Leave for Egypt — Reincarnation — Boulak Museum — Excavations — Removal of mummies — Nofertari — Adventure in tomb — Mr. Brownrigg’s danger on Pyramid — Cyprus — Article on “Fiction” — “Jess” — Home by long sea — “Cleopatra” — “Colonel Quaritch, V.C.” — Press attacks — Publishing arrangements — Lang’s advice — “Cleopatra” dedicated to H. R. H.‘s mother — Her death — Savile Club — Thomas Hardy — H. R. H. weary of writing novels — Lang’s encouragement — Allan Quatermain and Umslopogaas — Winston Churchill’s approval — Letters from W. E. Henley — “Maiwa’s Revenge” — “Beatrice” — Collaboration with Lang in “The World’s Desire” — Letters from Lang — “The Song of the Bow.”
After “She” had been fairly launched, and the proofs of “Jess” passed for press, I started, in January 1887, on a journey to Egypt. From a boy ancient Egypt had fascinated me, and I had read everything concerning it on which I could lay hands. Now I was possessed by a great desire to see it for myself, and to write a romance on the subject of “Cleopatra,” a sufficiently ambitious project.
A friend of mine who is a mystic of the first water amused me very much not long ago by forwarding to me a list of my previous incarnations, or rather of three of them, which had been revealed to him in some mysterious way. Two of these were Egyptian, one as a noble in the time of Pepi II who lived somewhere about 4000 B.C., and the second as one of the minor Pharaohs. In the third, according to him, I was a Norseman of the seventh century, who was one of the first to sail to the Nile, whence he returned but to die in sight of his old home. After that, saith the prophet, I slumbered for twelve hundred years until my present life.
I cannot say that I have been converted to my friend’s perfectly sincere beliefs, since the reincarnation business seems to me to be quite insusceptible of proof. If it could be proved, how much more interesting it would make our lives. But that, I think, will never happen, even if it be true that we return again to these glimpses of the moon, which, like everything else, is possible.
Still it is a fact that some men have a strong affinity for certain lands and periods of history, which, of course, may be explained by the circumstance that their direct ancestors dwelt in those lands and at those periods. Thus I love the Norse people of the saga and presaga times. But then I have good reason to believe that my forefathers were Danes. I am, however, unable to trace any Egyptian ancestor — if such existed at all it is too long ago.
However these things may be, with the old Norse and the old Egyptians I am at home. I can enter into their thoughts and feelings; I can even understand their theologies. I have a respect for Thor and Odin, I venerate Isis, and always feel inclined to bow to the moon!
Whatever the reason, I seem to myself to understand the Norse folk of anywhere about 800 A.D. and the Egyptians from Menes down to the Ptolemaic period, much better than I understand the people of the age in which I live. They are more familiar to me. They interest me much more. For instance, I positively loathe the Georgian period, about which I can never even bring myself to read. On the other hand, I have the greatest sympathy with savages, Zulus for instance, with whom I always got on extremely well. Perhaps my mystical friend has left a savage incarnation out of his list.
For these reasons I know well that I could never be a success as a modern novelist. I can see the whole thing; it goes on under my eyes, and as a magistrate and in other ways I am continually in touch with it. I could write of it also if I could bring myself to the task. I would undertake to produce a naturalistic novel that would sell — why should I not do so with my experience? But the subject bores me too much. The naturalism I would not mind, but if it is to be truthful it is impossible and, to say the least, unedifying. The petty social conditions are what bore me. I know this is not right; but it is a failing in myself, since under all conditions human nature is the same and the true artist should be able to present it with equal power. But we are as we are made. Even the great Shakespeare, I observe, sought distant scenes and far-off events for his tragedies, seeking, I presume, to escape the trammels of his time.
To return from this dissertation. I went to Egypt seeking knowledge and a holiday. The knowledge I acquired, or some of it, for when the mind is open and desirous, it absorbs things as a dry sponge does water. I had an introduction to Brugsch Bey, who was then, I think, the head of the Boulak Museum. He took me round that heavenly place. He showed me the mummies of Seti, Rameses, and the rest, and oh! with what veneration did I look upon them. He told me, trembling with emotion, of the discovery, then recent, of the great Deir-el-Behari cache of Pharaohs and their treasures. He said when he got to the bottom of that well and entered the long passage where for tens of centuries had slept the mighty dead, huddled together there to save them from the wicked hands of robbers or enemies, and by the light of torches had read a few of the names upon the coffins, that he nearly fainted with joy, as well he might. Also he described to me how, when the royal bodies were borne from this resting-place and shipped for conveyance to Cairo, there to find a new tomb in the glass cases of a museum, the fellaheen women ran along the banks wailing because their ancient kings were being taken from among them. They cast dust upon their hair, still dressed in a hundred plaits, as was that of those far-off mothers of theirs who had wailed when these Pharaohs were borne with solemn pomp to the homes they called eternal. Poor kings! who dreamed not of the glass cases of the Cairo Museum, and the gibes of tourists who find the awful majesty of their whithered brows a matter for jest and smiles. Often I wonder how we dare to meddle with these hallowed relics, especially now in my age. Then I did not think so much of it; indeed I have taken a hand at the business myself.
On that same visit I saw the excavation of some very early burials in the shadow of the pyramids of Ghizeh, so early that the process of mummification was not then practised. The skeletons lay upon their sides in the prenatal position. The learned gentleman in charge of the excavation read to me the inscription in the little ante-chamber of one of these tombs.
