Although English author H. Rider Haggard is popularly known today as “the father of the lost race novel,” such adventure tales of vanished civilizations were scarcely his sole concern. As any reader who has pursued this writer further than his “big 3” (1885’s King Solomon’s Mines, 1887’s Allan Quatermain and 1887’s She) would tell you, Haggard was also very much concerned with the matter of reincarnation and with what I suppose we might call “ love that survives beyond the grave.” These two themes comprise the very heart of She and its three sequels (1905’s Ayesha, 1921’s She and Allan and 1923’s Wisdom’s Daughter) and crop up in such disparate works of the author as his very first, Dawn (1884), and Stella Fregelius (1904). But perhaps the author’s most concise statement on these two matters is to be found in his beautifully written but largely forgotten novel simply entitled Love Eternal. Written in 1916 but not published until April 1918, it is a work that is obviously very close to its author’s heart, and one that draws largely on his own youthful experiences.
In the novel, Haggard’s 47th out of an eventual 58, the reader encounters the young Godfrey Knight, the son of a puritanical parson, who lives in the Essex countryside. From childhood on, he and his neighbor, Isobel Blake, the daughter of a wealthy, boorish shipping magnate, have been strangely drawn to one another, although their natures are wholly dissimilar. Whereas Godfrey is a dreamer who dwells on matters both metaphysical and astronomical, Isobel is a hardheaded materialist who disbelieves all that she cannot prove and see, pooh-poohing Godfrey’s talk of reincarnation and such sundry matters. The two are separated at age 17, when Godfrey is sent to Switzerland by his father to learn French and to remove him from Isobel’s irreligious influence. Once in Lucerne, Godfrey meets a dying benefactress and falls afoul of a group of spiritualists (the head spiritualist, Madame Riennes, whom Haggard depicts as a sort of Madame Blavatsky type, will remain Godfrey’s nemesis throughout this longish story). Later, he returns to Essex and declares his love for Isobel but is separated from her once again by military service, a lengthy stay in India, and the travails of World War 1. Ultimately, despite their fathers’ many attempts to keep them apart, the two DO unite in holy matrimony, but unfortunately, their earthly happiness is a short-lived one. But, as the author makes abundantly clear, their reunion in the realm of the afterlife will surely be a glorious one….
I mentioned just before how Haggard drew on his own early experiences in writing this heartfelt tale, and this is very much the case. Haggard’s father had also sent him to Switzerland to learn French when he was 16; like Godfrey, Haggard studied at the Scoones establishment to prepare for the Sandhurst entrance exams; and just as Godfrey gets mixed up with a group of spiritualists, so had the young Haggard … in his case, in London. Haggard was a great lover of orchids, and here, Godfrey and his Swiss friend, Juliette, engage in a hunt for a rare blossom in the heights of the Alps (of course, this quest is not nearly as lengthy as the one detailed in 1915’s Allan and the Holy Flower). The author, who would write 14 novels dealing with the hunter Allan Quatermain, eventually grew to detest hunting for sport, as blisteringly spelled out in his short novel of 1911, The Mahatma and the Hare, and here, Godfrey too becomes sickened during a fox hunt, and swears off the sport for good. Haggard, who remained in love with his childhood infatuation “Lilly” (born Mary Elizabeth Jackson) all throughout his married life to Louisa Margitson, wrote often of men whose ideal love was, well, not their wife, in novels such as Beatrice (1890) and Mary of Marion Isle (a posthumous novel, released four years after Haggard’s 1925 passing). In Love Eternal, this other favorite theme of Haggard’s does not actually figure, although both Mr. Knight and Mr. Blake are shown to be quite unhappily married, and Godfrey IS at one point pushed into a relationship with the empty-headed Juliette, with whom he has absolutely nothing in common. Haggard, during the course of his story, also gets to air his opinions on religion (he seems to be anti-Papist and to even have problems with the Anglican church), sex (“the eating fire that is so beautiful but burns”), the peerage (though made a knight in 1919, the author still has some harsh words to say about the patronage system), and that Scoones school. And in his only misstep in the book, he refers to the Victoria & AlbertMuseum as the SouthKensingtonMuseum, despite that institution’s name change in 1899. I know, I know… who cares, right?
Even in his more traditional historical fictions and star-crossed romances, Haggard, great fantasist that he was, was likely to add a dash of the otherworldly or supernatural, and Love Eternal is surely no exception. Thus, Godfrey is shown to possess powers of clairvoyance, to a limited degree, and the vengeful spirit Eleanor that Madame Riennes calls down on him is no mere figment. Riennes herself is shown to be a woman with decided occult abilities, and the battle that she has with Godfrey’s Swiss ward, the Pasteur Boiset, is a memorable one, indeed; reminiscent, somewhat, of the Christian missionary vs. African witch doctor battle in 1896’s The Wizard. Godfrey is able to sense Isobel’s presence from thousands of miles away, even when one of them communicates to the other after death separates the couple. To drive home the point that the two are very much a reincarnated pair of spirits, Haggard has their life histories closely follow the stories of the Plantagenet lady and her husband knight (note Godfrey’s last name), who lie buried in a local church and who strike a chord of sympathy in the modern couple. Haggard was also seemingly incapable of writing a novel without at least a few action/adventure set pieces, and here, although such scenes are kept to a minimum, they are indeed present. Thus, Godfrey gets to play the hero during a Swiss mountain climbing expedition gone horribly wrong, and Godfrey becomes embroiled in a native uprising in German East Africa during the Great War. (And please don’t ask me how many of Haggard’s novels have featured action in the then-called “Dark Continent”!)
Love Eternal, surprisingly, is a book about which I could find virtually no information online, and indeed, I do believe that this review may represent the only substantive words regarding this forgotten book on the entire Interwebs! I am thus tempted to set out a plot description in great detail, but will leave it to you, the reader, to discover more if you should choose to read this work. The 1919 Longmans, Green edition in my possession may be a pricey proposition today, but fortunately, there are modern Leonaur and Waking Lion editions that should nicely fit the bill. Ladies, throw out your Harlequin romances and FiftyShades of Grey volumes and be prepared here for something truly romantic… a love eternal! Godfrey and Isobel are said to be “appointed together by Nature”; as Isobel herself predicts, “Money won’t divide us, Godfrey … not even death itself … all your heaven and hell cannot make any difference, no, not if they were both to join forces and try their best.” A Haggard book that is surely ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal, Love Eternal should prove a gold mine for the truly romantic at heart….