The flesh always wins over the spirit. . . . [T]he seeds of moral destruction, and the consequent remorse it involves, are an integral part of the sexual imperative, which itself is an inescapable part of being human. [75]

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ichard Reeve’s detailed examination of H. Rider Haggard’s fiction in the context of the author’s biography presents the popular novelist as the epitome of one strain of late-Victorian attitudes towards sexuality, gender, and morality: unlike most early and mid Victorian popular authors, Haggard believed, indeed emphasized, that women have the same sexual desires as men. At the same time that he presented men and women as equally sexual beings, he also emphasized the destructive force of sexual desire and fulfillment. Rider Haggard turns out to be D. H. Lawrence with guilt.

Reeve’s Sexual Imperative contains — one might say principally takes the form of — repeated detailed summaries of Haggard’s novels, some much less well-known than the famous Lost World fantasies, such as She. Reeve then compares and contrasts individual works by Rider Haggard to one another, to other fiction of the same period, and above all to their author’s biography, or, more precisely, to a few sexual betrayals that he either experienced or perpetrated himself. These detailed plot summaries have the great advantage of permitting readers unfamiliar with all of his author’s works to follow Reeve’s argument. Unfortunately, they have the disadvantage of making readers encounter a great deal of repetition. Interesting and helpful as Reeve’s study often is, I don’t recall ever reading a brief monograph that seemed so long.

Throughout Reeve, who remains tightly focused on his main technique of comparative plot summary, shows little interest in his author’s works as literature or as material for literary criticism. Readers will find no thick description here, nor much mention of narrative structure, characterization, description, or imagery. The book could have have been written by someone interested in the history of religion, sexuality, and literature without any particular interest in literature. Despite its fashionable concentration upon matters associated with Rider Haggard’s conceptions of gender and sexuality, it is emphatically not a fashionable book, so it remains uncluttered by jargon. It also lacks much of the rich, complex examinations carried out by contemporary critical examinations of Victorian sexuality.

Emphasizing that “Haggard’s focus is on the threats to the male posed by trangressive women” (74), Reeve explains in detail all the ramifications and variations of this theme and their relation to the author’s biography. Here, for example, Reeve points out the ways that

Haggard’s personal obsession with this theme of the sexual betrayal, by a man, of his first love is further underlined by his treatment of it in Montezuma’s Daughter and The People of the Mist (1894), written shortly after the death of his son in 1891. Haggard was devastated by his loss and interpreted it as a punishment for his own sexual incontinence. He found himself unable to work for some months and, when he did, it seems clear that once again self-consolation was a psychological imperative. In Montezuma’s Daughter and The People of the Mist the male protagonists, respectively Thomas and Leonard, having sworn eternal fidelity to their first loves, go abroad to a far-flung land where they fall in love with, and marry, exotic native women. Eventually they return to England: Thomas because his native wife has conveniently died; Leonard, bringing his wife Juanna, to discover that his first love has also, equally conveniently, died. Thomas’s first love, Lily, who has remained faithful to him, forgives him for breaking their oath, and they marry. Leonard’s first love had married someone else but never forgot her love for him, leaving him considerable property upon which he lives happily with Juanna. In both books first love triumphs and the man is exonerated for his sexual infidelity, very determinedly so in Montezuma’s Daughter. [62]

As Reeve’s connections of plot summaries to Haggard’s biography demonstrate, many of his novels take the form of elaborate acts of self-justification, wish-fulfillment, or both. Take, for example, the fact that the “death of an infant appears in 21 of Haggard’s fictional books” (158) and that in three novels — Joan Haste, Montezuma’s Daughter, and The Heart of the World — the child dies “as a consequence of its father’s sexual sin.” Rider Haggard wrote all three shortly after the death of his adolescent son Jack, and, according to Reeve, they reflect his reaction to his own betrayal of his love, Lily: “ a moral crime for which he was punished by the death of his son, and perhaps also by that of his daughter Ethel. It appears to constitute a self-exculpatory attempt to assert that the real blame lay largely with Johanna that, under assault from her sexual allure, he was unable to help himself. And it represents an insistent, and of course self-serving, strain of fatalism that proposes that man cannot be held responsible for what is beyond his capacity to influence or to resist” (158-59).

As The Sexual Imperative also makes abundantly clear, the early fiction, whether in the form of realistic novels or fantasies, depicts “gentle and morally admirable women” as well as “malevolent, dangerously sexually exploitative and morally flawed women,” but both kinds of women have same impact on men (58-59). Perhaps surprisingly, Haggard finds neither women nor female sexuality itself evil. Rather he takes what Reeve terms the sexual imperative to which both men and women succumb to be a primal, fundamental part of human existence. Reeve’s detailed analysis of Haggard’s key acts and experiences shows how much of his fiction takes the form of coming to terms with his own betrayal of a pregnant lover. Thus after discussing Joan Haste, Reeve explains that

There are once again echoes of Haggard’s own affair with Johanna when, almost certainly aware of her pregnancy, he left South Africa for England where he swiftly married the sexually uninspiring but socially acceptable Louisa, who, like Emma, was an heiress. After sowing his wild oats, Haggard, like Henry, swiftly contracted a socially advantageous union and was able to pass it off as duty. The lofty dismissal, through the mouth of the complicit narrator, of Henry’s responsibility is highly suggestive of an attempt at self- exculpation. [63]

In addition to analyzing each of Haggard’s novels and romances in relation to his biographical obsessions, Reeve relates them to the sensation novel that had been so popular decades before he created his work. He also compares several of his novels to works by Thomas Hardy, the New Woman novel (106), spiritualism (100-01), the later especially in the works written during and after World War I. Deliberately narrow in focus, Richard Reeve’s Sexual Imperative has much to offer those interested in Lost World genre fiction, late-Victorian heterosexuality, the role of autobiographical crises in literary works.

Related material


Reeve, Richard. The Sexual Imperative in the Novels of Sir Henry Rider Haggard. London and New York: Anthem Press: 2018.

Last modified 9 September 2018