Victorian Literature H. Rider Haggard
Roger Luckhurst
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0053


Henry Rider Haggard (b. 1856–d. 1925) assisted in the annexation of the Transvaal in South Africa as a young man before going on to write more than fifty novels and a dozen books of nonfictional works on sociology, agriculture, and religion. He conducted a two-year inquiry into the crisis in English farming. He also served on several Royal Commissions and traveled the world to examine conditions for imperial consolidation in the white settler dominions of South Africa, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. For this public service, he received a knighthood. After a faltering start in literature, having abandoned colonial service, farming, and the law, his romances King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She (1887) were literary sensations. Ayesha, the immortal African Queen, seemed struck from the purest elements of the Victorian unconscious, as both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung recognized. Haggard would sell more than two million copies of his rapidly produced fictions during his lifetime. Many books became fodder for early film melodramas. In latter days, he was Rudyard Kipling’s closest literary associate and shared his paradoxical mix of imperial ardor and melancholy about decline. Haggard’s romances were regarded, even by allies and friends, as rather crude and slipshod. He wrote most of them on a schedule of three months and was principled in his refusal to revise drafts, believing that redrafting drained the work of energy. His literary reputation did not survive his dismissive account of the “modern” novel in 1888, at the height of his success. After this, he was routinely attacked by the literary establishment, and his fictions were consigned to a minor place in children’s literature or the embarrassing genre of the imperial romance. Critical commentary in the years after his death was in the form of nostalgic reminiscence about the impact of Haggard’s exotic “lost race” fantasies on boyhood imaginations: Graham Greene ascribed his African adventures directly to reading Haggard as a child. Revival of interest came after Cohen 1960’s biography (cited under Biography) and a recognition of Haggard’s actually rather complicated relation to the imperial project. Since 1980, the critical industry on Haggard has become immense. It has broadly followed the waves of critical movements, with clusters of work from feminist, psychoanalytic, postcolonial, New Historicist, and queer theory approaches. Commentary still tends to narrowly focus on King Solomon’s Mines and She, but the selection in this article also tries to venture beyond these early works.


Cohen 1960 remains the first port of call, because this was the first scholarly biography produced and remains important, although some of the framing requires updating. Most biographers are inherently sympathetic to Haggard (see Ellis 1978, Haggard 1951, and Pocock 1993), so there is still not a fully critically informed work available that assesses his complex relationship to empire. Higgins 1981 is a more critical and rounded view of the author. Parlati 2008 hints at new avenues that open up with different biographical perspectives.

  • Cohen, Morton. “Sir (Henry) Rider Haggard.” Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by H. G. C. Matthew and Brian Howard Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    Available to subscribers as an online resource. Condensed version of the life.

  • Cohen, Morton. Rider Haggard: His Life and Works. London: Hutchison, 1960.

    Groundbreaking critical biography that helped to restore Haggard as a potentially significant writer.

  • Ellis, Peter Berresford. H. Rider Haggard: A Voice from the Infinite. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

    Enthusiastic supporter of Haggard’s work, ignoring most of the critical voices that began to criticize his careless style and recycling of narrative from a very early point in his career.

  • Haggard, Lilias Rider. The Cloak That I Left: A Biography of the Author Henry Rider Haggard K. B. E. By His Daughter. London: Hodder and Stoughtor, 1951.

    First biography, inevitably partial, because it is written by his daughter. The book also has a revealing foreword by Haggard’s nephew, Godfrey Haggard.

  • Higgins, D. S. Rider Haggard: The Great Storyteller. London: Cassell, 1981.

    More critical and exploratory biography, which speculates on the psychological origins of Haggard’s primal romances.

  • Parlati, Marilena. “Memories of Exoticism and Empire: Henry Rider Haggard’s Wunderkammer at Ditchingham House.” In Writers’ Houses and the Making of Memory. Edited by Hendrix Harald, 175–185. New York: Routledge, 2008.

    Reflects shift to “material culture” approaches, examining Haggard’s self-presentation through his private collection of colonial artifacts in his country house.

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

    Another sympathetic account, with a more psychobiographical bent than previous narratives of the life.

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