In the summer of 1897, English author H. Rider Haggard took a short vacation in Holland, and just as his winter holiday to the Holy Land in 1900 would inspire him to pen no fewer than three works — the nonfiction book A Winter Pilgrimage (1901), Pearl-Maiden (1903) and The Brethren (1904) — this sojourn to the land of the Dutch would also bear literary fruit. Thus, in 1899, Haggard began writing his new novel, provisionally entitled The Secret of Sword Silence. By the time this tale of the Dutch first appeared in The Graphic (a British weekly newspaper, in existence from 1869 to 1932, that dealt with news items of the day, as well as the arts, sports, music, books … and new, serialized novels), in the Sept. 1, 1900 – March 2, 1901 issues, the tale’s title had been changed to Lysbeth, and Haggard had collected a cool 900 pounds (pretty solid money in those days!) for his work. Lysbeth would see its first American appearance in book form on August 9, 1901, in a Longmans Green edition containing the same 26 beautiful B&W illustrations by artist G. P. Jacomb-Hood that had graced The Graphic; the British edition, also from Longmans Green, would be released two days later. (Those interested in viewing these beautiful books and illustrations can go to visualhaggard.org and to Wade Burgess’ wonderful website.)
It was Haggard’s 24th novel out of an eventual 58, and one that I had been putting off reading for several reasons. The first reason for my letting the book sit on my shelf for so long, unread, is that I happen to own that first American edition from 1901, a very fine copy (sans dust jacket) purchased at NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand for the steal-of-a-deal price of $7.50 (!), and was loath to damage it. But my two main reasons for putting the book off were that the novel deals with a subject that I knew absolutely nothing about — namely, the Eighty Years War, aka Dutch War of Independence, of the 16th and 17th centuries, during which time the forces of William the Silent threw off the yoke of their Spanish oppressors, and that the book extends to almost 500 pages; Haggard’s lengthiest piece of fiction, most likely. Could a 500-page book, dealing with a topic that I was entirely unfamiliar with, possibly hold my attention? As it turns out, of course, I needn’t have worried. Haggard, an author who has never let me down, in this, his first novel of the 20th century, delivered to his audience a wonderfully moving and exciting story, replete with fully realized characters, terrific action, scenes of great emotional impact, and an easy-to-grasp overview of the historical backdrop. It will be very challenging for me to speak of his work here, as I absolutely loved this book to bits, and despair of doing it justice.
Even a capsule description of the book’s events will prove difficult, as Haggard has packed his novel with so much in the way of dramatic incident. His novel is divided into three sections. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!) In “The Sowing,” the reader is introduced to the book’s title character, Lysbeth van Hout, who lives in the city of Leyden in 1544. Lysbeth, whose deceased father had left her very well off, is the cousin of an apprentice founder, Dirk van Goorl, with whom she is in love and whose love is very much reciprocated. Dirk, a solid, decent man, refrains from revealing his feelings, however, (a) because his financial resources are few, and (b) because he is a Protestant and Lysbeth is Catholic … and in the Low Countries of the 16th century, anyone practicing the “New Religion” is ripe for prosecution by the Spanish Inquisition and a summary burning at the stake. As it turns out, Lysbeth has also caught the eye of the Spanish captain Juan de Montalvo, a completely amoral cad and destitute gambling addict. Setting his greedy eyes on Lysbeth’s florins, he engages the services of the husband-and-wife team Hague Simon and Black Meg, who earn their living as spies, collecting evidence to betray their countrymen to the Spaniards. Thus, de Montalvo pressures Lysbeth to marry him, under the threat of exposing Dirk to the Inquisition. Lysbeth relents, but only after delivering a withering curse upon de Montalvo and his progeny. The two are then married, Lysbeth’s fortune is squandered, and she is left impoverished and pregnant, after the Church and the courts prosecute the Spaniard for bigamy. Lysbeth retreats to the marshland known as the Haarlem Mere, where she is found and cared for by the half-mad freedom fighter known as Martha the Mare, who helps her deliver her child, Adrian … a baby that Lsybeth suffers to live.
