H. Rider Haggard's The Brethren

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H. Rider Haggard's The Brethren


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, H. Rider Haggard enjoyed immense popularity as a “sensation novelist.” The sensation novel genre, which emerged in the early 1860s with Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, was condemned and ridiculed by the literary elite of the time, but nevertheless reached a wide audience in the Victorian middle class. Traditionally, sensation novels focus on the homes and families of nineteenth-century England; they scandalize and titillate their audience by suggesting that murder, intrigue, and bigamy are concealed beneath the homes’ demure facades. Haggard’s novels, written late in the century, transform the sensation novel genre: his works typically meld the conventions of the adventure novel with those of the sensation novel by embracing imperialist themes. Rather than taking place in the domestic setting of Collins’ or Braddon’s novels, his works generally dispatch their male protagonists into the empire, where they frequently experience a sexualized encounter with the Other which forms the basis of the novel’s sensationalism. Although several of his works, including King Solomon’s Mines and She, have become a regular part of the Victorian canon and are frequently analyzed by literary critics, The Brethren, published in 1904, has fallen into academic obscurity.


Unlike many of the nineteenth-century crusades romances considered in this study, however, Haggard’s The Brethren has been reprinted in a modern edition. Although several other lesser-known texts appear in facsimile editions, designed to make rare and difficult-to-obtain texts accessible to scholars, The Brethren was reprinted in an inexpensive paperback edition that suggests that the editors desired to circulate it widely. The preface to the 2004 Centential edition, publish by Christian Liberty Press, indicates that the motive behind editing and republishing this novel is to re-inject nineteenth-century crusading ideologies into the twentieth-century world. This preface attempts to establish a connection between modern and medieval communities by correlating the “violent pagans” that the editors perceive in Haggard’s narrative with Muslim communities in the modern world, creating a troubling parallel that echoes throughout the preface. The editors attempt to re-inject crusading ideologies in the modern world by noting that modern audiences typically tend to “ridicule, or at least to soundly criticize the efforts of the Crusaders,” but, although acknowledging the excesses of their methods, ultimately upholds the knights’ evangelical aims:
How easy it is to forget that, thanks to the aggressive actions of the crusaders in taking the fight to Muslim strongholds in the East, the followers of Mohammed were forced to curtail their efforts to pursue further military conquest in the West, God was, indeed, using the imperfect actions of men to accomplish His perfect will by preserving Europe from Muslim domination, thereby setting the stage for the glorious Protestant reformation. (ix)
The set of values outlined in this passage engage with several of the aims—and fears—of the nineteenth-century writer of crusades romances. First, it makes explicit the possibility of reverse-colonization that Haggard more subtly introduces into his text: Saladin sends his warriors to re-capture his niece Rosamund from her English father, and they very effectively infiltrate and subdue the English stronghold. Their aim accomplished, however, the Saracen knights withdraw. The editors of the 2004 edition of this novel, on the other hand, suggest the possibility of a more permanent takeover of Europe, prevented only by the ritual chivalric violence exemplified in the text. The editors promote the medieval crusade, as represented by the nineteenth-century writer of sensation fiction, as a model for modern society: “What a blessing it would be if the Christian Church in the twenty-first century could emulate the zeal and dedication possessed by some many ordinary believers in the eleventh and twelfth centuries” (ix). Although these editors hasten to add that it would be even more blessed to “pull down the strongholds of Satan” with “the Sword of the Spirit, which is the World of God,” the implicit equation of spiritual warfare and physical violence remains clearly visible in this introduction.


