The Days of My Life, by H. Rider Haggard

Chapter 16

Miss Ida Hector — H. R. H. dictates his works to her — Wishes for change of occupation — Dream-pictures — H. R. H.‘s theory of Romance-writing — Literary coincidences — Examples from the works of H. R. H. — The Spectator.

When I returned from Mexico in 1891 I fell into very poor health. Everything, especially my indigestion, went wrong, so wrong that I began to think that my bones would never grow old. Amongst other inconveniences I found that I could no longer endure the continual stooping over a desk which is involved in the writing of books. It was therefore fortunate for me that about this time Miss Ida Hector, the eldest daughter of Mrs. Hector, better known as Mrs. Alexander, the novelist, became my secretary, and in that capacity, as in those of a very faithful friend and companion, to whose sound sense and literary judgment I am much indebted, has so remained to this day. From that time forward I have done a great deal of my work by means of dictation, which has greatly relieved its labour. Some people can dictate, and others cannot. Personally I have always found the method easy, provided that the dictatee, if I may coin a word, is patient and does not go too fast. I imagine, for instance, that it would be impossible to dictate a novel to a shorthand-writer. Also, if the person who took down the words irritated one in any way, it would be still more impossible. Provided circumstances are congenial, however, the plan has merits, since to many the mere physical labour of writing clogs the mind. So, at least, various producers of books seem to have found. Among them I recall Thackeray and Stevenson.

Of the next few years of my life there is not much to tell. I lived here at Ditchingham in a very quiet and retired fashion, rarely visiting London, wrote a few novels, and for recreation occupied myself with farming and gardening, for which occupations I have always had an instinctive taste. The work that I did was a good deal attacked: it was the fashion to attack me in those days. Possibly owing to my ill-health some of it may not have been quite up to the mark; I do not know. What I do know is that I grew heartily tired of the writing of stories. After the birth of my youngest child, Lilias, which to my great joy happened at the end of the year 1892, my health and spirits began to mend and my energy to return, largely owing, I think, to the treatment of my friend Dr. Lyne Stivens. I was still a youngish man, but had reached that time of life when I felt that if I was to make any change of occupation it must be done at once. And I longed to make a change, for this humdrum existence in a country parish, staring at crops and cultivating flowers, was, I felt, more suitable to some aged man whose life’s work was done than to myself. Also at this time the unrealities of fiction-writing greatly wearied me, oddly enough much more than they do at present, when they have become a kind of amusement and set-off to the more serious things and thoughts with which my life is occupied.

Still it is true that even now, if circumstances allowed of it, I do not think I should write much more fiction, at any rate of the kind that people would buy. With the exception of certain stories that I should like to tell for their own sake, and not to earn money by them. I should occupy my time with writings of a different sort, connected, probably, for the most part with the land, agriculture, and social matters. For instance, I should dearly like to finish my survey of rural England, and to undertake that of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland — tasks, I suppose, that I shall never be able to execute. Only this year23 I had arranged to make an effort to investigate and write on the agriculture of Ireland. But then, of a sudden, I was appointed to the Dominions Royal Commission, and how could I find time for both? The months that I had proposed to devote to Ireland I have been obliged to spend in writing a story.

22 1912. — Ed.

I know that folk — very superior folk — exist who affect to scorn the base person who does one kind of work when he would like to do another, merely because the former does and the latter does not pay. There is something to be said for this position, but if a man chances to realise that he does not live unto himself alone, and to have many dependent upon him, directly or indirectly, or if he chances to desire to render gratuitous services to his country, he must, in such a case, “cut his coat according to his cloth.”

Therefore, although I should have dearly liked to place on record my views of Irish agriculture, in place thereof I have found myself obliged to edit certain of the reminiscences of Mr. Allan Quatermain. To be honest, these have amused me not a little, perhaps because I always find it easy to write of Allan Quatermain, who, after all, is only myself set in a variety of imagined situations, thinking my thoughts and looking at life through my eyes. Indeed there are several subjects with which I always find it not difficult to deal — for instance, Old Egypt, Norsemen, and African savages. Of these last, however, I prefer to write in the company of the late Allan Quatermain.