If I remember right, it ran as follows: “Here A. B. [I forget the name of the deceased], priest of the Pyramid of Khufu, sleeps in Osiris awaiting the resurrection. He passed all his long life in righteousness and peace.”
That, at any rate, was the sense of it, and I bethought me that such an epitaph would have been equally fitting to, let us say, the dean of a cathedral in the present century. Well, perhaps a day will come when Westminster Abbey and our other sacred burying-places will be ransacked in like manner, and the relics of our kings and great ones exposed in the museum of some race unknown of a different faith to ours. I may add that in Egypt even an identity of faith does not protect the dead, since the Christian bishops, down to those of the eighth or ninth century, have been disinterred, for I have seen many of their broidered vestments in public and private collections. The idea seems to be that if only you have been dead long enough your bones are fair prey. All of which is to me a great argument in favour of cremation.
Still it must be remembered that it is from Egyptian tombs that we have dug the history of Egypt, which now is better and more certainly known than that of the Middle Ages. Were it not for the burial customs of the old inhabitants of Khem, and their system of the preservation of mortal remains that these might await the resurrection of the body in which they were such firm believers, we should be almost ignorant of the lives of that great people. Only ought not the thing to stop somewhere? For my part I should like to see the bodies of the Pharaohs, after they had been reproduced in wax, reverently laid in the chambers and passages of the Great Pyramids and there sealed up for ever, in such a fashion that no future thief could break in and steal.
Dr. Budge told me of a certain tomb which he and his guide were the first to enter since it had been closed, I think about 4000 years before. He said that it was absolutely perfect. There lay the coffin of the lady, there stood the funeral jars of offering, there on the breast was a fan of which the ostrich plumes were turned to feathers of dust. There, too, in the sand of the floor were the footprints of those who had borne the corpse to burial. Those footprints always impressed me very much.
In considering such matters the reader should remember that nothing in the world was so sacred to the old Egyptian as were his corpse and his tomb. In the tomb slept the body, but according to his immemorial faith it did not sleep alone, for with it, watching it eternally, was the Ka or Double, and to it from time to time came the Spirit. This Ka or Double had, so he believed, great powers, and could even wreak vengeance on the disturber of the grave or the thief of the corpse.
From Cairo I proceeded up the Nile, inspecting all the temples and the tombs of the kings at Thebes, to my mind, and so far as my experience goes, the most wondrous tombs of all the world. So, too, thought the tourists of twenty centuries or more ago, for there are the writings on the walls recording their admiration and salutations to the ghosts of the dead; and so, too, in all probability will think the tourists of two thousand years hence, for the world can never reproduce such vast and mysterious burying-places, any more than it can reproduce the pyramids.
About eighteen years later I revisited these tombs and found them much easier of access and illuminated with electric light. Somehow in these new conditions they did not produce quite the same effect upon me. When first I was there I remember struggling down one of them — I think it was that of the great Seti — lit by dim torches, and I remember also the millions of bats that must be beaten away. I can see them now, those bats, weaving endless figures in the torchlight, dancers in a ghostly dance. Indeed, afterwards I incarnated them all in the great bat that was a spirit which haunted the pyramid where Cleopatra and her lover, Harmachis, sought the treasure of the Pharaoh, Men-kau-ra. When next I stood in that place I do not recall any bats; I suppose that the electric light had scared them away.
However on that second visit, with Mr. Carter, at that time a superintendent of antiquities for this part of Egypt, my companions and I were the first white men, except the discoverer, a Greek gentleman, to enter the burying-place of Nofertari, the favourite or, at least, the head wife of Rameses II. There on the walls were her pictures fresh as the day they were painted. There she sat playing chess with her royal husband or communing with the gods. But it is too long to describe. The tomb had been plundered in ancient days, probably a couple of thousand years ago. Just before the plunderers entered a flood of water had rushed down it, for when they came the washed paint was still wet, and I could see the prints of their fingers as they supported themselves on the slope of the incline.
One of my tomb explorations in 1887 nearly proved my last adventure. Opposite Assouan some great caverns had just been discovered. Into one of these I crept through a little hole, for the sand was almost up to the top of the doorway. I found it full of hundreds of dead, or at least there seemed to be hundreds, most of which had evidently been buried without coffins, for they were but skeletons, although mixed up with them was the mummy of a lady and the fragments of her painted mummy case. As I contemplated these gruesome remains in the dim light I began to wonder how it came about that there were so many of them. Then I recollected that about the time of Christ the town, which is now Assouan, had been almost depopulated by a fearful plague, and it occurred to me that doubtless at this time these old burying-places had been reopened and filled up with the victims of the scourge — also that the germ of plague is said to be very long-lived! Incautiously I shouted to my companions who were outside that I was coming out, and set to work to crawl along the hole which led to the doorway. But the echoes of my voice reverberating in that place had caused the sand to begin to pour down between the cracks of the masonry from above, so that the weight of it, falling upon my back, pinned me fast. In a flash I realised that in another few seconds I too should be buried. Gathering all my strength I made a desperate effort and succeeded in reaching the mouth of the hole just before it was too late, for my friends had wandered off to some distance and were quite unaware of my plight.
