusiastic aide demonstrated his patriotism during the British annexation of the Transvaal from the Boers, when he personally raised the Union Jack over the capital of Pretoria. It was also during this time that Haggard began freelance writing on the topics of Africa and colonial governance. In an article he published that year in The Gentleman’s Magazine, Haggard combines a discussion of Zulu "barbarism" and martial customs with the claim, "it is the undoubted duty of us English, who absorb peoples and territories in the high name of civilization, to be true to our principles and our aim, and to aid the great destroyer by any and every safe and justifiable means" (107). For Haggard, the British Empire was not only a source of great political interest; it also formed the ideological basis for nearly all of his literary productions.

The landscape and culture of Africa during the turbulent years leading up to the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-81) stirred Haggard's creative faculties. The romance fictions Haggard would later set in South Africa drew heavily on the people, surroundings, and violent events he encountered there. While Haggard often regarded the Boers he met with contempt, Zulu culture enthralled him. The language, dances, stories, and history of the Zulu people caused Haggard to express more admiration than censure for these "Romans of Africa" (Pocock 21). For instance, an old Zulu named M'Hlopekazi, or Umslopogaas, a former king of Swaziland famous for his prowess with a battle-axe, interested Haggard so deeply that he became the model for Umslopogaas, one of the novelist's best-beloved and recurrent characters.

Africa was also the site of the most turbulent years in Haggard's love life. Haggard's romantic entanglements reached a crisis point while abroad. In 1873, at the age of eighteen he became acquainted with Mary Elizabeth Jackson (d. 1909), better known as Lily, the daughter of a wealthy Yorkshire farmer. William Haggard disapproved of the match, but Haggard still retained hopes that he would marry her upon his return. Yet, despite these hopes, in 1877 Lily was wed to a wealthy banker named Frank Archer.

News of Lily's marriage devastated Haggard and likely steered him on a course of erratic behavior during the late 1870s. After resigning from the secretariat in May 1879, Haggard began an ostrich farm in Newcastle, Natal, with another Englishman named Arthur Cochrane. Haggard also began an affair with Johanna Catherine Ford née Lehmkuhl (1854-85), a German immigrant and the wife of the Attorney-General of Pretoria. In 1879, Johanna bore him an illegitimate daughter named Ethel Rider, who died as an infant. Doubtless shaken by this tragedy, Haggard returned to England later that same year. Although little is known about the circumstances surrounding the loss of his post in the civil service or his affair, the trauma of these events seem to have made as lasting an impression upon Haggard's imagination as they did upon the course of his life.

Haggard did not announce his 1879 departure from Africa to his family: a circumstance his father greatly resented, calling his newly-arrived and now commissionless son a "waif and a stray" and "a miserable penny-a-liner" (Days I: 162). Yet, his reappearance was not altogether unwelcome. Haggard's sister Mary Haggard introduced her brother to a school friend, Louisa (Louie) Margitson (1859/60-1943), and Haggard proposed within a week. Louie was the only surviving daughter of Major Margitson and would therefore inherit her family's estate in Ditchingham, Norfolk, on her twenty-first birthday. Although Louie's uncle William Hartcup tried unsuccessfully to block the union, both families ultimately approved of the match and they were married in August 1880.

While in England Haggard had left the ostrich farm in Cochrane's hands. Now, accompanied by his wife, Haggard determined to return to South Africa to help run the business. Louie and Haggard traveled in South Africa in November, but their arrival coincided with mounting tensions between the British government and the Boers. Although the farm flourished and Louie delivered their first child in Natal, Arthur John Haggard (1881-91), better known as Jock, the Haggards booked passage on a return ship to England in September 1881, one month after the British surrender of the Transvaal to the Boers.

Upon returning to England, Haggard not only embarked upon a career in law but also began working to become a professional writer. He moved his family to London to begin his studies for the bar and continued to publish articles and letters, generally on the topic of African affairs, in periodicals including The South African, The Standard, and The St. James's Gazette. In 1882, Trübner published Cetywayo and his White Neighbours (1882), a nonfiction critique of Britain's policies in South Africa, and Haggard's first book. In 1884—after much revision—Hurst and Blackett published Haggard's first foray into fiction, Dawn. Like Cetywayo, it was not a commercial success. The following year Hurst and Blackett published The Witch's Head, Haggard's first romance fiction set in Africa. Much to Haggard's disappointment, these early books earned so little money that he begrudgingly resigned himself to abandoning his literary career. Haggard was called to the bar in 1885 and he took up chambers in London with a family connection, Henry Bargrave Deane (1848-1919), primarily in the divorce and probate courts.

II. The Writer

Haggard's muse, however, would not be quelled. Partly inspired by his brother's jest that Haggard could write nothing as good as Robert Louis Stevenson's wildly popular Treasure Island (1883), in 1885 Haggard began work on King Solomon's Mines, his own "book for boys," during his "somewhat ample leisure in chambers" (Days I: xix). By uniting a treasure hunt with exoticism and adventure, KSM proved an immediate success when Cassel published it later that year. Haggard's romance particularly enthralled literary critic Andrew Lang (1844-1912), who would later become the author's good friend and collaborator. In a letter to Haggard, Lang gushed: "Seldom have a I read a book with so much pleasure" (Days I: 227). The royalties from KSM, combined with those of his next two novels, its sequel Allan Quatermain (1887) and She (1887), both published by Longman's, permitted Haggard to abandon the law and write professionally.

