Colonel Quaritch, V.C.: Far from a feeble novel

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Colonel Quaritch, V.C. by H. Rider Haggard fantasy book reviewsColonel Quaritch, V.C.: A Tale of Country Life by H. Rider Haggard

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Almost 120 years before British author J.K. Rowling faced the pressure and the problem of how to follow a string of phenomenally successful novels, another British writer was faced with the same dilemma. H. Rider Haggard, between the years 1885 and 1887, had come out with four of the most popular novels of the late Victorian era: King Solomon’s Mines (1885); its tremendous sequel, Allan Quatermain (1887); an extremely popular (and excellent) novel of the first Boer War, but one which is largely forgotten today, Jess (1887); and the seminal fantasy She (also 1887… quite a year for H. Rider!). And so… what to do next? Well, rather than dive back into the realm of action, lost races and fantasy, Haggard instead opted to tell a more realistic tale in his next novel, Colonel Quaritch, V.C., which first saw the light of day in March 1888.

Subtitled “A Tale of Country Life,” the book tells the story of retired Army officer Harold Quaritch, who moves into his deceased aunt’s home in the village of Honham and is soon embroiled in a romance and involved with the area’s assorted characters. We are introduced to James de la Molle, the elderly nearby squire whose ancestral estate is about to be foreclosed; Ida, his daughter, who becomes romantically involved with Quaritch; Edward Cossey, a wealthy banker who is coercing Ida into marrying him; William Quest, a scheming lawyer whose wife is having an affair with Cossey; and George, the de la Molle family retainer, who, in the Haggard tradition of humorous but shrewd servants, saves the day on more than one occasion. The author keeps his stewpot simmering with these interesting main characters, and throws in a shooting match, a raging Christmas storm, a murder attempt, blackmail, and a treasure hunt to keep things interesting.

Colonel Quaritch was Haggard’s 7th novel out of an eventual 58, and it shows the author at the peak of his writing powers. Haggard has been quoted as saying that his first 15 books or so were his best, and that those written after the death of his son Jock in 1891 were penned with nowhere near the same enthusiasm. This may be true, but the fact remains that there are still many Haggardian masterpieces (e.g., 1899’s Swallow, 1911’s Red Eve, 1912’s Marie, 1915’s Allan and the Holy Flower and on and on) written after that date. Still, there is a certain something — an energy, a fullness of detail — in the early novels that cannot be denied. In Quaritch, Haggard writes wonderfully, treating the reader to a moving tale brimming with suspense, humor, interesting incidents and unexpected plot twists. The author also treats us to side comments on various topics, such as man’s miserable lot today, and why he feels the English forebears of centuries ago were superior to the thin-blooded variety of today’s “emasculated age.” (I just love those Haggardian “sidebars”!) If there is an overriding theme to speak of, it is that the traditional English virtues of family, home, the land, the queen, and religious faith are all-important, and that being an upright gentleman will always see one through. This is a book in which every character gets precisely what he or she deserves, and it proved an extremely satisfying read for me.

Colonel Quaritch is one of Haggard’s lesser-known, little-read titles today, and was a critical flop when first released. Even the author himself described it as “a rather feeble novel,” although I think he is being way too harsh a critic. I cannot remember how I happened to lay hands on my undated (but, apparently, very old) Collier & Son hardcover edition, but fortunately, the fine folks at BiblioBazaar have just released a reasonably priced new edition that should fit the bill for most readers. Don’t believe Haggard on this one; believe me! This is FAR from a feeble novel!


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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Actually, this sounds like the kind of book I would want to read and own as research, because even with all the drama, he is writing in a “realistic” setting for the time. It must have great hints about dialogue and mores of the time period.

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