Like many nineteenth-century crusades romances, this novel, despite frequent military conflicts, focuses its action on a woman. Saladin’s sister, who elopes with the Norman knight Sir Andrew D'Arcy to England against the wishes of her brother, gives birth to Rosamund, who is raised in England alongside her English cousins Godwin and Wulf. Although he is unaware of Rosamund’s birth, Saladin dreams that she, through an act of self-sacrifice, will save the lives of many and broker peace between the Muslims and the Christians. This novel is characteristic in its portrayal of Saladin as the noble, if somewhat misguided (and therefore barbaric), Commander of the Faithful. Even as the prologue notes that he is preparing for Jihad against the invaders, it also emphasizes that “he was weary of battle and loved not slaughter, although his fierce faith drove him on from war to war” (xi). Saladin’s desire for peace motivates his kidnapping of Rosamond from England. Although this novel presents the crusade's military aspects in a much more positive light than do works such as F. Marion Crawford’s Via Crucis, the novel does suggest that crusading disrupts the domestic unity of the family. One of the novel’s minor female characters, for instance, reports that she is on her way to Jerusalem to seek her husband because “one of those crusading priests got hold of him and took him off to kill Paynims and save his soul, much against my will” (137). Godwin himself, like Saladin, dreams of peace in Jerusalem, and tells Wulf that, "I am more convinced than ever that it is not God's will that we try to destroy the forces of Saladin. The armies of Christendom should be back defending Jerusalem and working with its leaders to promote peace and justice in the Holy Land" (253). Wulf and Godwin’s personal crusade, however, escapes this censure entirely; their quest and subsequent actions against Saladin's armies are necessary in order to rescue Rosamund and restore the unity of their domestic paradise in England.


That domestic paradise, however, is imperiled largely by Rosamund’s own Eastern heritage. Although she represents the English domestic ideal in the novel, Rosamond nonetheless simultaneously bodies forth late-Victorian England’s hybrid amalgamation of Eastern and Western cultures. The physical descriptions of Rosamond throughout the text place her on the margins of scandal, the product of a romance between an English knight and a Saracen woman. Early descriptions of Rosamund within the text continue to emphasize her exoticism; Haggard describes her “rich, low voice, which, perhaps because of its foreign accent, seemed quite different from that of any other woman” (1). The exceptionalism that positions Rosamund as both the ultimately desirable woman—she ensnares the affections of both of her cousins and nearly every male character in the novel—and the only possible road to peace for the Saracen and Christian armies is thus constituted almost entirely through her physical appearance. Furthermore, Haggard consistently emphasizes Rosamund’s potential “fall” into easternality; her cousin Wulf notes that “[I]t is natural that you should think of the east who have that blood in your veins, and high blood, if all tales be true” (2). Only lines later, he re-emphasizes the possibility of her return to her mother’s land. In response, she attempts to construct a unified and unambiguous line of European descent for herself by asking, “And how would they greet me there, Wulf, who am a Norman D’Arcy and a Christian maid?” He promptly responds, “The first they would forgive you, since that blood is none so ill either, and for the second—why, faiths can be changed” (3). Wulf's comments undermine the unity of Rosamond's self-construction, indicating the flexibility of her racial identity within the text. Although this statement is meant in jest, Godwin, Wulf’s twin and other half, immediately constructs this conversion as a concrete possibility by the vehemence of his rejection: “[B]y the Holy Blood and by St. Peter, at whose shrine we are, I would kill her with my own hand before her lips kissed the book of the false prophet” (3-4). Wulf, more secularly-minded, murmurs “Or any of his followers,” setting the stage for the novel’s equation of religious conversion with sexual fall (4).


As these passages suggest, race plays a considerable role in orchestrating the novel’s treatment of both race and sexuality. Haggard’s initial description of the three cousins—Rosamund and the twin brothers Godwin and Wulf—indicates the tri-fold racial tensions that permeate the text. Even the first page of the novel describes the trio as “the imperial Rosamund, dark-haired and dark-eyed, ivory-skinned and slender-waisted . . . the pale, stately Godwin, with his dreaming face; and the bold-faced blue-eyed warrior, Wulf—Saxon to his fingertips—notwithstanding his father’s Norman blood” (1). While the conflict between Saxon and Norman is characteristic of the nineteenth-century crusades romance, it is relatively rare to encounter such an overtly erotic physical description of the Eastern woman (or, for that matter, the eastern man). Throughout the novel, Haggard contrasts Godwin’s scholarship with Wulf’s bluntness, although he emphasizes both of the brothers’ martial achievements. Although Haggard frequently appears to privilege Godwin’s carefully considered judgment, the brasher Wulf ultimately receives the hand of Rosamund, whom they both love. England’s future, Haggard thus suggests, stems from a marriage between Eastern imperial power and Saxon strength. Since many English people identified the Saxons as their direct historical representatives, eschewing their French Norman blood, this choice has particular cultural resonance.


