A while ago, it may have been a year or more, the telephone in this house rang and down the mysterious wire — for notwithstanding a thousand explanations, what is more mysterious than a telephone wire, except a telephone without one? — came an excited inquiry from a London press agency, as to whether I were dead.
Miss Hector, my secretary, answered that to the best of her knowledge and belief I was out walking on my farm in an average state of health. Explanations followed; diversified by telegrams from the Authors’ Society and others interested in the continuance or the cessation of my terrestrial life. From these it appeared that, like a sudden wind upon the sea, a rumour had sprung up to the effect that I had vanished from the world.
It was a false rumour, but the day must come, when or how I know not, since Providence in its mercy hides this ultimate issue from our eyes, on which it will be true, and like the storm that I hear raving outside the windows as I write, the elemental forces which are about every one of us will sweep me away as they brought me here and my place will know me no more.
Before this event happens to me, this common, everyday event which excites so little surprise even among those who knew us and yet, whatever his degree or lack of faith, is so important to the individual concerned, shall overtake me, before I too, like the countless millions who have gone before, put on the Purple and have my part in the majesty of Death, it has entered into my mind that I desire to set down, while I still have my full faculties, certain of my own experiences of life.
I have met many men, I have seen many lands, I have known many emotions — all of them, I think, except that of hate; I have played many parts. From all this sum of things, tangible or intangible, hidden now in the heart and the memory, some essence may perhaps be pressed which is worthy of preservation, some picture painted at which eyes unborn may be glad to look. At least, such is my hope.
It is of course impossible for anyone, yes, even for a nun in a convent, to set down life’s every detail for the world to stare at, unless indeed such a person were prepared to order the resulting book to be buried for — let us say — five hundred years. Could such a work be written by a hand adequate to the task, its interest as a human document would be supreme. Also it would be beautiful in the sense that the naked truth is always beautiful, even when it tells of evil. Yet I believe that it will never be written. For were the writer mean enough to draw the veil from the failings of others, he would certainly keep it wrapped about his own. Only one man, so far as my knowledge goes, has set down the absolute verity about himself, and it is certain that he did not intend that it should come to the printing-press. I refer to Samuel Pepys.
Still an enormous amount remains of which a man may write without injuring or hurting the feelings of anyone, and by aid of my memory that, although weak enough in many ways, is strong and clear where essentials are concerned, and of the correspondence which, as it chances, I have preserved for years, with some of this matter I propose to deal. After all, a man of normal ability and observation who has touched life at many points, cannot pass fifty-five years in the world without learning much, some of which may prove of use to others, and if he dies leaving his experience unrecorded, then like water thrown upon sand it sinks into the grave with him and there is wasted.
Such are the considerations that lead me to attempt this task.
I suppose that before considering it further the first question that I should ask myself and try to answer is, not to what extent I have achieved success, but by how much I have escaped failure in the world. No positive reply seems possible to this query until I have been dead a good many years, for in such matters time is the only true judge. Yet that final verdict is capable of a certain amount of intelligent, though possibly erroneous anticipation.
Although all my life I have been more or less connected with the Law, for which I have a natural liking, first as the Master of a High Court and subsequently in the modest but I trust useful office of the Chairman of a Bench of Magistrates, I have done nothing at all at my profession at the Bar. In an unfortunate hour, considered from this point of view, I employed my somewhat ample leisure in chambers in writing “King Solomon’s Mines.” That, metaphorically, settled my legal hash. Had it not been for “King Solomon’s Mines,” if even in imagination I may dwell upon such splendour, I might possibly have sat some day where sits my old friend and instructor, Sir Henry Bargrave Deane, as a judge of the Court of Probate and Divorce, in which I proposed to practise like my great-uncle, Doctor John Haggard, famous for his Reports, before me.
Well do I remember how, when one day I was seated in this Division watching a case or devilling for somebody, I unconsciously inscribed my name on the nice white blotting-paper before me. Presently from behind me I heard a whisper from some solicitor — I think that was his calling — whom business had brought to the Court:
“Are you Rider Haggard, the man who wrote ‘King Solomon’s Mines’?” he said, staring at the tell-tale blotting-paper.
I intimated that such was really my name.
“Then, confound you! Sir, you kept me up till three o’clock this morning. But what are you doing here in a wig and gown — what are you doing here?”
Very soon I found cause to echo the question and to answer it in the words, “No good.” The British solicitor, and indeed the British client, cannot be induced to put confidence in anyone who has become well known as an author. If he has confined his attention to the writing of law-books, he may be tolerated, though hardly, but if his efforts have been on the imaginative side of literature, then for that man they have no use. That such a person should combine gifts of imagination with forensic aptitude and sound legal knowledge is to them a thing past all belief.
A page or so back I said that my experience might possibly be of use to others, and already the suggestion seems in the way of proof. If what I write should prevent even one young barrister who hopes to make a mark in his profession, from being beguiled into the fatal paths of authorship, I shall not have laboured in vain.