At the time of which I am now speaking, the early nineties, it was, however, otherwise, for then, being much younger, I wearied of fiction and longed for the life of action to which I had been bred and that, indeed, is native to my character. In truth, the dislike and revolt of my heart in those days still haunts me as a kind of nightmare which is perhaps sufficiently amusing to relate.

Many people have their favourite dreams, and within the last year or so I have developed a very fair specimen of this class of illusion which comes to me in an oft-repeated vision of the mind. Who does not know that order of dream wherein we seem to move among the dead and in their company, with eager yet trembling feet, to try the cold waters of the stream of Death?

Well, through the ivory gates of such a dream as this at times I seem to see my spiritual heritage spread large before me in a world of pictured silence. There, at the back of the picture, rises the mighty cliff whereon, at intervals, the great golden figures, which I take it are images and not alive, seem to keep watch and ward over the illimitable lands beneath; while between them, also at intervals of scores or hundreds of leagues, pour the cataracts gathered I know not whence. In a fold of that cliff lie the blue waters of the Holy Lake, surrounded by wide cedars and huge, immemorial pines that spring two hundred feet without a bough and, at their crown, end always in a single bent plume of green, as though up on high some strong wind shaped them with a steady hand. Along the foot of the cliff runs a great river that, like the Nile, floods the lands at certain seasons, and makes them bear a hundredfold. Winding almost at right angles from the mountain slope, it flows across the boundless plain, past a white and wonderful city whose domes and palaces I only see from far away, for here my guide has never led me. There on its banks soar gracious palms; there willows weep; there spread aspens with leaves just about to quiver; and there, through the sparse woodlands, roam the wild things of the New Creation, seeking their food from God and fearing no hurt from aught that serves Him. Facing this river, to the right as I see it, but far across the plain, are lovely mountains not so very lofty, where, from the other river of the lake, amidst slender ferns, rush waterfalls that descend in bursts of stirless spray.

There, too, in the east — can it be the east, I wonder? — is the very well and fount of light: a soft but radiant light that casts no shadow, since it grows and flows above, beneath, around, and everywhere. Its shape is that of a luminous fan. While the day increases — how long that day is I do not know — so does the glory of that fan extend till it fills all those celestial skies: till it bends across them beyond the mighty cliff where stand the golden guards, as in the funeral paintings of Old Egypt the image of the goddess Nout bends across the heavens and holds the earth in her embracing arms. Then, as at length the night draws on, this wondrous fan folds itself again to a cluster of jewelled stars, large as young moons and of every lovely hue, varying from that of a kind of shining blackness to those of steel blue, and scarlet, and red fire, that girdle the firmament with a glittering belt as might do the Milky Way drawn near.

Overlooking all these wonders, at the foot of the cliff, beyond the borders of the lake but at a lower level, in this fantastic dream of mine stands a strange and silent house built for me by hands that I have known. I see its central hall, where all those I loved or love in life steal in and out. I see a certain chamber, low and large, which overlooks the dreaming landscape, and, more nearly, the walks of garden trees hung with bells of white and purple blossom, with unknown, golden fruits and creeping strands of vine. Standing in the recessed doorway of this chamber, I see in its far corner, seated at a desk above a covered terrace, myself, younger than I am now, wearing some sort of white garments and bending over the desk at work, with papers spread before me.

At the sight a kind of terror seizes me lest this fair place should be but a scented purgatory where, in payment for my sins, I am doomed to write fiction for ever and a day!

“At what do I work?” I ask, alarmed, of the guide who, shining steadily, stands at my side and shows me all.

“You write the history of a world” (or was it “of the world”? — I am not sure), is the answer, and in my dream I breathe again.

For truly it would be a horrible fate to be doomed from aeon to countless aeons to the composition of romance.