Rosamund herself directly expresses the tensions created by her mixed racial heritage and her consequent struggle to conform to the Christian ideal. Godwin refers to her as an “angel” and “a symbol of all that is noble, high, and pure,” through which he may “worship the heaven I hope to share with you;” in essence, Godwin elevates his cousin to the Christian perfection, more or less the earthly equivalent of the Virgin Mary. Rosamund, however, responds in terms that indicate her potential for not only spiritual conversion, but sexual fall: “How know you? I am half an Eastern; the blood runs warm in me at times. I, too, have my thoughts and dreams. I think at times that I love power and the delights of life—a different life from this. Are you sure, Godwin, that this poor face will be an angel’s?” (43). This passage presents a stark contrast Rosamond's earlier assertion that she is a "Norman D'Arcy" and a "Christian maid," indicating the disintegration of her unified racial and religious self-construction. Rosamond centers this recognition of her Eastern heritage on her body, inviting her audience to read her as an erotic object as well as a domestic ideal, a threat as well as a woman who must be protected. Furthermore, Rosamund’s remarks indicate her own recognition of her potential to function as an Eastern imperialist, planted already within the D’Arcy household. Her mixed racial heritage renders her to a danger to the very domestic system which she represents.


Rosamond's potential conversion into an Eastern potentate appears continually throughout the novel. After her capture by Sinan, Saladin’s rival, she appears transformed to the brothers: "Rosamond it was without doubt, but Rosamond transformed, for now she had the look of an Eastern queen" (179). Haggard directs the reader's attention to her eroticized body: "Round her head was a cornet of gems from which hung a veil, but not so far as to hide her face. Jeweled, too, were her heavy plaits of hair, jeweled the rose-silk garments that she war, the girdle at her waist, her naked, ivory arms and even the slippers on her feet" (179). As this passage suggests, Rosamund’s influence in the novel draws heavily on her eastern connections, with their implicit sensuality; the potential for bigamy lingers always in the text. Godwin and Wulf both love Rosamund, and, having made a pact to abide by her decision without rancor or envy, they approach her father for permission. His startled observation raises this possibility directly: “Of all the strange things I have known, this is the strangest—that two knights should ask one wife between them!” (37). Rosamund also, however, continually experiences the sexual advances of the Eastern men around her in the wake of her capture. Sinan, master of the assassins, attempts to seduce her:
Again and again Sinan presented to her choice morsels of food, sometimes on the dishes and sometimes with his fingers, and these she was obliged to take. . . [H]e devoured her with his fierce eyes so that she shrank away from him to the furthest limit of the divan. (180)
Haggard thus fully establishes Rosamund’s seductive qualities while seemingly re-asserting her virtue. Despite its considerable focus on Rosamond, The Brethren also develops the themes of homosocial bonding that are characteristic of many other crusades romances. The twin brothers function as paired heroes who symbolically unite the racial characteristics of Englishness—both Norman and Saxon—in order to present a united front against the East. Wulf, announcing imminent war with Saladin in the early pages of the text, creates a continuity of male warriors that spans generations:
Even now the Sultan Saladin, sitting at Damascus, summons his hosts from far and wide, while his priests preach battle amongst the tribes and barons of the East. And when it comes, Brother, shall we not be there to share it, as were our grandfather, our father, our uncle, and so many of our kin? Shall we rot here in this dull land, as by our uncle’s wish we have done these many years . . . Is it our destiny to count cows and plough fields like peasants, while our peers are charging on the pagan, with cross and banner, as their blood runs red upon the holy sands of Palestine? (5)
The reference to the “holy sands of Palestine” notwithstanding, this passage re-creates the Crusade as a means of establishing an active version of masculinity and a fully integrated male social community rather than a religious venture. Wulf’s references to the twins’ “peers” indicates his desire for a male community that is crafted through shared military valor, and his scornful rejection of “count[ing] cows and plow[ing] fields” marks his explicit rejection of the domestic ideal that is ultimately embraced by many nineteenth-century Crusades romances. Like many other nineteenth-century crusades romances, The Brethren initially portrays the brother’s love for a woman as an impediment to their ability to fulfill their chivalric destiny. Godwin, seriously wounded early in the text, dreams that his dead father laments, “Fighting for a woman’s love who should have fallen in the Holy War? . . . Alas! That we must part again forever!” (16). Godwin is spared a trip to hell only by the pleas of the angels, who assert that he will atone for his mistakes and “live as a knight of heaven” (17).