One of these, a young fellow named Brownrigg, had a worse because a more prolonged experience. He, I and a lady were contemplating the second Pyramid, when suddenly he announced that he was going to climb up it as far as the granite cap which still remains for something over a hundred feet at the top.
As he was a splendid athlete, with a very good head, this did not surprise us. Up he went while we sat and watched him, till he came to the cap, which at that time only eight or nine white people had ever ascended, of course with the help of guides. To our astonishment here we suddenly saw him take off his boots. The next thing we saw was Brownrigg climbing up the polished granite of the cap. Up he went from crack to crack till at last he reached the top in safety, and there proceeded to execute a war dance of triumph. Then after a rest he began to descend.
I noticed from the desert, some hundreds of feet below, that although he commenced his descent with face outwards, which is the right method, presently he turned so that it was against the sloping pyramid. Then I began to grow frightened. When he had done about thirty or forty feet of the descent I saw him stretch down his stockinged foot seeking some cranny, and draw it up again — because he could not reach the cranny without falling backwards. Twice or thrice he did this, and then remained quite still upon the cap with outstretched arms like one crucified. Evidently he could move neither up nor down.
While I stared, horrified — we three were quite alone in the place — a white-robed Arab rushed past me. He was the Sheik of the Pyramids, which without a word he began to climb with the furious activity of a frightened cat. Up he went over the lower and easy part onto the cap, which seemed to present no difficulties to him, for he knew exactly where to set his toes and had the head of an eagle or a mountain goat. Now he was just underneath Brownrigg and saying something to him. And now from that great height came a still small voice.
“If you touch me I’ll knock you down!” said the voice.
Yes, crucified there upon this awful cap he declared in true British fashion that he would knock his saviour down.
I shut my eyes, and when I looked again the sheik had got Brownrigg’s foot down into the crack below, how I never discovered. Well, the rest of the sickening descent was accomplished in safety, thanks to that splendid sheik. In a few more minutes a very pale and shaking Brownrigg was gasping on the sand beside us, while the Arab, streaming with perspiration, danced round and objurgated him and us in his native tongue until he was appeased with large baksheesh. Brownrigg, who will never be nearer to a dreadful death than he was that day, told me afterwards that, strong as his head was, he found it impossible to attempt the descent face outwards, since the thickness of the cap hid the sides of the pyramid from his sight, so that all he saw beneath him was some three hundred feet of empty space. Therefore he turned and soon found himself quite helpless, since he could neither find any foothold beneath him, nor could he reascend. Had not the watchful Arab seen him and his case, in another few minutes he must have fallen and been dashed to pieces at our feet. The memory of that scene still makes my back feel cold and my flesh creep. I have tried to reproduce it in “Ayesha,” where Holly falls from the rock to the ice-covered river far beneath.
From Egypt I sailed to Cyprus in a tub of a ship, where a rat had its nest behind my bunk. It was my first visit to that delightful and romantic isle, over which all the civilisations have poured in turn, wave by wave, till at length came the Turk, beneath whose foot “the grass does not grow,” and, by the special mercy of Providence, after the Turk the English.
Here I was the guest of my old chief, Sir Henry Bulwer, who at that time was High Commissioner for the island.
From Government House at Nicosia I made various delightful expeditions in the company of Mrs. Caldwell, Sir Henry Bulwer’s sister, and her daughters. For instance we visited Famagusta, that marvellous mediaeval, walled town, built and fortified by the Venetians, that the Turks took after a terrible siege, for the details of which I will refer the reader to my book, “A Winter Pilgrimage,” written many years later after a second visit to Cyprus.
In 1887, strange as it may seem, the debris of this siege were still very much in evidence. Thus after about three centuries the balls fired by the Turkish cannon lay all over the place. I hold one of them in my hand as I write, slightly pit-marked by the passage of time, or more probably by flaws in the casting.
Here in this beautiful island of Venus I trusted, before turning to my tasks again, to have a little real holiday after a good many years of very hard work. But, as it happened, holidays have never been for me. At the age of nineteen, to say nothing of the preliminary toils of education, I began to labour, and at the age of fifty-six I still find myself labouring with the firm and, so far as I can judge, well-grounded prospect that I shall continue to labour on public and private business till health and intelligence fail me, or, as I hope, death overtakes me while these still remain.
Here I must go back a little. In the winter of 1886, as I remember very much against my own will, I was worried into writing an article about “Fiction” for the Contemporary Review.
It is almost needless for me to say that for a young writer who had suddenly come into some kind of fame to spring a dissertation of this kind upon the literary world over his own name was very little short of madness. Such views must necessarily make him enemies, secret or declared, by the hundred. There are two bits of advice which I will offer to the youthful author of the future. Never preach about your trade, and, above all, never criticise other practitioners of that trade, however profoundly you may disagree with them. Heaven knows there are critics enough without your taking a hand in the business. Do your work as well as you can and leave other people to do theirs, and the public to judge between them. Secondly, unless you are absolutely driven to it, as of course may happen sometimes, never enter into a controversy with a newspaper.
To return: this unfortunate article about “Fiction” made me plenty of enemies, and the mere fact of my remarkable success made me plenty more. Through no fault of mine, also, these foes found a very able leader in the person of Mr. Stead, who at that time was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette. I should say, however, that of late years Mr. Stead has quite changed his attitude towards me and has indeed become very complimentary, both with reference to my literary and to my public work. For my part, too, I have long ago forgiven his onslaughts, as I can honestly say I have forgiven everybody else for every harm that they have done, or tried to do me.
