Henry Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra
And talking about historical novels, Egypt and all this sort of stuff…
Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines and She, two books that are highly regarded here on Karavansara, also wrote a book called Cleopatra, published in 1889.
Now, it is sometimes an overlooked fact that Rider Haggard wrote a huge number of books (56 novels, 3 collections of stories and 10 non-fiction books), and while he is still best remembered for his Quatermain-Ayesha novels, but his catalog includes al sort of historical and exotic adventure.
And most if not all of it is available for free online.
But about Cleopatra, now…
The book is supposedly the translation of a mysterious scroll, found in a tomb in the Prologue. Not the most original of ploys, but why re-invent the wheel?
This is the story of Harmachis, nurtured by a sect of nostalgic pharaoh-lovers to seek out and kill Cleopatra, that is seen as an usurper and a fraud – she was, after all, descendant of one of Alexander’s generals, and was therefore more Greek than Egyptian.
The text is narrated in Harmachis’ own voice, through the papyrus.
And here’s the problem.
Because Harmachis writes like this…
By Osiris who sleeps at Abouthis, I write the truth.
I, Harmachis, Hereditary Priest of the Temple, reared by the divine Sethi, aforetime a Pharaoh of Egypt, and now justified in Osiris and ruling in Amenti. I, Harmachis, by right Divine and by true descent of blood King of the Double Crown, and Pharaoh of the Upper and Lower Land. I, Harmachis, who cast aside the opening flower of our hope, who turned from the glorious path, who forgot the voice of God in hearkening to the voice of woman. I, Harmachis, the fallen, in whom are gathered up all woes as waters are gathered in a desert well, who have tasted of every shame, who through betrayal have betrayed, who in losing the glory that is here have lost the glory which is to be, who am utterly undone—I write, and, by Him who sleeps at Abouthis, I write the truth.
Yes, son, maybe the truth you are writing, but you write the truth in the most unwieldy way.
Rider Haggard is once again playing forger, like he did when he forged the testament of Amenartas in She, but instead of stopping at one chapter, he writes the whole book in a fake ancient tone that while fascinating, can sometimes be a wee little slow.
Thanks goodness, Harmachis’ prose gets a lot better when he’s writing dialog…
“At length thou art come, Charmion,” I said. “It is over-late.”
“Yea, my Lord; but by no means could I escape Cleopatra. Her mood is strangely crossed to-night. I know not what it may portend. Strange whims and fancies blow across it like light and contrary airs upon a summer sea, and I cannot read her purpose.”
The story is filled with magic, exoticism and would probably cause a mild case of apoplexy in a proper Egyptologist for its cavalier treatment of Egyptian religion and magic. But Haggard is not Ebers, and he knows when it’s time to ditch historical accuracy to push on the “Mysterious Egypt” pedal.
That’s another reason why the novel works like a wonder.
Often considered a minor Rider-Haggard book, Cleopatra can be fun if you can get through the stilted, psaeudo-Biblical style of narration.
The dialogues are snappy, and Cleopatra herself is a wonderful character, showing that once again, just like in She, tha author’s sympathy is with the Egyptian girl in the show.
If you like palace intrigue, Egyptian magic, historical entertainment and a good, solid female lead, Henry Rider-Haggard’s Cleopatra might be a nice surprise.
The book was made into a movie in 1917, featuring Theda Bara and Fritz Leiber Sr., but believe me, the book is better.