Of course what I have set down is but a fancy such as might come to an imaginative child. Still, that landscape, which I know as well as, if not better than, any on the earth, has charms and glories of its own. Therefore I have wasted half an hour of my time and some few minutes of my reader’s in attempting very briefly to describe that which in truth no words can carry.

I confess that in any other life I should prefer some change of employment, but if I should be doomed to write there I hope that the subject-matter of my toil may, as in the vision, prove to be not fiction but history, which I love. In all the worlds above us there must be much history to record. Also there must be much good work to do, which is fortunate. At least I can conceive no idle heaven — where it “is always afternoon.” To me such a place would be the reverse of heaven. To me happiness and work well done, or service faithfully accomplished, are words with a like meaning.

And now, with many apologies, I will turn to mundane things again. Before I do so, however, as I dare say I shall allude to the subject no more, I will add a word on the general matter of the writing of romances. This, I gather, from remarks that have been made to me and many letters that I have received, is supposed to be a very easy art, if indeed it is worthy to be classified under that high name. As a matter of fact it is difficult. In a novel, as the word is generally understood, the author may discourse upon a thousand topics; nothing, or at any rate very little, is barred to him. He may burrow in the obscene depths of human nature; he may discuss politics, religion, metaphysics, socialism, “love” in all its forms, the elemental or artificial divisions between the sexes — oh! what is there that he may not and does not discuss? Nothing that appears in the columns of the daily papers, nothing that is within the range of the human intellect, lies beyond his legitimate, or illegitimate, scope.

In romance all this is different; the lines between which he must move are by comparison extremely narrow: as I remember, Besant put it admirably when answering some onslaught on myself in connection with “Montezuma’s Daughter”: “There is but one bag of tricks in romance.”

The love interest, at least among the English-speaking peoples, must be limited and restrained in tone, must follow the accepted lines of thought and what is defined as morality. Indeed it may even be omitted, sometimes with advantage. The really needful things are adventure — how impossible it matters not at all, provided it is made to appear possible — and imagination, together with a clever use of coincidence and an ordered development of the plot, which should, if possible, have a happy ending, since few folk like to be saddened by what they read. If they seek melancholy, it can be found in ample measure in real life or in the daily papers. Still, the rule of the happy ending is one that may be broken at times; at least I have dared to do so on some occasions, and notably in the instance of “Eric Brighteyes.” I remember that Charles Longman remonstrated with me on this matter at the time, but I showed him that the story demanded it — that, although I too wept over the evil necessity, it must be so!

Now adventure in this narrow world of ours is a limited quantity, and imagination, after all, is hemmed in by deductions from experience. When we try to travel beyond these the results become so unfamiliar that they are apt to lack interest to the ordinary mind. I think I am right in saying that no one has ever written a really first-class romance dwelling solely, for example, upon the utterly alien life of another world or planet with which human beings cannot possibly have any touch. Homer and others bring such supernormal life into the circle of our own surroundings and vivify it by contact, or by contrast, with the play of human nature as exemplified in their characters. But it will not stand alone. We are not strong and skilled enough to carve out of quite unknown material figures so life-like that even in a dreaming hour they can pass as real. I repeat, therefore, that the lines which close in the kingdom of romance are very narrow, and that the material which must be used is so much handled that nowadays it has become difficult to fashion from it any shape that is novel enough, or sufficiently striking to catch the attention of the world.

What is there that has not been used? Who, to take a single instance, can hope to repeat the effect of Robinson Crusoe on his desert island, or the thrill of that naked footprint in the sand? Defoe exhausted these long ago; everything of the sort that follows must be a mere pastiche.

To pass over other salient and familiar examples, I may with humility remark that even a second “She” would offer difficulties to her originator. In my own day some have been tried, and proved very ephemeral creations. The stock of such ideas, in short, is being rapidly used up. There are only a certain number of pieces of glass in the kaleidoscope, and the total of the patterns that these can form is, after all, but limited. With all the world explored and exhausted, I feel sorry for the romance writers of the future, for I know not whither they will turn without bringing themselves into competition with the efforts of dead but still remembered hands and exposing themselves to the sneers of the hunters-out of “plagiarisms.”

