Written between June 5 and September 3, 1891, H. Rider Haggard’s 16th novel out of an eventual 58, Montezuma’s Daughter, was ultimately published in October 1893. The previous winter, Haggard and his wife Louisa had been in Mexico hunting for treasure and, on February 8th, the author had learned of the death of his 9-year-old son “Jock” back in England. The grieving father wrote Montezuma’s Daughter as what his biographer D.S. Higgins calls a “therapeutic act” and, following and preceding two of the author’s greatest works — 1892’s “Nada the Lily” and 1894’s “The People of the Mist” —demonstrates that the author, despite his bereavement, was then at the very top of his game.
Montezuma’s Daughter takes the form of a memoir written by a half Englishman (his mother was Spanish) named Thomas Wingfield. Sitting down to write in 1588, immediately following the defeat of the Spanish Armada (an event that apparently elates Thomas… and for good reason, as it turns out!) and by request of his Queen Elizabeth, the old man relates to us the story of how he took vengeance on the Spanish cavalier Juan de Garcia. Seventy years earlier, Garcia had murdered his own cousin, Wingfield’s mother, and the trail of vengeance that young Thomas follows brings him to some very strange places, indeed. Thomas trails the villain to Seville, where he becomes a quack doctor’s apprentice and witnesses the horrors of the Inquisition; follows him to the New World, en route suffering a shipwreck (a shipwreck would also figure prominently in such Haggard novels as 1888’s Mr. Meeson’s Will, 1905’s Benita and 1929’s Mary of Marion Isle) and a period of slavery aboard a Spanish caraque; and finally fetches up on the shores of what is now Tobasco, Mexico. All that in just the first third of the novel!
Once in ancient Mexico, Thomas is captured by the Aztecs, becomes a living god, marries Otomie (the titular character) — despite the fact that he is engaged to an Englishwoman back home — and, like some 16th century Forrest Gump, witnesses the arrival of Cortes and the many battles resulting in the downfall of Tenoctitlan (now called Mexico City) and the Aztec empire.
During all this time, Thomas encounters Garcia on numerous occasions, with the villain always seeming to gain the upper hand somehow. It is just remarkable how much action and adventure Haggard manages to cram into this work of historical fiction — the book is replete with at least three marvelously described battle sequences, pyramid sacrifices, sieges, scenes of torture, high romance, political intrigue, sword fights, cliffhangers and on and on — and for those readers not familiar with the details of this bit of history, a reading of Montezuma’s Daughter will certainly prove a fun and entertaining way to learn.
Thomas Wingfield was a character obviously very close to Haggard’s own heart. Like the author, he resided in Ditchingham in Norfolk, and suffered the loss of his son; to be accurate, somewhat sadistically, the author has Wingfield lose no less than five children during the course of this novel! Also like the author, Thomas marries a woman even though his heart still belongs to a woman named Lily (in Haggard’s case, Lilly Jackson, the love of his youth). Wingfield is a wonderful character, headstrong and brave; a deeply moral man, who obviously feels great guilt about marrying an Indian woman when previously betrothed.
Otomie, too, is a well-drawn creation, a noble, fearless and loving wife, though still more than half savage, as events prove. De Garcia, it must be said, is one of the best, most sadistic villains that Haggard ever created, and must immediately be placed in the pantheon of the author’s great lovesick wretches that includes Frank Muller in Jess (1887), Owen Davies in Beatrice (1890), Samuel Rock in Joan Haste (1895), Swart Piet in Swallow (1899), Ishmael in The Ghost Kings (1908) and Hernando Pereira in the Allan Quatermain adventure Marie (1912).
Though the vengeance that Thomas takes on de Garcia is long delayed (20 years!), it is well worth the wait, taking place against the backdrop of the Xaca volcano. And speaking of pantheons, the real-life character of Marina, the native woman who betrayed her people and aided Cortes, must be placed in the pantheon of exotic Haggardian women who dare much for love and sacrifice more, a pantheon that includes Maiwa in Maiwa’s Revenge (1888), Noie in The Ghost Kings, Mameena in Child of Storm (1913) and, of course, Ayeesha, from the author’s seminal She (1887) and its three sequels.
Montezuma’s Daughter, in short, is a rip-roaring, sweeping historical adventure with few if any fantasy elements. Haggard, the so-called “Father of the Lost Race Novel,” needed none of those elements here; his wonderfully described Aztec world is quite fantastic enough, and the various portents and demonic possessions that take place supposedly have a documented basis. It is a tale, as Lily puts it, “wondrous strange, more like those that happen in romances than in this plain world,” but thank goodness that we had an H. Rider Haggard to give us those wonderful romances! This book, if adapted faithfully, would cost a good $300 million to bring to the screen today, and even then probably wouldn’t be half as perfect. This is the kind of novel that one closes after many a thrill-packed night, maybe with a tear in the eye, and says, “My God, what a book!” This was the 40th novel of Haggard’s that I have read, and I’m delighted to report that it is one of his very best.