Stories that don’t age well (#SFWApro)

H. Rider Haggard’s THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST (stunning cover by Dean Ellis, all rights remain with current holder) is a good example of what people mean when they say a story “hasn’t aged well.” It’s a great adventure, but Haggard’s 19th century attitudes make it a lot harder to read than when I was a teen (the Ballantine version came out in ’73). Warning, some spoilers below.

The protagonist, Leonard Outram, opens the book in sorry state. Dad’s reckless spending, including embezzling his sons’ inheritance, has wiped out the family fortune. Leonard has just sold off the estate, the silverware, the fine furniture. When Leonard goes to see Jane, the woman he loves, her father lets him know their engagement (which he was thrilled about previously) is no longer suitable. Despairing, Leonard and his brother Thomas vow to journey to Africa and rebuild their fortunes or die trying.

Eight years later, Thomas has just died and Leonard’s as impoverished as ever. Then an elderly black woman, Soa, recruits him to free her mistress, Juanna (a Portuguese trader’s daughter) from a slaver who plans to auction her to the highest bidder (just as if she were a black girl!!!!). Leonard and his trusty black companion Otter (a strong, fearless dwarf), despite the impossible odds against them, destroy the slaver’s fortress and free Juanna, though in the process she and Leonard wind up married (she’s not happy with this).

In return, Soa leads them to the lost valley where the eponymous tribe she comes from dwells (unusually for a lost race novel, they’re sui generis rather than descended from Egyptians, Atlanteans, etc.; this may reflect Haggard was writing before the Lost Race tropes were set in stone). Juanna and Otter look like the People’s gods, which should enable Leonard to score a fortune off the gems so many human sacrifices wear to their deaths (devoured by a ginormous crocodile). Of course things prove complicated …

This is slower in spots than a modern writer would get away with, but it has enough high points to make it enjoyable. There’s Otter’s fight with the giant croc, and the climax in which our heroes have to toboggan down a glacier and over a ravine to escape. The fight at the slaver’s lair is also entertaining.

And then ending is beautiful. Despite everything they’ve been through, they lose the gems. When they return home, it turns out Jane married the man who bought the Outram estate (she couldn’t withstand her parents’ demands); as he died childless, she inherited everything and left it to Leonard. None of their heroics made a difference, it’s Jane who gives them the happy ending (Juanna really writhes at this).

The downside is those attitudes. The opening emphasizes the tragedy of the Outrams losing their estate isn’t just losing it, it’s that a JEW bought it. It’s not as odious as the Evil Jewish Moneylender in The Grand Sophie, but it has a whiff of the same sentiment.

Then we have an African adventure with a white hero. Black servants (Soa and Otter) who are irrationally loyal to their master or mistress; Otter at one point contemplates suicide when he assumes Leonard will leave him behind in Africa. And this despite the fact Leonard constantly berates Otter, declares him an idiot and never treats him as the comrade in arms he is. I can’t see Haggard having a white character, even a servant, treated the same way.

All of which would have been unremarkable when Haggard wrote it. And didn’t bother me, IIRC, back in 1973. But if I were recommending this to anyone, I’d have to add a huge “I have to say …”

1 Comment

Filed under Reading, Writing

One response to “Stories that don’t age well (#SFWApro)

  1. Pingback: Is Our Writers Learning? Merlin’s Godson (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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