Victorian post-colonial fears appear clearly in the passages which refer to Saladin. His powers within the text, like Rosamond’s own, appear both seductive and irresistible. Haggard writes, “Far away in the East a mighty monarch had turned his thoughts towards this English home and the maid of his royal blood who dwelt there, and who has mingled with his visions of conquest and of the triumph of his faith” (65). Even leaving Rosamund’s own imperial tendencies aside, her presence in the house makes it the focal point of eastern aggression. Thus, according to Haggard, England becomes vulnerable to a danger from which European military systems cannot defend them: once Saladin’s letter demanding the return of Rosamund arrives, “From this day fear settled on the place—fear of the blow that none were able to foresee, and against which they could not guard” (64). Saladin thus becomes the arbiter of England’s fate. Rosamand cries,
How strange is the destiny that wraps us all about! And now comes the sword of Saladin to shape it, and the hand of Saladin to drag me from my peaceful state to a dignity which I do not seek; and the dreams of Saladin, of whose kin I am, to interweave my life with the bloody policies of Syria and the unending war between Cross and Crescent. (61)
In this passage, as in the novel as a whole, Rosamund plays a dual role: she appears both as the representative of England’s domestic tranquility, threatened by Saladin’s advances, and as a potentially threatening Eastern element herself. As an analog for nineteenth-century England, transformed by its imperial ventures into a hybrid of Eastern and Western culture, Rosamund demonstrates the danger of reverse colonization. Unlike Sophie Cottin’s Matilda, a much earlier crusades romance heroine, Rosamond cannot rely upon her inviolable chastity to attain power and influence because she is already “kin” to Saladin and therefore tainted.


The novel, however, locates the greatest source of England’s threat not in Saladin or his emissaries, but in an English knight whose domestic treachery ultimately lays the D’Arcy stronghold open to attack. Rosamund, watching the shores of England fade into the distance from the ship upon which she is being held captive, turns on Sir Hugh Lozelle, who has become an ally of Saladin:
‘So it was you who planned this, knowing every secret of our home, where often you were a guest! You who for Paynim gold have murdered my father, not daring to show your face before his sword, but hanging like a thief upon the coast, ready to receive what braver men have stolen.’ (135-136)
By locating the true threat within England’s domestic borders, The Brethren thus conforms to the conventions of the sensation novel, which typically portrays the subversion of nineteenth-century domesticity from within. Furthermore, Rosamund’s accusation permits Haggard to continue Scott’s tradition of portraying Saladin and his armies as noble, worthy foes, if religiously deceived. In response to the anti-Muslim remarks of the Emir Hassan, a warrior of Saladin’s who disguises himself as a Greek Orthodox wine merchant to infiltrate the D’Arcy household and kidnap Rosamund, Sir Andrew D’Arcy responds, “[A]lthough I fought against them, I have learned to respect the skill and dedication of the Moslem warriors even though they have be deceived by the artifice of Satan.” In the same vein, his nephew Godwin reflects that “Noble servants of Christ should fight the enemies of the Cross and pray for their souls, not spit at them” (73). While both of these remarks clearly give uphold Christianity’s position as the true religion—a necessary position within the late Victorian religious community—they disassociate honor and religion. The novel can thus become a chivalric contest among equally worthy foes.