Few English authors during the fin de siècle rivaled Haggard in business acumen. Firstly, Haggard was a quick writer able to produce several romances every year. Although formulaic, these novels promised readers the far-flung locales and derring-do that so many craved. Haggard had a gift for depicting Africa in a manner that appealed to the Anglophone audiences, and especially readers in the United Kingdom and North America, hungry for exciting, magical, and exotic romances set in the British Empire. Second, under the guidance of his literary agent A. P. Watt, Haggard negotiated contracts greatly to his advantage. In addition to wisely accepting royalties for his novels rather than a lump sum for copyright beginning with KSM (for which he was initially offered only £100), Haggard usually serialized his novels in periodicals before publishing them in book form, ensuring at least two sets of royalties. These repeated printings guaranteed that Haggard profited as much as possible from his literary exertions. Consider the fact that between 1886 and 1887 Haggard received royalties for three novels running in various periodicals: between October 1886 and January 1887 The Graphic ran She; Jess ran in The Cornhill Magazine between May 1886 and April 1887; and Longman's Magazine ran AQ from January to August 1887. In years to follow, Haggard continued to earn money off of these and his other popular titles whenever publishers ran new editions. Using this strategy of predictably gripping plots and repeated print runs, Haggard earned a considerable living from his writings.

Several themes recur in Haggard's romances, with the most pronounced being eternal love, spirituality, exotic lands, and history. Although, by all accounts, Haggard's domestic life was happy, the ghosts of his more passionate youth lingered in both his life and fictions.1 Haggard and Louie enjoyed a large family and financial security. In fact, the success of Haggard's literary career, combined with the abandonment of his legal profession, allowed Haggard to move his family to their Ditchingham estate. Yet, however pleasant, because his union with Louie was never one of fervent attraction, scholars trace his numerous novels dealing with unrequited and everlasting love to Haggard's longstanding and apparently unconsummated love affair with Lily. She (1887), Eric Brighteyes (1891), Nada the Lily (1892) (a particularly telling title), and Stella Fregelius: A Tale of Three Destinies (1904), explore themes of sexual obsession and depict male characters torn between rival female lovers.

Spirituality played a central role in Haggard's thought. While he identified as a member of the Church of England, Haggard also upheld a number of occult beliefs. Haggard attended séances in his youth but unlike some of his acquaintances, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, he did not join any of the Spiritualist societies. His ideas about religion and spirituality were personal to him and tended to focus on his convictions about eternal love in the afterlife. After the death of his son Jock, Haggard took comfort in the notion of reuniting with his favorite child in the next world. The novelist thought deeply about reincarnation, especially in Buddhism and Theosophy, belief systems that he incorporated into Ayesha, the Return of She (1905), a sequel to She set in Tibet. Although Haggard's supernatural beliefs were unorthodox, he considered focusing on the spirit to be a means of eschewing the evils of modern life. Carolyn Burdett explains that by, "trying to occupy minds with adventure, Haggard more and more tried also to occupy them with the urgency of spiritual evolution in a world threatened with the deadening effects of materialism, secularism and rationalism" (232).

Haggard was a born wanderer; the need for open horizons and novelty colored his personal life and his fiction. Haggard's peregrinations encompassed much of the globe, so that by the end of his lifetime he had visited much of Europe, Iceland, Australia, North Africa (and Egypt repeatedly), South and North America, and the Middle East. In addition to his numerous African romances featuring Allan Quatermain and Ayesha, or "She-who-must-be-obeyed," Haggard drew from his travels in Iceland for Eric Brighteyes (1891) and The Wanderer's Necklace (1914); Jerusalem for Pearl-Maiden (1903) and The Brethren (1904); and South America for Heart of the World (1895). Travel played a foundational role in Haggard's creative process. It also lent his exotic and imperial romances an element of realism, as he usually used experience rather than mere fancy to construct his settings.

An interest in the past and archaeology (especially Egyptology) inspired Haggard to author numerous historical romances. As Harold Orel has remarked: "What strikes the modern literary historian most forcibly about Haggard's romances is how much serious research lay behind them" (44). Haggard's several Egyptian romances, of which Cleopatra (1889), Wisdom's Daughter (1923), and The World's Desire (1890)—a retelling of the Odysseus myth that he co-wrote with Lang—demonstrate this point particularly well. In fact, Cleopatra "grew out of Haggard's inspection of the Egyptian collections at the Louvre, reading in a wide variety of sources, and an extended visit to Egypt itself" (Orel 44). Haggard's romance fictions were never wholly fantastic. Rather, he attended closely to specific historical events, artifacts, and locations to craft his wonderful, but not entirely fabricated, fictions.

