(Fair) Margaret by H. Rider Haggard
Every schoolchild knows that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But what about the year before that? Did anything of note happen in 1491? Well, as any reader of H. Rider Haggard‘s 31st novel, Margaret, will discover, the answer is: plenty! Margaret, which Haggard wrote from 1905 – ‘06, was initially published in London in September 1907 under the title Fair Margaret, and here in the U.S. with the shortened title a month later. It is one of Haggard’s historical fictions, but unlike some of his other historicals, such as 1911’s Red Eve, this one contains absolutely no fantasy elements to speak of (my editors here on FanLit are perhaps being indulgent and generous for allowing me to even post a review of a non-fantasy Haggard title here on this site), but is rather a straightforward swashbuckler, told in a full-blooded, forthright manner.
In this exciting tale, we meet Margaret Castell, the beautiful daughter of John Castell, one of London’s wealthiest merchants. Margaret is engaged to Peter Brome, a gallant ex-soldier, and when she and her servant, Betty Dene, are shanghaied and kidnapped by the Spanish Marquis of Morella, who has taken a hot-blooded fancy to her, Peter and Castell embark on a quest to save them. Thus, Haggard treats us to adventures on the high seas (Peter’s duel with Morella on board a sinking ship in the midst of a raging storm would easily serve as the climax of most books; here, it comes not even halfway through) and in the cities of Moorish Granada and Seville; to courtroom cases before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella themselves; and to a daring rescue from the clutches of the Spanish Inquisition … not to mention any number of lesser conflicts, AND a jousting match to the death, again between Brome and Morella.
The Marquis, it must be added, is yet another fine Haggardian villain; a complex mixture of earthiness and piety. In the pantheon of lust-crazed Haggardian nasties, I’d have to say that he is just as far gone as Samuel Rock in Joan Haste (1895), not quite as vicious as Swart Piet in Swallow (1899) or Hernando Pereira in Marie (1912), a bit more chivalrous than Frank Muller in Jess (1887), but much more dangerous than Owen Davies in Beatrice (1890). He’s kind of like the evil Abbott Maldon in Haggard’s The Lady of Blossholme (1909), a Christian bigot … but with a lustful side.
And speaking of religion, in Margaret, Haggard once again demonstrates that he is no anti-Semite. This charge of anti-Semitism on the part of the author has come about mainly as a result of the Jewish slimeball character Jacob Meyer in Haggard’s The Spirit of Bambatse (1906), but in Margaret, Haggard takes pains to show us that John Castell, a Marano Jew, is one of the most decent men of his day, and of an “ancient and honorable” race. (Haggard had even better things to say about the Jewish people in Red Eve and others.) Indeed, it is rather the radical Christians in this book who are shown in an evil light: the hypocrite Morella, the greedy-for-wealth Father Henriques and, of course, everyone involved in the Inquisition itself. Thus, Margaret is not only a thrilling adventure story, but a highly moral one, and somewhat educational, to boot. Although the book doesn’t get overly bogged down in historical facts, the reader does pick up lots of interesting tidbits concerning England and Spain of the 15th century. (Who, for example, knew that aloe thorns were used by seamstresses as pins back then, or the details of the auto-da-fé death march?) And getting back to Columbus, Haggard even manages to work the Santa Maria into his tale, for a nice touch.
The author has been accused of being an occasionally careless writer, or at least a hasty one, and it must be confessed that Margaret does contain some slight booboos. For example, one of Castell’s trading partners is named Juan Bernaldez; a few hundred pages later, he is Carlos Bernaldez. Morella’s motto is said to be something on the order of “what I seek I find, and what I find I keep”; 300 pages later, his motto is said to be “what I seize I tear.” But these are minor matters, and should in no way interfere with any reader’s pleasure during this terrific page-turner. I might also add that the book ends most satisfactorily, with every character getting precisely what he or she deserves, and is capped off with one of the most charming scenes of any Haggard tale I’ve ever read (around four dozen at this point). Margaret, one of Haggard’s lesser-read titles, perhaps, will certainly reward your efforts to seek it out…
I think we’re coming to love HRH almost as much as you do.
Marion, you’ve discovered my secret agenda!