Jess: An all-but-forgotten winner from H. Rider Haggard

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsJess by H. Rider HaggardJess by H. Rider Haggard

Editor’s note: Because it’s in the public domain, Jess is available free on Kindle.

Jess was first published in the U.K. in March 1887, and was H. Rider Haggard‘s fifth novel out of 58. Haggard wrote this book toward the end of 1885… and, remarkably, in just nine weeks! But then again, this is the same man who, earlier in 1885, was able to write the astounding sequel to King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain, in just ten weeks, and who, in 1886, wrote the seminal fantasy She in just six! Haggard has been accused of being a careless writer, but that is certainly not the case with Jess. It is an elegantly written novel, sometimes even poetically written.

The story takes place during the time of the first Boer War, in 1880-81. Captain John Niel comes to work on the Transvaal farm of a fellow Englishman, Silas Croft, and becomes involved in a love triangle of sorts with Croft’s two nieces. One of them, Bessie, is a pretty, hardworking blond; the other, Jess, is plainer-looking, intellectual, and deep-thinking. Niel becomes engaged to Bessie, but after being trapped with Jess in the siege at Pretoria, realizes that he is in love with her. This makes for quite a mess for these people of high honor. To add to the problems, Haggard throws in one of his best villains, Frank Muller, an Anglo-Boer who has designs on Bessie himself and who wants to kill off the rest of her family, steal their farm, become a great Boer leader and ultimately rule all of South Africa as some kind of monarch. Muller is a truly memorable and hissable villain; extremely handsome, with a flowing blond beard, full of contradictions and yet quite intelligent, he really does impress.

FanLit readers, I must confess that Jess contains none of the supernatural or lost-race elements that many Haggard fans have come to expect from his novels, and indeed, does not necessarily fall under the bailiwick of books that we ordinarily review here. It is, rather, an extremely believable adventure and love story. This is not to say that the book is short in the action department, however. It does take place, after all, in the middle of a war, and features many scenes of fighting, attempted murder by that hissable Muller, a deadly fight with an ostrich (sounds funny, I know, but it’s not), wild-game hunting, and so on. Haggard himself lived in South Africa during the time of that first Boer War, and was also an ostrich farmer for a short while, and those six years that he spent in the country (from 1875-1881) gave him the tools with which to authentically depict his stories. It might be a good idea for a reader going into this book to do some minor research on that first Boer War — nothing too serious; just a little background work — for a fuller appreciation of the authenticity of Jess, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Besides showing Haggard’s great gift for adventure, action, romance and historical retelling, Jess also amply displays the author’s gift for what I guess might be called poetic metaphor. Consider this paragraph, in the book’s first chapter, in which Captain Niel watches a small whirlwind on the African veldt and compares it to his own life:

It’s just like a man’s life… coming from nobody knows where, nobody knows why, and making a little column of dust on the world’s highway, and then passing away and leaving the dust to fall to the ground again, and be trodden under foot and forgotten.

Jess is full of beautifully written passages like this one, as well as many of the author’s side comments on life and death. The book really does have something in it for everyone, and it is no mystery why the book was a huge bestseller in its day. Now, the book is all but forgotten, and even many fans of H. Rider Haggard have not had a chance to discover its many fine qualities. But it is a book that will amply reward anyone who takes the trouble to seek it out. I more than highly recommend it.


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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. An ostrich can kick a person to death; that scene sounds scary, not laughable.

    This sounds like an interesting one and perhaps a good book to read to get a sense of the period.

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