Next, I have never been able to gratify a very earnest ambition of my younger years, namely, to enter Parliament and shine as a statesman. Once I tried: it was at the 1895 election, and I almost carried one of the most difficult seats in England. But almost is not quite, and the awful expense attendant upon contesting a seat in Parliament (in a county division it costs, or used to cost, over 2000 pounds) showed me clearly that, unless they happen to be Labour members, such a career is only open to rich men. Also I came to understand that it would be practically impossible for me both to earn a living by the writing of books and to plunge eagerly into Parliamentary work, as I know well that I should have done. Even if I could have found the time by writing in the mornings — which, where imaginative effort is concerned, has always been distasteful to me — my health would never have borne the double strain.
So that dream had to be abandoned, for which I am sorry. Indeed, a legislative career is about the only one of which the doors are not shut to the writer of fiction, as is proved by many instances, notably that of Disraeli.
Thus it cames about that on these lines I have failed to make any mark. Fate has shut those doors in my face. The truth is that “man knoweth not his own way”: he must go where his destiny leads him. Either so or he is afloat upon an ocean of chance, driven hither and thither by its waves, till at length his frail bark is overset or sinks worn out. This, however, I do not believe. If everything else in the universe is governed by law, why should the lot of man alone be excepted from the workings of law?
However this may be, as heralds say in talking of a doubtful descent, whether through appointment or accidentally, it has so come about that, although I have done other things, I must earn my livelihood by the pen. Now of this I should not have complained had I been in a position to choose my own subjects. But unhappily those subjects which attract me, such as agricultural and social research, are quite unremunerative. Everybody talks of the resulting volumes, which receive full and solemn review in all the newspapers, but very few people buy them in these days. So far as I am aware, remunerative books may be divided roughly into three classes: (1) School or technical works, which must be purchased by scholars preparing for examinations, or for the purposes of their profession; (2) religious works, purchased by scholars preparing themselves for a prosperous career in another world; and (3) works of fiction, purchased — or rather borrowed from libraries (if they cost more than fourpence-halfpenny1) — by persons wishing to be amused. It has been my lot to cater for the last of these three classes, and as there is other work which I should have much preferred to do, I will not pretend that I have found, or find, the occupation altogether congenial, perhaps because at the bottom of my heart I share some of the British contempt for the craft of story-writing.
1 Written in 1911. — Ed.
I remember a few years ago discussing this matter fully with my friend Mr. Rudyard Kipling, a most eminent practitioner of that craft, and finding that our views upon it were very similar, if not identical. He pointed out, I recollect, that all fiction is in its essence an appeal to the emotions, and that this is not the highest class of appeal. Here, however, we have a subject that might be argued interminably and from many points of view, especially when we bear in mind that there are various classes of imaginative literature. So far as I am concerned the issue is that though I feel myself more strongly drawn to other pursuits, such as administration or politics or even law, I have been called upon to earn the bread of myself and others out of a kind of by-product of my brain which chances to be saleable, namely, the writing of fiction.
It is fortunate for writers that they do not depend wholly upon the verdict of a hundred or so of contemporary critics. The history of literature and art goes to show that contemporary criticism seldom makes and never can destroy a reputation; in short, that Time is the only true critic, and that its verdict is the one we have to fear. It is in the light of this axiom that I proceed to consider my own humble contributions to the sum of romantic literature. I can assure the reader that I approach this not unamusing task without any prejudice in my own favour. The test of work is whether it will or will not live; whether it contains within itself the vital germ necessary to a long-continued existence.
Now, although it may seem much to claim, my belief is that some of my tales will live. Possibly this belief is quite erroneous, in which case in years to come I may be laughed at for its expression. It is obvious also that a great deal of what I have written is doomed to swift oblivion, since, even if it were all equally good, in the crowded days that are to come, days even more crowded than our own, posterity will not need much of the work of any individual. If he is remembered at all it will be by but a few books. The present question is, What chance have I of being so remembered, and I can only hope that my belief in the vitality of at any rate some of my books may be justified.
As it happens with reference to this question of the possible endurance of my work, I am in the position of having a second string to my bow. Years ago I turned my attention to agriculture and to all the group of problems connected with the land. First I wrote “A Farmer’s Year.” My object in compiling that record — which, if I live, I hope to amplify some day by the addition of a second volume on the same plan — was that in its pages future generations might see a picture of the conditions under which agriculture was practised in England at the end of the nineteenth century.
Afterwards I attempted something much more ambitious, namely, a full account of agricultural and social researches carried out during the years 1901 and 1902, which was published under the title of “Rural England.” To be frank, this description is perhaps a little too inclusive, seeing that all England is not described in the multitudinous pages of my book. It deals, however, with twenty-seven counties and the Channel Islands, or one more than were treated of by Arthur Young a century or so earlier. After this prolonged effort exhaustion overtook me, and I retired to spend an arduous year or so in classifying and writing down my experiences. Even now I have not abandoned the hope of dealing with the remaining counties, and after these with Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, but at my present age I feel that it grows a little faint. The work is too tremendous and, I may add, too costly, since what can be earned from the sale of such volumes will not even suffice to pay their expenses and that of the necessary journeys.
Still I hope that my work may help to show to posterity through the mouths of many witnesses what was the state of the agriculture and the farmers of England at the commencement of the twentieth century. I trust, therefore, that should my novels be forgotten in the passage of years, “Rural England” and my other books on agriculture may still serve to keep my memory green.
Now I will close this introduction and get to my story. I fear that the reader may think it all somewhat egotistical, but unfortunately that is a fault inherent in an autobiography, and one without which it would be more or less futile.
August 10, 1911.
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