Sir Henry Rider Haggard was born in Norfolk, England in 1856. His parents were wealthy landowners with both Jewish and Indian ancestors, a fact which may have contributed to Haggard’s own more liberal views toward racial and religious differences. Alone among his brothers (Haggard was one of eight children), Haggard was not given a private school education. He took up the study of law, but soon dropped it in order to take a secretarial position for the governor of Natal in South Africa. He remained in Africa over five years, an experience which shows in many of his novels set on that so-called “Dark Continent.”
Haggard returned to England and completed his studies, but still could not interest himself in the legal profession. He married into a wealthy Norfolk family and planned to return to South Africa to live as a gentleman farmer, but the increasing chaos of the Zulu rebellion and Boer War made his wife unwilling to settle there.
Rather than go into law full time, Haggard began writing. His first work was the three-volume work Dawn, followed by The Witch’s Tale, his first novel to take advantage of his experiences in Africa. Then, according to legend, Haggard read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and bet his brother a shilling he could write a book as good or better. Within a year, Haggard had published King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and become famous for one of the first “lost world” novels in the English language.
With King Solomon’s Mines, She (1887), and their sequels, Howard helped usher in a new movement in literature away from social dramas and drawing-room romances and toward romantic tales of adventure. From that point on, Haggard published up to three books a year for ten years, writing with fervor and speed. Unlike his first two popularly successful novels, his later work was not always considered his most quality writing. Along with the sequels to King Solomon’s Mines and She, Haggard set Nada the Lily, a novel of the Zulu king Shaka, in Africa. He also wrote historical fiction set in such diverse locales as Egypt, Mexico, and the Holy Land. With Andrew Lang, Haggard wrote a sequel to the Odyssey, The World’s Desire. He even journeyed to Iceland to research his original Norse saga, Eric Brighteyes.
Haggard was a complicated man for his day. He held to conventional Victorian ideals and belief in progress, particularly through scientific endeavor, yet he was also able to entertain an interest in primitive religions and mysticism, as well as hold more liberal views of race and of European cultures. This complexity comes out in much of his work, wherein the Imperialist bent of England dominates but cannot completely explain or comprehend the workings of the so-called “savage” peoples they encounter.