In the novel’s second section, “The Ripening,” we jump forward a full 25 years. In the Leyden of 1569, Lysbeth and Dirk are happily married, their wedding having taken place immediately after de Montalvo’s trial, and his sentencing to 14 years of hard labor aboard a Spanish galley. Adrian is thus now 25, and their second son, Foy, a few years younger. In this section we also meet the family’s servant, “Red” Martin Roos, a man of enormous strength and dedication, and who, with his trusty sword Silence, is a very good person to have on one’s side. To their Leyden abode comes Elsa Brant, the only child of Holland’s wealthiest citizen, their cousin Hendrik Brant, with word that her father, who lives in The Hague, is now requesting Foy and Martin to come to that city and move his many barrels of wealth to a safe spot, where the Spaniards will not be able to get their hands on it. It is a perilous mission, indeed, which Foy and Martin manage to bring off, pursued at sea by the forces of the Spanish captain Ramiro. The two bury this treasure in the Haarlem Mere, with Martha’s help, the location of said hoard being drawn on a map and placed inside the hilt of Martin’s sword (thus, the original title for this novel). Meanwhile, Adrian, a vain, pompous, dreamy sort, has fallen in love with Elsa, and goes to a spiritualist of sorts for a love philtre. That spiritualist, who had been recommended by Black Meg herself, is in actuality Ramiro, who dupes the lad into revealing secrets about his Protestant family. With this evidence, Dirk, Martin and Foy are arrested and brought to the Gevangenhuis, or prison house, for torture and trial. The latter two manage to escape, and Lysbeth, now suffering from both the plague and a knowledge of what her firstborn has done, evicts him from her house in a scene of tremendous emotional impact.
Haggard’s novel concludes with its third section, “The Harvesting.” Here, Ramiro has Elsa kidnapped and brought to the Red Mill in the marshlands, where he attempts to force the woman to marry Adrian, abetted by Hague Simon and Black Meg. Foy and Martin, accompanied by Martha the Mare, attempt to rescue her, during which a catastrophic dike burst floods the entire vicinity. The book then proceeds to the city of Haarlem, during the historic siege of 1572 – ’73, followed by a desperate flight to reclaim that buried treasure, and with the siege of Leyden in 1574. And if you think that I have gone overboard here in detailing for you the plot synopsis of this book, trust me, these are but the barest, sketchiest outlines of a novel filled with so much in the way of story and incident.
Carl Sagan once called Isaac Asimov “the greatest explainer of the age,” for the knack that the great Doc Ike had with taking abstruse scientific principles and making them easily understandable for the layman. And that kind of facility is something that Haggard himself had, as regards the historical novel. Thus, what he did for the Great Trek in Swallow (1899), the Spanish Inquisition in Margaret (1907), the Pilgrimage of Grace in The Lady of Blossholme (1909), and the Battle of Crecy in Red Eve (1911) he once again does for the Eighty Years War in Lysbeth; namely, taking an historic event that not too many are familiar with (at least, that I was not familiar with) and, by his great craft, making it both interesting and accessible. And Haggard has certainly done his homework here. Besides the convincing backdrops and historical detail, the author peppers his work with numerous fascinating throwaway bits. Not sure what a culverin, harquebus, conventicle or ravelin is? You will be familiar with such terms after reading this book. And who here knew that it was common practice, 500 years ago, to scatter sand upon a piece of writing so as to prevent the wet ink from smudging, or that it was possible to damage a crossbow by “over-winding” it? Haggard’s book is filled with convincing little details such as these, adding verisimilitude to his conceit. The end result is a history lesson that is both highly educational as well as fun … and unputdownable.
