When we meet world-renowned adventurer Allan Quatermain in Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” he’s a zonked-out “opium-sot” in a den in Cairo, although he quickly recovers from his beastly state thanks to a little tough love from Ms. Mina Murray. Turning the clock back takes us to Allan’s very first chronological adventure, long before the days of “King Solomon’s Mines,” not to mention of his passing into public domain immortality. H. Rider Haggard’s “Marie” finds old Allan candidly reminiscing about his younger days in Zululand, and about the first love he seldom references elsewhere: the titular girl, Marie Marais, whom he becomes fixated on as an adolescent. However, Marie’s French Huguenot father has sworn an oath that her daughter will not debase her blood by marrying an Englishman. To complicate things, there are buzzards swirling about, as well as a shady, mustache-twirling Portuguese cousin who has set his sights on Marie.
On the way to proving his true love, Allan must prove his shooting prowess, (a tense episode where he must bring down a kettle of vultures or face death is the novel’s best set-piece). Quatermain also gets involved in the real-life Weenen Massacre of 1838, when the Zulu Chief Dingane attacked a settlement, killing over 500 people. (If it’s not now fashionable to weep for the murder of white colonists – and their wives and children- then it’s worth noting that the bulk of the massacred were actually other Africans traveling with the Boers.)
Haggard excels when writing action, (although his scenes are not as kinetic as those of his spiritual successor, Edgar Rice Burroughs.) And he is at least a convincing historian and travel writer when it comes to the Cape Colony struggles in the years before the Boer Wars. If only the romantic story weren’t so melodramatic! Marie’s constant willingness to kill herself rather than suffer dishonor could have used medieval Italy as a backdrop, and Allan and Marie’s star-crossed betrothal makes Romeo and Juliet’s seem plausible. Also, Had Haggard read Manzoni?
Modern readers of Haggard’s novels have, of course, bigger things to complain about in Haggard’s work than the melodrama: they must steel themselves against the display of casual, unrepentant racism; but a case can be made for the quasi-friendship that exists between Allan and his loyal sidekick Hans “the Hottenhot,” which almost echoes the one between Huckleberry Finn and Jim in Mark Twain’s far more progressive book. And if Hans is given to bug-eyed superstitions and Allan sees fit to slap him around a little, what’s a few slaps between friends? Throughout, Allan complains of the absurdity of race prejudice even as he inevitably exhibits it himself. But then there’s a lot of prejudice going around. The Boers may have contempt for the Zulus, but they don’t think much better of the Portuguese, and you don’t want to know what the French think about the British. If one is willing to allow for context, Rider Haggard emerges as a well-meaning marvel of Victorian tolerance, only a little worse than the unjustly maligned Rudyard Kipling.
“Marie” is the first of the so-called Zulu Trilogy that also includes “Child of Storm” and “Finished.”