History remains to them, it is true, but that ground has already been well tilled. Also historical romances seem at present to be losing their hold, perhaps because the reader of today fears lest he should be acquiring some useful information against his will. The holiday task, or reminiscences of it, looms largely in his mind. Still, new avenues may open to those unborn scribes of which at present we can catch no glimpse. In a day to come there may even be romances of microbes which will fix the attention and engage the imaginative faculties of dim and distant generations.

Now as to the method of romance-writing. It should, in my judgment, be swift, clear, and direct, with as little padding and as few trappings as possible. The story is the thing, and every word in the book should be a brick to build its edifice. Above all, no obscurity should be allowed. Let the characters be definite, even at the cost of a little crudeness, and so with the meaning of each sentence. Tricks of “style” and dark allusions may please the superior critic; they do not please the average reader, and — though this seems to be a fact that many forget, or only remember to deplore — a book is written that it may be read. The first duty of a story is to keep him who peruses it awake; if he is a tired man and it succeeds in doing this, then, within its limitations, it is a good tale. For instance, when a year or so ago Mr. Kipling, who as a rule goes to bed early, told me that he had sat up to I know not what hour and got chilled through reading “The Ghost Kings” because he could not lay it down, it gave me a higher opinion of that work than I could boast before. In romance “grip” is almost everything. Whatever its faults, if a book has grip, these may be forgiven.

Again, such work should be written rapidly and, if possible, not rewritten, since wine of this character loses its bouquet when it is poured from glass to glass. It should be remembered, also, that the writer of a romance must, so far as it is concerned, live during its progress in an atmosphere quite alien to that of everyday life. Now this in a workaday world is not easy to grown people, who perhaps have many affairs and anxieties to distract them, even if they possess or have acquired the power of dividing their brains into more or less watertight compartments. Indeed, for longer than a certain period it becomes almost impossible. Therefore, as the quality of the resulting story will depend upon the preservation of this atmosphere of romance while it is being evolved, it is highly desirable that the actual period of evolution should be short. Personally I have proved this, again and again, almost to the extent that, in the case of my own books, I can judge how long they have taken to write by their quality, although I may long have forgotten the amount of time I spent on each.

So it comes to this: the way to write a good romance is to sit down and write it almost without stopping. Of course some preliminary reflection is desirable to realise a central idea round which the story must revolve. For example, in “She” that central idea was a woman who had acquired practical immortality, but who found that her passions remained immortal too. In “The Holy Flower,” which I finished yesterday, to take another case, the central idea is that of a gorilla which is worshipped as a god and periodically slays the king who holds his office as the brute’s priest and servant, with all the terrors that result from such a situation. In the case of both these books, as of many others, I had nothing more in my mind when I set myself to face them. Of course in such circumstances beginnings are hard — c’est le premier pas qui coute — but after the thing will generally evolve itself. It is merely a case of what Anthony Trollope used to call “cobbler’s wax.” Or, if it “will not do so,” the author had better give up romance-writing and take up some useful occupation that is more congenial.

Of course these are only my views, but they are based upon an experience that is now painfully extended. Other men may have other and better methods so far as they are concerned. They presuppose, however, that the writer is to a sufficient degree possessed by the Spirit of Romance, without which he will do nothing of any permanent or even of immediate value. The faculty of imaginative insight must be a part of his intellectual outfit. He must be able, as he creates, to summon each scene whereof he treats before the eyes of his mind. He must see the characters and their surroundings: the lion springing, the Zulu regiments rushing with uplifted spears, the fire eating into the grass of the hillside, while before it the scorched snakes glide and hiss. He must share the every hope and care of those whom he begets: the rich, low voice of Ayesha must thrill his nerves; he must discern her enthralling and unearthly beauty, and look into the mingled grandeurs of her blasted soul!