To go back to “Jess.” Being somewhat piqued by the frequent descriptions of myself as “a mere writer of romances and boys’ books,” I determined to try my hand at another novel (if one comes to think of it “Dawn” and “The Witch’s Head” were novels, but these had been obliterated by “King Solomon’s Mines”). So after I had finished “Allan Quatermain” I set to as I have already described, and wrote “Jess.”
It is a gloomy story and painful to an Englishman, so gloomy and painful that Lang could scarcely read it, having a nature susceptible as a sensitive plant. I feel this myself, for except when I went through it some fifteen years ago to correct it for a new illustrated edition, I too have never reread it, and I think that I never mean to do so. The thing is a living record of our shame in South Africa, written by one by whom it was endured. And therefore it lives, for it is a bit of history put into tangible and human shape. At any rate, the other day the publishers kindly sent me a copy of the twenty-seventh edition of the work, which of course has been circulated in countless numbers in a cheap form. I believe that in South Africa they think highly of “Jess”; even the Boers of the new generation read it. I remember that when some of their trenches were stormed in the last war, the special correspondents reported that the only book found in them was “Jess.”
I returned to England by long sea, avoiding the train journey across Europe. This I undertook when I went out in order to study the Egyptian collections at the Louvre and Turin. As it happened I never saw that at Turin. When I arrived there, purposing to spend an afternoon at the museum, my cabman drove me to a distant circus, and when at length I did reach the said museum, it was to find that on this particular day it was closed.
On my arrival in England what between success and attacks I found myself quite a celebrity, one whose name was in everybody’s mouth. I made money; for instance I sold “Cleopatra” for a large sum in cash, and also “Colonel Quaritch, V.C.,” a tale of English country life which Longman liked — it was dedicated to him — and Lang hated it so much that I think he called it the worst book that ever was written. Or perhaps it was someone else who favoured it with that description. Some of this money I lost, for really I had not time to look after it, and the investments suggested by kind friends connected with the City were apt to prove disappointing. Some of it I spent in paying off back debts and mortgages on our property, and in doing up this house which it sadly needed, as well as countless farm buildings, and a proportion was absorbed by our personal expenditure. For instance we moved into a larger house in Radcliffe Square and there entertained a little, though not to any great extent, for we never were extravagant. Also I became what is called famous, which in practice means that people are glad to ask you out to dinner, and when you enter a room everyone turns to look at you. Also it means that bores of the most appalling description write to you from all over the earth, and expect answers.
Therefore, although I had the affection of my old friends and made one or two new ones, such as Charles Longman, with whom, to my great good fortune, I began to grow intimate about this time, it came about that I was much envied and not a little hated by many who made my life bitter with constant attacks in the Press, which, being somewhat sensitive by nature, I was foolish enough to feel. Indeed there came a time when for a good many years I would read no reviews of my books, unless chance thrust them under my eyes. Therefore of those years there are few literary records.
In addition to much worry, my work at this time was truly overwhelming. The unfortunate agreement to which I have already alluded, entered into with the firm in which I believe Mr. Maxwell, the late husband of Miss Braddon, was a partner, had been abrogated without a lawsuit, through the admirable efforts of my friend and agent, Mr. A. P. Watt. But this was done at a price, and that price was that I should write them two stories, which in addition to my other and more serious work of course cost me time and labour. The tales that I wrote for them were called respectively “Mr. Meeson’s Will” and “Allan’s Wife.” Ultimately, after various “business complications,” in the course of which I lost some money that was due for royalties, together with “Dawn” and “The Witch’s Head,” they passed into the hands of Messrs. Longmans.
Then I began “Cleopatra” on May 27, 1887, and, as the MS. records, finished it on August 2nd of the same year. In order to do this I fled from London to Ditchingham, because in town there were so many distractions and calls upon my time that I could not get on with my work. I remember my disgust when on arrival there an invitation to be present in Westminster Abbey on the occasion of the Jubilee of Queen Victoria was forwarded too late for me to be able to avail myself of it. Although I do not greatly care for such pomp and circumstance, that was a ceremony which I should have liked to see.
Charles Longman thought very highly indeed of “Cleopatra.” Also, he backed his opinion by buying the copyright of the book for a large sum of money.
By the way, unluckily for myself, I also sold “Jess” outright and not for a large sum. Messrs. Smith, Elder, however, behaved extremely well to me, for when the novel proved such a great success they sent me a second cheque of a like amount as that they had given for the copyright, a thing which perhaps few publishers would have done. Moreover, a dozen years or so later, they offered to give me back a half interest in the book if I would write them another work. This I was very anxious to do, as both for sentimental and business reasons I should much have liked to regain a part proprietorship in “Jess.” But when I wrote to Charles Longman on the subject he begged me to abandon the idea, and as I could not hurt the feelings of such an old and valued friend, I did so, with many sighs.
I should explain that at the time I published only with the Longmans. Afterwards to my great sorrow I was obliged to abandon this arrangement, for the reason that I found it impossible to place works serially unless I could give the book rights as well. For a while I got over this difficulty, or rather Messrs. Watt, my agents, did, by selling serial rights to the two great illustrated papers. But in course of time, I suppose as they began to feel the pressure of the competition of the new sixpenny magazines, they gave up publishing serials, or at any rate paying much for them. So I had to go to those who would run the serial if, and only if, they were given the book rights also.
