Mr. Meeson’s Will by H. Rider HaggardMr. Meeson’s Will by H. Rider Haggard

Editor’s note: Mr. Meeson’s Will is free in Kindle format

Mr. Meeson’s Will was first printed in book form in October 1888, after having first appeared earlier that year in The Illustrated London News. It was H. Rider Haggard’s 11th novel (out of 58), and one in which his experiences as both a writer and aspiring lawyer were given vent. The novel is at once a tale of adventure, a critique of the publishing industry in late 19th century England, and a satire on the English legal system.

In the book’s first half, Augusta Smithers — our heroine and a successful author, who has unwittingly entered into an unfair contract with Meeson’s publishing firm — takes passage on board a steamship bound for New Zealand, where she hopes to make a fresh start. Her enemy, Mr. Meeson himself, is on board the same boat, coincidentally, and when the ship sinks after a catastrophic collision with a whaler (in a disaster scene that predates a similar, fictional shipwreck in Haggard’s 1905 novel, The Spirit of Bambatse, not to mention the real-life Titanic disaster of 1912), Augusta, Meeson and several others are washed up on one of the lonely Kerguelen Islands, in the south Indian Ocean.

Before his death, Meeson decides to alter his will and, having no other means of doing so, has that testament tattooed upon Augusta’s back! This sets up the story for the book’s second half, in which a huge court battle takes place regarding the validity of this document. What might have turned out to be a dry exposition of legal procedures in another author’s hands is handled quite entertainingly by H. Rider, and the result is a book of adventure in the first half — the shipwreck and marooning scenes are especially fun — and interesting court battles in the second.

Haggard must have greatly enjoyed exposing the unfair practices of the publishing system that had tried to cheat him during his early career, much as Meeson & Co. had cheated Augusta. Mr. Meeson’s Will, though a lesser title in Haggard’s bibliography — and probably a seldom-read one today, at least as compared to such other Haggard titles as King Solomon’s Mines and She — offers ample entertainment value for the modern-day reader, and I do unreservedly recommend it. This book was, by the way, made into a film starring Lon Chaney in 1916, and called The Grasp of Greed. If it’s half as good as its source novel, I would love to see it one day…

Published in 1888. Only a storyteller as preternaturally gifted as action-adventure master H. Rider Haggard could turn a story about a legal battle over publishing rights into a gripping page-turner. Mr. Meeson’s Will offers a fascinating glimpse into the legal rights of authors in the nineteenth century — and a swashbuckling maritime misadventure that comes with a plethora of unpredictable consequences.