And so on, and on; for if he, the creator, does not know the beings and things which he creates — if the details of them are as blurred as the images in a defective glass — how can he expect to convey a clear picture to his reader? At the best that reader must help him out, must be the possessor of a certain receptive power and able to fill in a thousand minutiae of character and so forth, for to attempt to state these would overload the story, which, be it remembered, should consist of action, action, action from the first page to the last. For the rest, little matters. Even if the writer does not know what is coming next the circumstance is of no importance, for it will come when it is wanted. There are even advantages in this, since, if he does not know, it is quite certain that his reader must remain in equal ignorance — a thing to be desired.

Such is the whole art of romance-writing as it is understood by me — who, critics may say, per contra, do not understand it at all. To such as have sufficient experience of life and adventure in far lands, or sufficient vision to enable them to re-create the past, the gift is to be had for the taking — by those who can take. To such as lack these qualifications it is somewhat hard to grasp and hold. But even if he possesses all this equipment I would warn the future artist not to expect too much success, since a perfect specimen of the true breed of the beautiful butterfly, Romance, is rarely to be caught. After the searcher has hunted all his life, if he finds two or three of them in his cabinet he will have done very well indeed; and even at these, connoisseurs who sit at home and do not hunt themselves will be found to cavil. In old days such specimens were perhaps more common, though but few have survived the rust and damp of time. But then their breeding-grounds in the dank tropical marshes or the lion-haunted forests were less known, and those who devoted themselves to this chase were few in number and supremely qualified for the business. Now travelling is cheap, hundreds handle the net, and all come home with something that is offered for sale under the ancient label.

It is curious how often imagination is verified by fact — perhaps, as I said at the beginning of this screed, because the lines in which it must work are narrow and after all based on fact, perhaps because it does possess some spiritual insight of its own. Many instances have come within my own experience of which I will quote a few that I chance to remember.

I pass over “King Solomon’s Mines,” a work of pure imagination, for in my day very little was known of the regions wherein its scenes were laid, many details of which have been verified by subsequent discovery. In its sequel, “Allan Quatermain,” however, occurs a fine example of the literary coincidence. In this book I invented a mission station at an unexplored spot on the Tana River, which station I caused to be attacked by the Masai. In subsequent editions of the work I inserted the following note, which explains itself:

By a very strange and sad coincidence, since the above was written, the Masai, in April 1886, massacred a missionary and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Houghton — on this same Tana River, and at the spot described. These are, I believe, the first white people who are known to have fallen victims to this cruel tribe.

Again, in a tale called “Maiwa’s Revenge,” I gave an elaborate description of a certain escape of Allan Quatermain from pursuing savages, who hunted him up the face of a cliff and seized hold of his ankles. He freed himself from their attentions by firing down on them along the line of his leg with a pistol. Some years later a gentleman arrived at this house whose name, I think, was Ebbage, and on whose card was printed the vague and remote address, “Matabeleland.” He informed me that he had travelled specially from London to inquire how on earth I had learned the details of his escape from certain savages, as he had never mentioned them to a single soul. Before he left I satisfied myself that his adventure and that invented by myself and described in the tale, which I had thought one of a somewhat original sort, were in every particular identical.

Again, in “Mr. Meeson’s Will” I set out very fully indeed, the circumstances under which a new and splendid liner was lost at sea, and the great majority of those on board of her were drowned owing to lack of boats to accommodate them. In a preface to this story, written in the year 1888, I make the following remark:

The only part of this humble skit, however, that is meant to be taken seriously is the chapter which tells of the loss of the R.M.S. Kangaroo. I believe it to be a fair and, in the main, accurate account of what must and one day will happen upon a large and crowded liner in the event of such a collision as that described, or of her rapid foundering from any other cause. It is a remarkable thing that people who for the most part set a sufficient value on their lives, daily consent to go to sea in ships the boats of which could not on emergency possibly contain half their number.