Lang did not think quite so highly of “Cleopatra” as Longman, at any rate at first, as the following letter shows:
You will loathe me for the advice, but if I were you I’d put “Cleopatra” away for as long as possible, and then read it as a member of the public. You will find, I think, that between chapters 3 and 8 it is too long, too full of antiquarian detail, and too slow in movement to carry the general public with it. I am pretty certain of this. The style is very well kept up, but it is not an advantage for a story to be told in an archaic style (this of course is unavoidable). For that reason I would condense a good deal and it could be done. You’ll find that when you come fresh to it again. The topic is horribly difficult: there is a kind of living life in the modern Introduction which must of the rest wants, as far as I have gone. I see pretty clearly where and how the condensing could be done. You don’t want a reader’s interest to fall asleep, and now it would in places. I am writing with perfect frankness because, of course, I want it to be A1 in its genre — a dreadfully difficult genre it is. As far as I have read I have made a few verbal notes where the style occasionally is not consistent. But the main thing is, at any expense, to hurry on more — to give the impression of solemnity, but at more speed, and with much fewer strokes. I know you hate altering, so it is a prendre ou a laisser, this long screed of opinion. Of course I see it is a book you have written for yourself. But the B.P. must also be thought of.
In a second letter, written about the same time, he says:
I gave all my morning to “Cleopatra” and return her. After Chapter 8 she’ll do! I have marked a good many minutiae of style, or expression. In a few places, a judicious shortening of moral reflections by Harmachis would give him more point to my mind. Unluckily neither Harmachis nor Cleopatra is sympathetic. Can’t be helped. I think even more than before that you should lighten the ship by greatly shortening between chapters 3 and 8. I can estimate this, because today I read slick on rapidly and was interested all the way. In the earlier part my attention flagged over all the preparation, and many a traveller would not have persevered. I like Antony, but don’t feel that that inexplicable person has had full justice done him. The inevitably archaic style will not make it more popular, but that can’t possibly be helped. As a whole I think the manner is very well kept up. I venture to suggest some alterations where modern words come in out of tune.
Screw it a little tighter, and I think it is undeniably an artistic piece of work. The imagination kindles up after the killing of Paulus. Before, it is not always up to your level of wakefulness and energy. At least that’s my impression. What an awful piece of romance the end is! I like Charmion to turn on him for his bullying the queen. The absence of any business for the other girl, Iras, strikes me as rather a pity. I’d like, if you don’t mind, to read over the early part with you as I feel a good deal turns on adding energy to that, and on condensing. The Menkara bit is A1, and Cyprus is good — did you take the wreck from the Odyssey at all? I don’t see who they can say you stole your plot from. They’ll say the parts from Plutarch are from Shakespeare, probably they never read Plutarch!
I do not know whether I cut out much from the chapters which Lang though too long. Probably not, since I have always been a very bad hand at making alterations in what I have once put down, unless indeed I rewrite the entire work. Moreover, at any rate in my books, this cutting out of passages resembles the pulling of bricks from a built wall, since it will be found that every or nearly every passage, even if it is of a reflective character, is developed or alluded to in some portion of what follows. The pulling out of bricks may or may not improve the appearance of the wall, but it certainly decreases its stability.
In the Author’s Note at the commencement of “Cleopatra” I see that I wrote the following passage, evidently having Lang’s criticism in mind:
Unfortunately it is scarcely possible to write a book of this nature and period without introducing a certain amount of illustrative matter, for by no other means can the long dead past be made to live again before the reader’s eyes with all its accessories of faded pomp and forgotten mystery. For such students as seek a story only, and are not interested in the Faith, ceremonies, or customs of the Mother of Religion and Civilisation, ancient Egypt, it is, however, respectfully suggested that they should exercise the art of skipping and open this tale at its second book.
I dedicated “Cleopatra” to my mother, because I thought it the best book I had written or was likely to write, although since then I have modified that opinion in favour or one or two that came after it. The following letter from her was written not long before her death, and was, I think, the last I ever received from her.
Bradenham: June 29, 1889.
My dearest Rider, — I have only a few minutes to write and thank you for your charming gift, but I must not let the week pass over without my doing so. I think it is got up as well as possible, and the Dedication is most successfully accomplished, which must be as gratifying to you as to me. I have not thoroughly looked at the illustrations, but see that they are very much more to be liked than those of the Illustrated News. Thank you greatly for your excellent work, my dear son. It certainly redounds greatly to you, dearest Rider, whatever the critics may say, and I have no doubt they will do their worst. But I think posterity will do justice to your production. I will write no more as I cannot easily add to this.
Your ever most affectionate Mother,
There is also a letter from my father in which he says that my mother opened and looked at the book “not without tears.” Whether she ever read it herself I do not know, for by this time her sight was failing much.
A few months later I stood at her death-bed and received her last blessing. But of that long-drawn out and very sad scene, even after the lapse of two-and-twenty years, I cannot bear to write.
