Turning the Spotlight on

H. Rider Haggard






Dawn, 1884


Appropriately titled Dawn, this almost forgotten novel marks Haggard's first-- and by no means timid-- venture into fiction. Published at the age of 27, it was followed by over fifty books of extravagant adventure set in almost every conceivable time and place, involving fabulous lost cities, princely Zulu warriors, reincarnated lovers, intrepid explorers, cruel savages, implacable fate, witchcraft, mysticism, intrigue, treachery, heroic battles and brave derring-do. In his day, before cinema and television inured the public to facile spectacular effects, Haggard's sensational tales were eagerly awaited by a host of delighted fans and many still possess potent powers of fascination for modern readers: King Solomon's Mines, She, Eric Brighteyes, Nada the Lily, The People of the Mist, The World's Desire, to mention just a few. Placed in this heady context, Dawn is somewhat of a country cousin, but the story has its moments and Haggard connoisseurs will not be disappointed. However, one might remark that this novel is more in the tried-and-true style of Wilkie Collins than of Haggard as he became; Collins was still publishing and highly regarded when Haggard made his début.

The plot develops tamely in England, ranging only so far afield as a travelogue-type Madeira in the way of exotic climes, and the theme is romance rather than bold adventure (the only battles being those carried on by the hero's pugnacious bulldog Aleck, who defeats the villain's fighting-dog Snarleyow and eventually manages to sink his canines into Snarleyow's master). The characters belong to the familiar world of the 19th century English country gentry. But even within these cramping limitations, which Haggard ably shrugs off in his subsequent work, the author's fertile imagination manages to introduce the spirituality and occult allusions, and the exasperated passions, which characterize most of his more famous books. The romance between Arthur and Angela is an embryonic version of the fated, life-transcendent pairing Haggard usually likes to envision for his tormented lovers, and it is seeds such as this that make Dawn of enduring interest to Haggard scholars. But it is best to look at the novel itself without undue reference to the prolific output it heralded.

The quality of the writing is more than competent, although blotched by passages of deep purple prose of which the unashamed author is fully aware ("'Fine writing!' perhaps the reader will say..."). Perhaps because the budding novelist yearned to make a good impression, or because he had leisure to polish his manuscript, the language is more studied than that of many of Haggard's hastily contrived sensation-novels, which often appeared at the rate of two or three a year. The pace of events is brisk and, indeed, the opening scene is memorable. Instead of a traditional, predictable descriptive paragraph about locale or characters, Haggard plunges abruptly into a dialogue between two quarrelling young men, George and Philip Caresfoot: "You lie; you always were a liar." A felicitous bone to pick, as it chances, since both the Caresfoot cousins prove themselves adept at deceit. George, the more insidious, is busily seeking to undermine Philip's position with his father in hopes of gaining Philip's inheritance for himself. Philip displays fewer vices than his impecunious cousin, but the reader hesitates to view him as a possible "hero." Wisely so, for we soon observe Philip's selfish maneuvering with two young ladies, the plain but wholesome Maria Lee and her beautiful companion Hilda, the daughter of a German noble house that has lost its wealth and position, leaving Hilda only an ancient name to take pride in and the necessity of earning her bread.

Philip's strict father is anxious for a match with the Lee heiress, who is "pretty enough for a wife," and Philip has long been half-engaged to this old childhood friend of his, who is deeply in love with him. He listlessly carries on the courtship, binding Maria to a secret betrothal, but then convinces the haughty Hilda (who disdainfully refuses to become his mistress) to a clandestine marriage in London. But having his cake and eating it too proves far beyond Philip's cunning. The situation is brought to a head--thanks to some anonymous letters from George-- when old Mr. Caresfoot publicly announces the Lee match and an indignant, very pregnant Hilda arrives from London to ascertain the truth about her husband's conduct. In the ensuing climax to this first section of Dawn, Philip's father disinherits him of all but the entailed portion of the estate and succombs to a heart attack when Philip refuses to bring him his medicine; the jilted Maria Lee flees to parts unknown; Hilda dies in child-birth, leaving Philip with an unwanted daughter, Angela; and George triumphantly inherits the lands and income that should have gone to his hated cousin.

The stage having been temporarily cleared, the narrative then skips forward some twenty years to focus on Angela. Shunned by her father, who sees her as a reproach for his questionable actions, Angela possesses her mother's physical beauty and an unusual intellect. She has been trained by the local rector in higher mathematics and classical literature and lives a lonely, ivory-tower existence. Philip is impatient to get her off his hands through marriage and leaps at the opportunity presented by the arrival of a handsome young man, Arthur Heigham, who has business to transact with his former trustee, George Caresfoot. When George and Arthur instinctively take against each other, Philip invites Arthur to be his house-guest and it is not long before the inevitable attraction arises between the young people. But just when all seems set for fair sailing, George (who had been away from the neighbourhood for many years) lays covetous eyes on his grown-up cousin Angela, who despises him, and conceives an overwhelming lust for her. Blackmailing his confederate, the enigmatic Anne Bellamy, into assisting him with her guile and her occult powers, he initiates a ploy to separate Arthur from Angela and holds out to Philip the prospect of selling back the Caresfoot estate at a favourably low price in return for Philip's consent to a marriage.

George's scheme goes forward, with the unscrupulous conspirators forced to ever more drastic measures in order to vanquish Angela's resistance, while Arthur cools his heels in Madeira. There he meets a fascinating young widow, Mildred Carr, who falls in love with him--like Angela, somewhat inexplicably, for Arthur is a very ordinary fellow, with no marked talents or the ambition to achieve anything in life--and decides to make a try at winning his affection, although he has amply plagued her with woeful accounts of his enforced separation from the incomparable, pure, predestined beloved waiting for him in England. Severe trials and tribulations follow for everyone for many pages to come, but those readers who believe that reuniting the fated lovers constitutes a happy ending will at length be satisfied.

This particular reader found it more interesting to meditate on the numerous instances of undeservedly unrequited love detailed in Dawn and Haggard's apparent unconcern for the suffering of unlucky lovers. One might normally think that a man like Philip would be happier with the fresh and lively Maria Lee than the chilly Hilda, and indeed his passion for Hilda fades with gratification. Similarly, a healthy young chap like Arthur might normally feel more at ease with the beautiful, wealthy, wise, loyal Mildred than with the ethereal Angela who sustains that, even if they lose each other in this life, they will claim each other forever in Eternity. But this spiritual dimension in love is one of Haggard's prominent fixations and will be encountered in many guises throughout his work. "Happy are those who thus shall find their Angela," he writes firmly in the concluding paragraph, "whether it be here, -- or at Dawn, on the furthest shore of yonder solemn sea! And Mildred? She lay there before the stone symbol of inexorable judgment [an Egyptian statue], and sobbed till the darkness of the night covered her, and her heart broke in the silence of the night."


© Wordreign, December 1999



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