During the present year this prophecy, and indeed the whole scene of the sinking of the Kangaroo, has been fearfully fulfilled in the instance of the great White Star liner Titanic. If I could think of and foresee such things, how is it that those who are responsible for the public safety have proved themselves so lacking in prevision — that section of the Board of Trade, for instance, whose duty it is to attend to such matters?

I fear we must seek the answer in the character of our nation, whose peculiarity it is to ignore or underrate dangers that are not immediately visible, and therefore never be ready to meet them. If anyone doubts this, let him study the history of our wars during the last sixty years or so, and even earlier. The Crimea, the Abyssinian Expedition, the first Boer War, the Zulu War, the second Boer War, which was the child of the last two, the Egyptian Wars, have all told the same tale. With the details of three of these I have been acquainted, and they are awful. Only our wealth has brought us out of them — I will not say with honour, but in safety. We declare proudly that “we always muddle through,” but this, after all, is a boast that only fits the lips of the incompetent. What will happen when we are called upon to meet a nation, or nations, of equal or greater strength, that are competent?24 One can only hope for the best, and that the genius of our people, or of individuals among them, may carry us through in the future as it has done in the past. Meanwhile we blunder on. England, in lives and treasure, pays the bill out of her ample but not bottomless pocket, and everything ends in a rocket-burst of decorations conferred amid the shouts of the devotees of music-halls.

23 This was written in 1912, and has been lying in Messrs. Longmans’ safe without the author having access to it since that date. — Ed.

Probably the blame is to be laid at the door of our national lack of imagination: we cannot embody in our minds or provide against that of which we have had no recent experience. We live from hand to mouth, and think more of the next elections than of our future as a people and a great Empire, refusing to bear those small burdens that would make us safe, and to support statesmen rather than politicians. Any who point out these things are cried down as alarmists, or as persons seeking some personal or party end, since the petty and the mean always see their own colours reflected in the eyes of others. Like the large farmer who confided to him his conviction that I was travelling on my tour of agricultural investigation through England in search of “free drinks,” these judge by their own low standards. “Free drinks,” or their equivalent, is what they want, and therefore must be what you want, since otherwise why would anyone work for nothing? And here comes the sorrow. The little minds, Shakespeare’s multitude who “suckle fools and chronicle small beer,” are in the vast majority. They have the votes and give power to their chosen. The rest are but voices crying in the wilderness. Well, there it is, and doubtless God Almighty knows the way out. At any rate, it must be a part of His plan, so why should we grumble?

Another small instance of imagination being justified in my own case is to be found in my tale, “Stella Fregelius,” where, for the purposes of that mystical story, I invented an instrument which I called the “aerophone,” whereby people could speak with each other across a space of empty air. When I wrote this story, about the year 1898, neither I nor anyone else had heard of such a machine. Now I learn that it is working and patented under the same title, namely, “aerophone,” and doubtless ere long it will be in general use. It is right, however, that, per contra, I should chronicle a prophetic failure. In “Doctor Therne” I ventured to suggest that our general neglect of vaccination would bring about some outburst of smallpox such as in past days swept away our forefathers by the thousand, and still sweeps away uninstructed peoples. As yet this has not happened, but who can be bold enough to assert that it will never happen?

Perhaps the most curious example of a literary coincidence with which I have been personally concerned is to be found in the case of my story, “Fair Margaret.” As it is fully and concisely set out in the issue of the Spectator of October 19, 1907, I will quote my letter published in that journal, leaving the reader to form his own opinion on the matter.