“Cleopatra” ran serially through the Illustrated London News before its appearance in book form. It is a work that has found many friends, but my recollection is that, as my mother foresaw, it was a good deal attacked by the critics who were angry that, after Shakespeare’s play, I should dare to write of Cleopatra. However, I have not kept any of the notices; indeed I think I saw but few. Of professional critics already I began to feel a certain repletion. Little do these gentlemen know the harm that they do sometimes. A story comes into my mind in illustration of this truth. One day, years later, I was in the little writing-room of the Savile Club, that on the first floor with fern-cases in the windows where one may not smoke. At least, so things were when I ceased to be a member. Presently Thomas Hardy entered and took up one of the leading weekly papers in which was a long review of his last novel. He read it, then came to me — there were no others in the room — and pointed out a certain passage.
“There’s a nice thing to say about a man!” he exclaimed. “Well, I’ll never write another novel.”
And he never did. This happened quite fifteen years ago. By the way, the Savile was a very pleasant club in the late ‘eighties. There was a certain table in the corner, near the window, where a little band of us were wont to lunch on Saturdays: Lang, Gosse, Besant, A. Ross, Loftie, Stevenson (the cousin of the writer), Eustace Balfour, and some others. Of this company the most are dead, though I believe Gosse still lunches there. He must feel himself to be a kind of monument erected over many graves. The last time that I visited the club there was not a soul in the place whom I knew. So feeling lonely and over-oppressed by sundry memories, I sent in my resignation of membership. But often as I walk down Piccadilly I look at that table through the window and think of many things, and especially of the genial talk of Walter Besant, whose funeral I attended now so long ago. Surely he was one of the best and kindest-hearted gentlemen that ever wrote a book. Long may his memory remain green in the annals of literature for which he did so much.
I think that about this time I must have become rather sickened of the novel-writing trade and despondent as regards my own powers. This I conclude from an undated and unaddressed note which I find among Lang’s letters of the period. It runs:
Dear Haggard, — If you jack up Literature, I shall jack up Reading. Of course I know the stuff is the thing, but the ideal thing would be the perfection of stuff and the perfection of style, and we don’t often get that; except from Henry Fielding. Yes, I believe in “Jess”; but you can’t expect me to be in love with all your women, the heart devoted to Ayesha has no room for more. Probably I think more highly of your books than you do, and I was infinitely more anxious for your success than for my own, which is not an excitement to me. But Lord love you, it would be log-rollery to say that in a review.
I have not the faintest idea of the genesis of this note. I presume, however, that Lang had aimed some of his barbed shafts at me, probably in conversation, and that I had written to him petulantly. Anyhow his answer is most kind and nice.
The next letter in the bunch, dated May 9th (year missing), says:
I am much grieved by the death of Umslopogaas. I have written his epitaph in Greek and in English verses. [N.B. — These fine verses now appear upon the title-page of “Allan Quatermain.” I remember Mrs. Lang telling me that “Andrew had wasted an entire day in their composition.”]
“Allan Quatermain,” after running through Longmans’ Magazine, came out about the end of June 1887. Charles Longman, in a letter dated June 20th, writes:
You have broken the record — at least so I am told. We have subscribed over 10,000 copies of “Quatermain” in London, which they say is more than has ever been subscribed of a 6 — novel before. . . . We printed 20,000 of “Quatermain,” as you know and we are now ordering paper in readiness for another lot.
This tale proved, and has remained, a general favourite, the Zulu in it, old Umslopogaas, being a very popular character with all classes of readers, and especially among boys.
Here is a letter from one who was a boy then, but has since become a very famous man, namely Mr. Winston Churchill, in which he expresses his critical opinion of the work. To this I append a letter from his aunt, Lady Leslie, whom I used to know well, in which she expresses her critical opinion of Mr. Winston Churchill in his youth. I am sorry to say that I cannot remember whether the meeting she was trying to arrange did or did not take place.
46 Grosvenor Square, W.
Dear Mr. Haggard, — Thank you so much for sending me “Allan Quatermain,” it was so good of you. I like “A. Q.” better than “King Solomon’s Mines”; it is more amusing.
I hope you will write a great many more books.
Winston S. Churchill.
11 Stratford Place, W.
February 11, 1888.
Dear Mr. Haggard, — The little boy Winston came here yesterday morning, not having been in London on Sunday, and beseeching me to take him to see you before he returns to school at the end of the month. I don’t wish to bore so busy a man as yourself, but will you, when you have time, please tell me, shall I bring him on Wednesday next, when Mrs. Haggard said she would be at home? Or do you prefer settling to come here some afternoon when I could have the boy to meet you? He really is a very interesting being, though temporarily uppish from the restraining parental hand being in Russia.
Yours very truly,
By one of the saddest of all coincidences, if such things are pure coincidence, “Allan Quatermain” opens with a description of the death of Quatermain’s only son. I dedicated it to my only son, and shortly afterwards that fate overtook him also!
I find letters from Lang imploring me not to kill Allan Quatermain. But when he wrote Allan had already been killed, and how could the end of the story be altered? Besides his day was done and his tale told. But he left others behind him.
Before finally leaving the subject of “Cleopatra” I will quote a couple of letters that I received from W. E. Henley. I should here mention that I was well acquainted with this able and interesting man, some of whose poems will, I think, survive in our literature.
I remember once driving to the British Museum with him and Lang, or it may have been Gosse, or both of them, in a four-wheeled cab, to see some Japanese prints that were on show. On the way I told him that personally I admired statuary, and especially Greek statuary, much more than I did pictorial art. He was greatly astonished.
