Joan Haste by H. Rider Haggard
Anyone who reads H. Rider Haggard‘s 19th novel, Joan Haste, will likely be struck with one overwhelming thought: Times sure have changed for women over the last 100 years or so. Today, nothing much is thought of a woman who bears a child out of wedlock, and that illegitimate child will likely bear no stigma on his or her name in adulthood. But back in 1894, when Haggard sat down to write (or, to be strictly accurate, dictate) Joan Haste, boy, were things different! Either one of those “transgressions” could just about ruin a person’s life. But what if a woman happened to be a “bastard” herself AND a single mother? What then? Well, it is just that double whammy that is explored in this very moving tale. Unlike most of Haggard’s 57 other works of fiction, this one contains no lost races, no historical setting and hardly a bit of “action” to speak of; my editors here at FanLit are thus indulging me once again in placing a review for a book by my favorite author that contains nothing in the way of fantastic content.
In this novel, Captain Henry Graves is called home to his family’s estate in rural England, after the death of his spendthrift elder brother. This ancestral estate is well-nigh bankrupt, and it appears that the only hope for its continued existence is for Henry to marry Emma Levinger, the daughter of their landlord. But after a chance meeting with Joan Haste — the beautiful, illegitimate woman who works in the local tavern — and after breaking his leg while helping her capture some baby jackdaws, Henry begins to realize that the family fortunes are not uppermost in his mind. As might be expected, Henry and Joan fall in love, and that is just the setup of what turns out to be one of Haggard’s most poignant love stories. The author takes his time in this longish novel, letting us really get to know his characters. There are many wonderfully dramatic scenes, with consistently sterling dialogue (if only people expressed themselves so well in real-life discourse!).
Joan Haste contains many memorable characters, and is almost Dickensian in its description of the Bird family (with whom Joan stays in London) and in the secret agenda of Mr. Levinger. Perhaps the most memorable character of all, though, is Samuel Rock, a long-bearded Dissenter who is jealously in love with Joan himself. Indeed, Rock becomes so insanely amorous that he must automatically be placed in the pantheon of Haggard’s other great love-crazed maniacs, a pantheon that includes Frank Muller in Jess (1887), Owen Davies in Beatrice (1890), Swart Piet in Swallow (1899) and Hernando Pereira in Marie (1912). Rock’s crazed conduct leads to the only real “action” in the novel’s 400+-page length, and makes for one superb cliffhanger of a final chapter.
I advise all Harlequin romance readers to throw out those cheap paperbacks and try a REAL romance instead. This tale of the self-sacrificing Joan Haste (a “fast” woman?), and what she gladly suffers for the love of a man “above her station,” will surely prove a moving experience for just about any reader. So, does Haggard manage to work in a happy ending for Joan and Henry, you may want to know? Well, I’d never think of telling, but anyone who has read a number of the author’s other works will probably be able to deduce the answer to that one!
Actually, I feel that I must reveal ONE of the book’s other surprises, as it constitutes my only quibble with the entire work. (Start highlighting HERE if you want to know.) When Joan runs away to London, and realizes that she is pregnant (oops… excuse me; I meant “with child”), the reader is left thinking, “How the hell did that happen?” Henry had been laid up with a busted leg, in Joan’s aunt’s house, for several months, and had been close to death for much of that time with complications. How he ever managed to get Joan knocked up (I mean, “in the family way”) is quite inconceivable, especially since all Haggard had previously shown us is Joan nursing him, cleaning his room and reading him poetry. Graves could hardly move himself during this time, much less put the moves on her! I guess this is a case of yet another British gent keeping a stiff upper, um, hip! [end spoiler]
But besides this bit of what I suppose was constrained propriety on the part of the author, Joan Haste turns out to be still another wonderful novel from H. Rider Haggard, and I do highly recommend it. The 1895 Longmans, Green edition, which I am fortunate enough to have acquired, also contains 20 marvelous illustrations by T.S. Wilson that only add to the pleasure…
But why were they chasing baby jackdaws?
What…me spoil a major plot point?!?!