As mentioned, Lysbeth contains any number of wonderful action sequences, starting with an exciting sledge race in Chapter 1 (in which de Montalvo tries to cheat, naturally); Foy and Martin’s escape from The Hague; the sea chase to the Haarlem Mere; the fray in the shot tower, in which Foy and Martin do battle, with molten lead, against an entire company of Spaniards; their thrilling escape from the torture chamber of the Gevangenhuis; Adrian’s duel with Ramiro; the dike bursting at the Red Mill; the escape from the fallen Haarlem; and the final fight for Brant’s treasure. But equally as compelling as these action sequences are the dramatic encounters, some of them stunning in their intensity, such as Lysbeth’s final meeting with Dirk in the Gevangenhuis; Lysbeth’s expulsion of Adrian; Lysbeth’s final words to Ramiro; and the delivery of the treasure to William the Silent. And, oh, that early scene, in which Lysbeth curses de Montalvo and his future kin, with these words:
…God, Whom it has pleased that I should be given to a fate far worse than death; O God, blast the mind and the soul of this monster. Let him henceforth never know a peaceful hour; let misfortune come upon him through me and mine; let fears haunt his sleep. Let him live in heavy labor and die in blood and misery, and through me; and if I bear children to him, let the evil be upon them also…
Whew! Pretty intense, right?
And if you are thinking here that these are pretty strong words to be offering up to one’s future husband, please know that Juan de Montalvo must automatically be placed in the pantheon of Haggard’s great villains, a pantheon that includes such bitter, sadistic and/or lovesick wretches as Frank Muller in Jess (1887), Owen Davies in Beatrice (1890), Juan de Garcia in Montezuma’s Daughter (1893), Samuel Rock in Joan Haste (1895), Swart Piet in Swallow (1899), Ishmael in The Ghost Kings (1908), Abbott Malden in The Lady of Blossholme (1909) and Hernando Pereira in Marie (1912); a rogues’ gallery that would perhaps not be equalled until another British author, Ian Fleming, started writing his 007 novels in the early 1950s. But whereas those other cads were all motivated either by love or religion, de Montalvo is completely irreligious, and not at all moved by the fairer sex. (It thus comes as something of a surprise when we learn that Lysbeth is carrying his child.) His only concern is shown to be money, for which he will do pretty much anything. He is said to be a not necessarily violent or sadistic man, but one who is completely unprincipled and without scruples. He is thus a fascinating and complex villain (I kept picturing Gilbert Roland in the role), and one who describes himself as “a hard-working, necessitious, and somewhat unfortunate gentleman who has been driven to rough methods in order to secure a comfortable old age”! He is truly a delicious and well-spoken character who steals every single scene that he is in. I might add that there is a connection between de Montalvo and Ramiro, one that Haggard springs on the reader as a sort of surprise, although that revelation is subtly telegraphed by the author and indeed was one that I saw coming. Actually, I’m not even sure Haggard meant the connection to be a surprise, so undramatically is the revelation made. I will not say any more on this score; this gushing review has already given away too much.
As usual, Lysbeth contains some authorial side comments by the great Haggard himself on matters touching on ethics, history and religion; personally, I happen to always love reading these side thoughts, as they allow us readers to get to know this wonderful writer all the more. In two spots, he tells us that he believes the Spanish atrocities in the Eighty Years War, during which 60,000 were tortured and slaughtered, constitute “perhaps the most hideous tyranny that the world has ever known.” One can only wonder what Haggard would have thought had he been allowed to live another 20 years, and so been able to hear of the 6 million who were slain during WW2’s Holocaust. He would have been absolutely appalled, of course, especially if his comments regarding WW1 in 1919’s When the World Shook can serve as any indication.
Lysbeth, similar to many of Haggard’s other historical adventures, is a book with only minimal fantasy content. Here, those fantastic bits mainly take the form of visions that no fewer than five of the characters experience. And so, Lysbeth has a vision of the besieged city of Leyden; Brant has a vision of the use toward which his vast treasure will be put; Foy has a presentiment of his and Martin’s battle in the shot tower; de Montalvo is given a foreknowledge of his demise; and Martha the Mare correctly predicts both her imminent end and Foy and Elsa’s future. Thus, we are given some pleasing touches of fantasy, sprinkled amongst a work with so much in the way of historical detail.
To conclude, the bottom line is that Lysbeth is an absolutely wonderful novel; the kind that you finish, after many an immersed evening, with the thought “Oh, my God, what a book!” And, oh, you may be relieved to learn that after turning over that 500th page of my first edition, I was pleased to note that this 119-year-old collectible had suffered no damage whatsoever. (I try to be a good caretaker of my treasured volumes.) And I am also more than happy to report that Lysbeth, although the 46th Haggard novel that I have experienced, has turned out to be among the author’s very best…