III. Legacy

Beyond the sphere of literature, Haggard possessed various interests and talents. Importantly, he considered himself to be a social reformer. Although never elected to public office (he unsuccessfully stood for Parliament as a Unionist in 1895), Haggard served on several national boards including the Royal Dominions Commission and the Empire Settlement Committee. He also took up his pen to support the Salvation Army (Report on the Salvation Army Colonies in the United States and at Hadleigh, England, with Scheme of National Land Settlement [1905], and Regeneration, Being an Account of the Social Work of the Salvation Army in Great Britain [1910]). Yet, the lion's share of Haggard's civic engagement tended to focus upon the plight of Britain's farmers. Haggard's hereditary membership in the squirearchy made him acutely aware of the ravages industrialization had taken on agriculture. In addition to dramatizing the financial difficulties that often beset gentleman farmers in Colonel Quaritch, V. C. (1888), Haggard published two non-fiction books devoted to agricultural affairs entitled A Farmer's Year (1899) and Rural England (1902). Of greatest concern to Haggard was the continued exodus from the country to the city. He believed that shrinking rural populations were harming the nation, and in RE he advocates for an increase in small land holdings and ameliorating foreign competition through protectionist policies (II: 537-40). Although the British government never acted on Haggard's recommendations, on agricultural affairs he became a known authority.

Although the popularity of his writings waned as the twentieth century advanced, in 1912 Haggard was knighted. He continued to write and publish until his death in 1925 at the age of sixty-eight. Roughly fifty of Haggard's seventy-nine published works were romances, while non-fiction books, reports, and histories comprised the remainder. Haggard published six books posthumously including several romances, his autobiography The Days of My Life (1926), and a diary he kept between 1914 and 1925.

The repercussions of the ideas Haggard wrote about in his fictions, and the causes he advocated in his life, can still be felt today. Haggard's depiction of Africa and the men and women populating it colored Western thought. Only in recent decades have artists and activists begun to tear down the imperialistic and xenophobic prejudices that Haggard and others used to ensconce the English ideal as the height of human civilization. Yet, Haggard's legacy is not an entirely negative one. His ideas about honor, love, and spirituality continue to move readers. Haggard touched emotional chords that few authors are equipped to reach. Moreover, his adventures continue to thrill readers drawn to fast-moving plots. Haggard's impact on Victorian culture was profound, but his legacy carries into the twenty first century. Allan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-Present) reinvigorated Allan Quatermain by reworking him as a superhero. In Hollywood adaptations of his best-known works, numerous actors have portrayed Haggard's characters. Today Ursula Andress is perhaps the best remembered Ayesha (She, 1965), while Richard Chamberlain (Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, 1987), Sean Connery (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 2003), and Patrick Swayze (King Solomon's Mines, 2004) have all depicted Quatermain. Haggard lived a life as complicated, fraught, and wonderful as the romances he invented, and these contradictions guarantee that his fictions will endure.

Kate Holterhoff, 18 September 2016.


(1) Lily's marriage did not end her relationship with Haggard. She reached out to her former lover when her marriage to Frank Archer disintegrated in the 1890s, and stayed in contact with him until her death. Although Archer was a wealthy man with bright prospects when she married him, he was ruined when his embezzlement of company funds was revealed in the 1890s, causing Archer to abandon Lily and flee to Africa. Haggard secured lodgings for the now headless Archer family, including Lily's sisters, even paying for the education of Lily's sons. In Africa, Archer contracted syphilis, and when Lily made the voyage there to attempt a reconciliation, Archer passed the fatal disease on to her. After succumbing to syphilis himself, Lily returned to England, but in 1909, at the age of fifty-five, this same illness killed her. Both Haggard and his wife attended Lily's funeral. Louie's presence at Lily's funeral, in addition to the Haggards' decision to name one of their own daughters Lilias, suggests that the rivalry between Haggard's wife and lover was civil. Curiously, in Lilias Haggard's biography of her father she refers to Lily Archer as "Lilith" owing to her father's seemingly destructive and unholy infatuation with this woman (31).

Works Cited

Burdett, Carolyn. "Romance, Reincarnation and Rider Haggard." The Victorian Supernatural. Eds. Nicola Bown, Pamela Thurschwell, and Carolyn Burdett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 217-235. Print.

Cohen, Morton N. "Haggard, Sir (Henry) Rider (1856-1925)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Sept 2013. Oxford University Press. Web. 5 May 2015.

Davidson, Elizabeth S. Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 178: British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Before World War I. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Darren Harris-Fain. 1997. Gale Literary Databases. Web. 5 May 2015.

Haggard, H. Rider. The Days of My Life, An Autobiography. 2 Vols. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1926. Print.

--- "A Zulu War-Dance." The Gentleman's Magazine 243 (September 1877): 94-107. Google Books. Web. 29 Aug. 2016.

Haggard, Lilias Rider. The Cloak That I Left: A Biography of Rider Haggard. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1951. Print.

Orel, Harold. "Adapting the Conventions of the Historical Romance: Rider Haggard’s Eric Brighteyes." English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 36.1 (1993): 40-59. Project Muse. Web. 4 Oct. 2012.

Pocock, Tom. Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993. Print.