“I think it wonderful,” he said, “that you being what you are, and your work what it is, you should prefer form to colour.”
It seemed curious to him that a man who wrote romances should have other sides to his nature. He was extremely fond of war and fighting, witness his Ode to the Sword, and at the club would insist upon my telling him stories by the yard about the Zulus and their blood-thirsty battles and customs. With it all he was very domestic, and much attached to his “placens uxor” and the little girl whom, most unhappily, he lost. The last note I ever received from him, written some years after our acquaintance had practically ceased, was on this sad subject.
The first of the three letters which I am going to quote is not on the subject of “Cleopatra” but in answer to one of mine expressing my admiration of his volume of verses. As it is, however, the earliest in date it shall have preference.
June 9, 1888.
My dear Haggard, — I found yours at the Club last night. I do care for your approbation very much; for I do not think I should have it if my verses hadn’t a kind of basis of life.
Lang hates ’em, I believe; and I shall tell him of your note with pride and glee.
For myself I prefer the “Life and Death” lot. But the In Hospital sets forth a special experience and is, of course, of particular interest.
Always yours sincerely,
W. E. H.
The next letter is written from 11 Howard Place, Edinburgh, July 20, 1889.
My dear Haggard, — I got a week at Windermere and took “Cleopatra” with me. I was alone, and I found her very good company.
You were terribly handicapped by the inevitable comparison; but you came off better (to be frank) than I’d expected you would. The invention throughout is admirable — is good enough, indeed, to carry off the archaeology and the archaical style, though they are both large orders.
And in Charmion you have given us, I think, your best creation; or if not that, a creation fit to rank with Umslopogaas and the King in “Solomon’s Mines.” And you know that I mean a good deal when I say that.
I am glad to have read the book, and glad to have it by me to read again. It has plenty of faults, but it has an abundance of promise and some excellent — some really excellent — achievement. There is never a sign of exhaustion, but on the contrary no end of proof that you have scarce got into your stride.
W. E. H.
The third letter is evidently in answer to one of mine. It is headed: The Scots Observer: A Record and Review, 2 Thistle Street, Edinburgh, July 26, 1889:
My dear Haggard, — It is pleasant to know that I have paid a very little of my debt. I think the Romance and Fame in the current S.O. will not displease you. The writer is a strange, old, brilliant creature whom I have found here, and whose opinion is worth having. Meanwhile, you may put down the attacks partly to envy (for you can’t deny that you’ve had a dam good innings) and partly to the inevitable reaction — for I don’t know that your admirers have praised you in quite the right way. And you need bother yourself no more about them. Why should you? You are bound to win, and you need not care three straws for anything they say. You need only do your best, and leave the rest to time.
That I believe to be the right philosophy of things. And so farewell.
W. E. H.
Archer has just writ the loveliest review of my second edition; and the P.M.G., after accepting and printing, declines to publish! So you see ——!
After “Cleopatra” was finished I undertook various things. One was a tale called “Nesta Amor,” which was never published, although I finished it. Indeed I agree with Lang that it was not worth publishing in its existing form, though it might have been, perhaps, if rewritten, which I have never found time to do. Another was a romance of Helen, to be written jointly with Lang, which, after many vicissitudes and adventures, ultimately materialised as “The World’s Desire.” Also I conceived the idea of writing a saga, but determined that before I attempted this, I would visit Iceland and study the local colouring on the spot.
I remember that I was a good deal sneered at for my habit of actually investigating the countries where the events had happened about which I intended to write. Literature, I was told, should be independent of such base actualities. I do not at all agree with those critics. If a man wishes to produce a really good romance dealing with some past epoch, the best thing he can do is to see the land in which the folk lived of whom he means to tell, and, as it were, to soak himself in the surroundings that were their surroundings. So he may hope to catch some of the atmosphere which doubtless they took from their native earth and skies. Then, if he possesses any, imagination may do the rest. Who could write a saga who had not visited Iceland, or an Egyptian novel who did not know Egypt — I mean one worth reading?
Also I wrote a very successful little African story called “Maiwa’s Revenge” and my novel “Beatrice,” which I think one of the best bits of work I ever did. Here is Charles Longman on “Beatrice,” no doubt after he had read the MS. His letters are dated August 2 and August 4, 1888.
I was very much interested in “Beatrice.” It is of course a terrible tragedy — unrelieved in its gloom which increases from start to finish. Still there is no denying its power . . . .
From the letter of August 4th:
I think, too, that “Beatrice” is your best piece of purely modern, nineteenth century work. I believe I like you best among the caves of old Kor, or looking back over King Solomon’s great road to the old civilisations dead two thousand years ago. But it is a great thing to have several strings and not always harp on the same. And there is the same feeling in all your books — that of a power or Fate or whatever it is behind man controlling his actions and driving him blindly forward. All ages have felt it and have tried to explain it in their own way. But what the facts may be — we may know some day . . . .
We are thinking of beginning to set the type of “Quaritch, V.C.” on Sept. 1st. You will give us your finally corrected sheets, I suppose. We have sold 20,000 copies of “Maiwa” on day of publication.
But of “Beatrice” more later; let us return to “The World’s Desire,” “The Song of the Bow” as it was called at first.
