The great H. Rider Haggard wrote a total of 58 novels before his death in May 1925, and of that number, four were released posthumously. Mary of Marion Isle was his penultimate creation, one which he wrote in 1924, although, as revealed in D.S. Higgins’ biography of Haggard, the idea for the story first came to him in 1916, while sailing to Australia and watching the albatrosses circling his ship. The novel was ultimately released in April 1929, and, as stated by Higgins, was limited to a run of only 3,500 copies by the publisher Hutchinson & Co. Somehow, many years ago, I got my hands on one, and in fair shape, too. I’m glad I did, because it turns out to be another wonderful Haggard adventure, although many reviewers (Higgins included) tend to denigrate these later Haggard titles as being mere rehashes of older works. Well, I suppose that some of the themes and set pieces in Mary of Marion Isle may strike longtime Haggardians as familiar, but they are here recast, and the book, for this reader, was wholly satisfying.
In it, we make the acquaintance of Andrew West, a young doctor who chooses to practice in the poor Whitechapel district of London, despite his noble background. The novel cleaves fairly evenly into two halves. In the first, we read of West’s two unhappy romances. He is jilted by Rose, who cares only for money and position, and then enters into a loveless marriage with Clara, his first cousin (don’t ask; I guess that wasn’t quite as taboo as it is today). With Clara pushing him unwillingly into politics, he eventually becomes appointed the governor-general of the U.K. colony of Oceania.
In the book’s second half, things get even more interesting, when the ship that Andrew and Clara are on, en route to Oceania, founders after striking an iceberg in the south Indian Ocean. Andrew fetches up, with his manservant, on the desolate Marion Island, around 1,500 miles southeast of the Cape of Good Hope. It is there that Andrew finds the true love of his life, Mary, who had been shipwrecked on the island some 15 years before and who had been living there alone for the past nine. Mary is a wonderful character, a young Englishwoman gone primitive, a bona fide nature girl who talks to the goats, penguins and albatrosses on that lonely subantarctic isle. Add her to the pantheon of Haggardian wild women, such as Hendrika (from Allan’s Wife, 1889) and Mameena (Child of Storm, 1913), who are willing to sacrifice much for those they love. And if the plot device of a shipwreck seems familiar to longtime Haggardians, it should be. Shipwrecks figured prominently in at least two of the other 40 or so Haggard novels that I’ve read so far (the man CAN prove addictive); in Mr. Meeson’s Will, from 1888 — which transpired on another lonely south Indian Ocean hunk of rock, Kerguelen — and in 1905’s Benita. Mind you that those two earlier shipwreck novels were both written BEFORE the sensational disappearance of the Waratah off South Africa in 1909, and of course the Titanic disaster in 1912.
Fast-moving, filled with interesting characters, laced with humor and well-written dialogue, containing highly atmospheric and accurate descriptions of one of the world’s most desolate places, and providing a most satisfying ending in which all the characters get precisely what they deserve, Mary of Marion Isle, if lesser Haggard, is still a marvelous read. Even in his twilight, H. Rider’s gift for metaphor was still wonderful, as when Andrew, adrift at sea in a lifeboat, compares this experience to his life as a whole: “… a long voyage over an icy and lonesome sea in the frail bark of being, whither he knew not.”
Longtime readers of the author have come to expect some of Haggard’s highly interesting side thoughts to crop up here and there, voiced either by one of the characters or by the omniscient narrator, and in this regard, Mary of Marion Isle also does not disappoint, with H. Rider offering up comments on the nature of the savage vs. civilized man, the lot of man here on Earth, and the differences between peers and commoners. (His belittling remarks on the peerage are somewhat surprising, considering that he himself was knighted, in 1912.)
“It would all be very interesting in a novel,” Andrew is told after he relates the story of his adventures on Marion Isle, and that is surely an understatement! As it turns out, even posthumous, derivative, lesser Haggard is better and more exciting, for my money, than the output of just about any other thrill weaver. Though the Hutchinson volume today is an expensive splurge, if it can be found at all, the Oxford City Press reprint edition is surely a worthy investment….