Sir, — The following instance of imagination being verified by fact may interest students of such matters. Two years or so ago I wrote an historical romance which has recently appeared under the title of “Fair Margaret.” In that romance the name of the hero is Peter Brome. The father of this Peter Brome is represented in the tale as having been killed at Bosworth Field. After the appearance of the book I received a letter from Colonel Peter Brome Giles, the High Sheriff of Bucks, asking me where I obtained the particulars concerning the said Peter Brome. I answered — out of my own head. Indeed, I distinctly remember inventing the name as being one that I had never heard, and the fact of the father’s death on Bosworth Field I introduced to suit the exigences of the story. In reply to my request for further particulars, Colonel Brome Giles kindly sent me a letter, from which, in view of the curious interest of the matter, I am sure he will forgive me for publishing the following extracts:

“Your hero’s father was the son of Sir Thomas Brome, the Secretary of Henry VI. He was, as you relate, killed at Bosworth, but I never heard they had property in Essex, but had in Suffolk25 and Norfolk. . . . One branch of the family took the bird” [that is, as a coat-of-arms] “as you describe. . . . The father of your hero was the first Peter, and was born 1437, and was 50 when killed. . . . Since the Peter of 1437 there have always been Peter Bromes: my father was, I am, and so is my boy. We assumed Giles in 1761.”

To this I sent the following answer:

“All I can say is that the coincidence is extremely curious
(for I knew nothing of all this), so much so indeed that,
taken in conjunction with some similar instances which have
occurred to me, almost do I begin to believe in retrospective
second sight.”

If I may judge from my own experience, such coincidences (and, as anyone who has read the tale in question will admit, this is a very remarkable coincidence) are by no means uncommon. Although the particulars are too long to set out, four times at the very least have they happened to myself in the case of my own works of imagination. I do not know if any of your readers can suggest an explanation. The odds against such exact similitudes seem so tremendous that I confess I am unable to do so. I am, Sir, etc.,

H. Rider Haggard.

(It almost looks as if Mr. Rider Haggard when he thought he was inventing was unconsciously receiving random and accidental brain-waves, a la Marconi, from Colonel Brome Giles. Was Colonel Brome Giles, we wonder, working at pedigree questions at the time when Mr. Rider Haggard was planning his novel? — Ed., Spectator.)

24 My hero’s property was at Dedham, in Essex, a few miles over the Suffolk border. — H. R. H.

Another very curious imaginative parallel occurs in my novel, “The Way of the Spirit.” In this tale, the scene of which is laid in Egypt of today, I introduced five weird native musicians, whom I named the Wandering Players, three of whom performed on pipes and two upon drums. Thrice did the hero, Rupert Ullershaw, meet this band in the deserts of the Sudan, but never could he speak with them, since they would answer no questions and accept no baksheesh. They simply appeared and disappeared mysteriously, and the sound of their sad music always proved the herald of misfortune to poor Rupert — the suggestion being that they were not quite canny in their origin. These musicians were a pure effort of invention so far as I am concerned. I had never read or heard that any such folk were supposed to haunt this very desert of which I was writing.

Imagine, therefore, my astonishment when, in a copy of his “Notes de Voyage” for 1909 which Sir Gaston Maspero kindly sent me — “The Way of the Spirit” was written in 1905 — I found the following passage:

Ces quatre-la sont-ils allies aux quatre afrites musiciens, deux joueurs de flute et deux joueurs de tambourin ou de darabouka, qui hantent le desert dans les memes parages? Ils jouent sur le passage des voyageurs et c’est toujours un mauvais presage que de les rencontrer: si on s’eloigne vite sans leur adresser la parole et, autant que possible, sans les regarder, on a quelque chance d’echapper au mauvais sort, sinon l’on est perdu.

It will be observed that here everything is the same, mise en scene, misfortune, all. There is but one difference. Of Sir Gaston’s afrites, or musical ghosts, there were four; of my wandering players, five. I have added a third flutist by way of interest on the capital of the true legend.

Perhaps these examples of literary coincidence in my own books may suffice, though I think there are more. Indeed I recall two in connection with “Heart of the World” and “Ayesha” respectively, which are curious enough in their way. Also as I write it comes back to me that there are yet two others which, as I am on the subject, I may as well state quite briefly.