Roughly the history of this tale, which I like as well as any with which I have had to do, is that Lang and I discussed it. Then I wrote a part of it, which part he altered or rewrote. Next in his casual manner he lost the whole MS. for a year or so; then it was unexpectedly found, and encouraged thereby I went on and wrote the rest.
The MS. in its final form I have, bound up, and with it a very interesting preface or rather postscript by Lang which was never published, eight sheets long; also notes of his as to the scheme of the story and the originals of his verses, some of which I drafted in prose. The MS. contains fifty-three sheets at the beginning written or re-written by Lang, and about 130 sheets in my writing, together with various addenda. The best history of the thing is to extracted from Lang’s letters, from which I make some quotations.
The first of these that I can find is dated from an hotel in Paris on March 8th, probably 1888.
It occurs to me that you had better read the Helen of Euripides in a prose crib. There’s a bad one. I have forgotten the play, all but half a dozen lines, but it is about Helen in Egypt and may suggest something. The name “The Wanderer” is already taken by one of Lord Lytton’s poems. I had thought of “A Priestess of Isis.”
The next is from Florence on March 25th:
Just had your letter on the Jews. Do you think it worth while, if it won’t run easily? You have so much on hand, and I am afraid you will tire out your invention. The idea of Odysseus and Helen is a good one, but don’t thrash a willing and perhaps weary Pegasus.
Then comes one from Marloes Road — he is back again in England now — without the slightest indication of a date.
Odysseus calls himself Eperitus, as a by-name, in Od. 24. Or Laertiades.
Helen should be a priestess in Egypt, say of Pasht.
You won’t want much help from me. All the local colour is in the Odyssey.
After this I believe that I worked away at the story, of which I did a good deal, and sent it to Lang, who promptly lost it so completely and for so long a time that, not having the heart to recommence the book, the idea of writing it was abandoned. It appears that he thrust the MS. into a folio volume, which was replaced among his numerous books, where it might have remained for generations had he not chanced to need to consult that particular work again.
I’ve found your lost MS.! I don’t think it is a likely thing, style too Egyptian and all too unfamiliar to B.P.
Then under date of October 11th:
I only had time for a glance at the lost MS. Now I have read it. There are jolly things in it — the chess, and the incantation, and the ship; but I fear it is too remote for this people. It isn’t my idea how to do it (not that that matters), for I’d have begun with Odysseus in a plague-stricken Ithaca and have got on to Egypt. And I’ve had written in modern English. However, as it stands, I don’t care quite for the way the Wanderer is introduced. He comes rather perfunctorily and abruptly on the scene to my feeling. It is a subject that wants such a lot of thinking out. It would be jolly if one had more time in this world of ours. Also, if the public had, for after “Cleopatra” they would not rise at Egyptological romance for a long time. I can’t help regretting my veteran Odysseus — I don’t think he would have been too “grey-eyed.” If we really collaborated, as we proposed originally, I’d begin with him; bring him in your way to Egypt, introduce him to the old cove who’d tell him about Hatasu (as in yours) and then let things evolve, but keep all the English modern, except in highly-wrought passages, incantations, etc. I dare say it would make a funny mixture.
Just fancy a total stranger writing to ask me for Matthew Arnold’s autograph. Wot next!
Oct. 17th. Having nothing to do this afternoon I did a lot of Ulysses. I brought him home from the people who never saw salt in a boat of Dreams, and I made him find nobody alive in Ithaca, a pyre of ashes in the front garden and a charred bone with Penelope’s bracelet on it! But the bow was at home. If you can make it alive (it’s as dead as mutton), the “local colour” is all right. Then I’d work in your bit, where the Sidonians nobble him, and add local colour.
Nov. 2nd. I have done a little more. Taken Od. into the darkness and given him a song, but I think he had been reading Swinburne when he wrote it.
The next letter is undated:
Certainly the bow must sing, but I don’t think words.
As readers of the book will know, the bow was ultimately made to sing in words. I suggested to Lang that such words might be arranged to imitate the hiss of arrows and the humming of the string. The result was his “Song of the Bow,” which I think a wonderfully musical poem.
Nov. 27th. The typewritten “Song of the Bow” has come. The Prologue I wrote is better out. It is very odd to see how your part (though not your chef d’oeuvre) is readable, and how mine — isn’t. Tell Longman the “Bow” is a Toxophilite piece.
The chaff about the Bow being a Toxophilite piece refers to Charles Longman’s fondness for archery.
Jan 1st, 1889. Splendid idea, no two people seeing Helen the same. So Meriamun might see her right in her vision, and never see her so again, till she finds her with Odysseus. Indeed this is clearly what happens; take the case of Mary Stuart: no two portraits alike — or Cleopatra. I bar the bogles rather. They’d need to be very shadowy at least. If you have them, they should simply make room for him.
But the shifting beauty is really poetical to my mind.
Here is one more letter dated June 27th, or part of it, which well exemplifies Lang’s habit of depreciating his own work:
I have been turning over “The World’s Desire,” and the more I turn the more I dislike the idea of serial publication. It is emphatically a book for educated people only, and would lower your vogue with newspaper readers if it were syndicated, to an extent beyond what the price the papers pay would make up for. I am about as sure as possible of this: it is a good deal my confounded style, which is more or less pretty, but infernally slow and trailing.
Ultimately “The World’s Desire” was published serially in the New Review. It appeared in book form in 1890, and I hope to speak of it again when I come to that date.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09