In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a lesser-known Allan Quatermain novella
Maiwa’s Revenge is not a major novel in the H. Rider Haggard canon. Indeed, it’s a ‘minor’ novel even in terms of size and scale, running to just over 120 pages in the wonderful Macdonald illustrated edition from the 1960s which I own. And yet despite its status as a minor work in his oeuvre, Maiwa’s Revenge is worth reading, and worth a review (of sorts) here, not least because it features Rider Haggard’s most enduringly popular character, Allan Quatermain, ‘the Indiana Jones of Victorian literature’.
Maiwa’s Revenge, first published in 1888 shortly after Rider Haggard had enjoyed runaway successes with King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain, and She within the space of just a couple of years, seems to have been churned out at speed. Set in South Africa, it’s really two loosely linked stories in one, which Quatermain relates to his friends as they have a story-sharing evening. The first story hasn’t aged well, involving Quatermain’s boasts about how he hunted and killed three elephants for their ivory. Just over a decade later, in 1899, Joseph Conrad would publish his novella, Heart of Darkness, which hinted at the corruption underlying much colonial activity in Africa, with a villainous ivory-dealer at its (dark) heart in the form of Kurtz. But in 1888, clearly the idea of big game hunting, now something uncritically enjoyed or countenanced by a dwindling number of (largely American) devotees, was something which the majority of Rider Haggard’s Victorian readers would have accepted without comment. In the end (minor spoiler alert), Quatermain loses his ivory tusks to some Portuguese thieves, but it would be generous to view this as Rider Haggard’s attempt to hint at the futility of ivory-dealing. This portion of Maiwa’s Revenge leaves a bad taste, but provides a valuable window onto Victorian adventure fiction set in colonial Africa, and the description of the hunt is, as ever with Haggard, written with consummate narrative skill.
In the second half of this short novel, things get back on track and we’re treated to something approaching classic Rider Haggard storytelling. A native African woman, Maiwa, approaches Allan Quatermain and tells him her tragic story: her father, Nala, agreed for her to be married to Wambe, a vicious and sadistic chieftain who kills his sons lest they should grow up and threaten his status as the ruler of his people. Such a fate has befallen Maiwa, who keeps the dead hand of her young son with her as a reminder of him – and of her burning desire for vengeance. Quatermain is asked to help her in her quest for revenge, and he reluctantly agrees, although only because another white Englishman, John Every, has been taken prisoner by Wambe and Quatermain wishes to free him. What follows are a series of Haggardian set-pieces: a near-death tussle over the side of a cliff, a battle, a narrow escape from the jaws (almost literally) of death, and … well, I won’t give too much away.
Although this second half of Maiwa’s Revenge is less objectionable from a modern perspective than the elephant-hunting narrative, it still has its problems: Quatermain is viewed as a white saviour by the native African people he helps, and he only agrees to help Maiwa because he wants to rescue a fellow white man from Wambe’s evil clutches. I’ve no intention of whitewashing these elements from this review of Rider Haggard’s novella; nor, though, do I think we should simply jettison any work of literature produced in a different era because some of the attitudes to race which are depicted strike us as problematic. That’s part of the reason literary criticism exists: to have a critical discussion about such attitudes and how and why they have changed. And in fact, from a character perspective, I think it makes Maiwa’s Revenge a richer novel that the hero’s motive is somewhat self-interested: as in many more complex works of fiction, the hero does the right thing but for the wrong reason. Or, at any rate, different reasons. This means that, if he is the ‘white saviour’ of Maiwa and her people, he is one who is in it for himself, or for all Englishmen (the name of the man he’s seeking to rescue, John Every, is a suitably Everyman name, which reminded me of Brian Griffin’s objection in Family Guy to the name ‘John Everyman’ being used in a Hollywood script for a film titled Death Spares Not the Tiger).
The point remains, however, that Maiwa’s Revenge is a minor work when set aside H. Rider Haggard’s major achievements, such as She and King Solomon’s Mines. Is it worth reading? Yes, especially for the second half. And it doesn’t take long to read. Sadly, the Macdonald editions of Rider Haggard’s books which I own are hard to find online. But Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg both have the full text of Maiwa’s Revenge.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.