H. Rider Haggard
originally published 1885
H. Rider Haggard lived in (what is now) South Africa from 1875 until he returned to London in 1882. He published his first novel, King Solomon's Mines in 1885, a fantastic adventure beginning in Durbin, South Africa and reaching to unexplored territories. It became an immediate best seller, and rightfully so.
The story is told in first person by Allan Quatermain, written as a manuscript for his son, though occasionally (a first novel mistake, it would seem), Quatermain addresses "Reader", instead of his son as he does throughout most of the novel. In the manuscript, Quatermain tells of meeting with Sir Henry Curtis and Sir Henry's friend Good, who had come to Africa in search of Sir Henry's missing brother. The last heard of him had been that he was going to Durbin in search of treasure. Quatermain was able to tell Sir Henry of a man that fit the description, a man Quatermain had given directions that might have helped him find King Solomon's mines. Sir Henry persuades Quatermain to join them as guide, and what follows is an adventure tale of fast friendship, narrow escapes, devoted love, true evil and, of course, treasure.
While it is dated in some ways, King Solomon's Mines remains an magnificent yarn, drawing in the reader with an exciting plot and lovely descriptions and interesting characters. It remains a fun read, even some 125 years later.
Haggard shows a surprising sympathy for the African native, in relation to his era, and explains some tribal practices with a very tolerant touch. While it is still obvious to a modern reader that Haggard considers the white European to be superior, the African characters are not stereotyped or portrayed as ignorant or evil, though superstition is a characteristic. Haggard makes no denial of the beauty of the African women, but does make his point "can the sun mate with the darkness or the white with the black?" on a few occasions. Let me stress, though, that this is a Victorian novel and will therefore contain Victorian opinions. The sensible thing to do is to pass over these views and focus instead on the excellence of the rest.
While the three main characters are white Europeans, there are three less major heroes who are African: Ignosi, Infadoos and the lovely Foulata, and these characters have equally important parts to play as Quatermain, Sir Henry and Good. Overall, Haggard kept his African characters in the area between the prejudiced portrayal and the equally insulting "noble savage", seemingly ahead of his time.
While King Solomon's Mines is not a quick fluff read, it is still a somewhat light swashbuckling tale, full of humor and excitement and solid writing.
(Completely aside, I had to wonder just how titillating Haggard's many references to the mountains, Sheba's Breast, were to Victorians, especially given how often he described the "nipples" of these mountains, and their "firm roundness".)
Read for the Victorian Reading Challenge, as well as for pleasure.