The first of these is to be found in “Montezuma’s Daughter.” Here the hero, a certain Thomas Wingfield, is stated to have lived near Bungay in the reign of Elizabeth, and to have been a doctor by trade, having learned his business from another leech in this immediate neighbourhood. After many adventures he dies here a rich man and leaves charities to the poor. Certainly I did think it strange when, subsequent to the writing of the book, I discovered from Mr. Herbert Hartcup, the lawyer, who is a trustee of the Bungay Charities, that a man called Thomas Wingfield did live and die at that exact time, that he was a doctor who served his apprenticeship with another local leech, that in some way or other he did accumulate wealth of which he bequeathed a portion to the poor that they enjoy to this day, and that his will, which I have since seen, was just such a one as might have been written by the imaginary Thomas. Almost am I tempted to believe that the true Wingfield must have visited Mexico in the days of Cortes, and that, if one were to dig up his bones, among them would be found the necklace of great emeralds which was given to him by Guatemoc in the hiding-place of Montezuma’s treasure.

The last specimen is very simple. While visiting an old church in Suffolk I conceived the idea of my novel, “Joan Haste,” of which it is unnecessary to set out the plot. After reading it a connection of mine remarked that he had been much interested by the book, though he did not think that the A.-Z.‘s, whom he knew well, would altogether appreciate such an accurate report of a passage in their family history whereof they did not often speak. Also he was nervous lest it should be supposed by them that he had told me a story which was communicated to him in confidence. On further investigation it transpired that these A.-Z.‘s were buried in the very churchyard where I had imagined my tale, and that their family owned and still own all the land by which it is surrounded.

It needs no great stretch of fancy to believe that in some subtle way the bones beneath the soil of that churchyard had imparted some of their history to my mind while, touched by the place, I stood there evolving the material for another book.

Before I finally leave the subject of romance-writing I should like to say a few words upon a certain point. I have been a good deal attacked because there is much fighting in many of my more imaginative works, which fighting necessarily involves the death of men, the inference being that to write of such things is not desirable. I would ask, Why not? However painful the fact, it remains true that man is a fighting animal, and that from the time of Homer down, and probably for tens of thousands of years before it, some of his finest qualities — such as patriotism, courage, obedience to authority, patience in disaster, fidelity to friends and a noble cause, endurance, and so forth — have been evolved in the presence of war, as we need go no further than the pages of the Old Testament to learn. Is it not better to write of hard, clean, honest fighting than, for instance, of treacherous and sickening murder? Will any young man be the worse for the lesson that his hands were given him to defend his head, and, if need be, his country’s honour, with that of all who are dear to him? I think not.

It is true that in such a book as “Nada the Lily” there is much slaughter. But all this is a matter of history. A tale of the days of Chaka which left out his slayings and battles would be false to the facts and merely ludicrous. Omelets cannot be made without the breaking of eggs. Would such critics then argue that this tale and others like it should be left untold? If so, I hold that they are wrong, since these give a picture which, from the circumstances of my youth, perhaps I alone in the world can paint, not only of some very remarkable men, but of a state of savage society which has now passed away and may never recur.

Further, is there not some hypocrisy in such cavilling in an age when all the great nations of the world are arming themselves to the teeth for that Armageddon which one day must come? And do not some of the very papers in which it appears fill their columns with nauseous and most particular accounts of dreadful and degrading crimes, such as the betrayal and butchery of a defenceless woman, dilating on them from day to day till the reader is sickened? Of which is it the more harmful to read — of a fight between the splendid Zulu impis, faithful to death; of old Umslopogaas holding the stair against overpowering odds; or, let us say, of the dismemberment of a wife or the massacre of little children by some human brute or lunatic?

Personally I hate war, and all killing, down to the destruction of the lower animals for the sake of sport, has become abominable to me. But while the battle-clouds bank up I do not think that any can be harmed by reading of heroic deeds or of frays in which brave men lose their lives.

What I deem undesirable are the tales of lust, crime, and moral perversion with which the bookstalls are strewn by dozens.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38