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Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Rare African Flower, Saved

Posted by Bill Benzon on 05/28/09 at 02:36 PM

When flowers are not being flowers, they are sometimes put to use as symbols. I’m interested in one such usage, in Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, though I don’t think it’s quite symbolic. Or rather, yes, it is easy to read it as symbolic, but to say so would be to paper over the fact that I don’t really understand how this usage works.

Regardless of exactly how the flower imagery works, it is being recruited to sexual service as suggested by the word “deflower,” but the potential victim is a 10-year old girl. While the girl escapes unharmed, Haggard has her in jeopardy for three chapters, three chapters where the reader doesn’t know what has happened or what might happen to her. Why does Haggard put the reader through this?

First I tell this girl’s story absent almost all of the flower imagery. Then I go back and present that imagery, not to analyze it in detail, but just to lay it out, to show how much of it there is and how specifically it is connected to the girl and her plight. Finally, I confront the question: Why?

Flossie Saved from the Masai

Allan Quatermain (1887) is a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines (1885), with the same three men – Allan Quatermain, Capt. John Good, and Sir Henry Curtis – traveling to a lost world deep inside Africa. The story opens in England three years after the trio had returned from the mines with a small pouch of diamonds and a large stash of adventuresome memories. They’re bored with civilization and itching for adventure. As Quatermain told himself:

And so in my trouble, as I walked up and down the oak-paneled vestibule of my house there in Yorkshire, I longed once more to throw myself into the arms of Nature. Not the Nature which you know, the Nature that waves in well-kept woods and smiles out in corn-fields, but Nature as she was in the age when creation was complete, undefiled as yet by any human sinks of sweltering humanity. I would go again where the wild game was, back to the land whereof none know the history, back to the savages, whom I love, although some of them are almost as merciless as Political Economy.

And so, acting on a vague tale about a lost white race, the trio returns to East Africa, heading toward Mt. Kenya by way of the Tana River. Their immediate goal is a mission station run by a Scotsman, Mr. Mackenzie, whom they believe may have more specific information about this lost race.

They arrive at the mission after the usual dangers, which included a bunch of Masai warriors who had been set upon them to settle a score. They escape the Masai – which means that the score has not been settled. The Masai will return.

In any event, the mission is a fine place, with gardens, fields, cattle, a respectable house, a sturdy stone wall for protection, and a tall tree at the center. Mackenzie lives there with his wife and their young daughter, Miss Flossie, who is known as Water-lily to the mission’s native Africans. On the morning of the second day Miss Flossie has gone, leaving a note explaining that she’s on a ramble and taken her donkey, a nurse, and a couple of “boys.” Mrs. Mackenzie was not particularly concerned, as Flossie is experienced at this sort of thing.

It was otherwise with Mr. Mackenzie and with Quatermain, who was worried on account of the Masai they’d escaped from not so far back – the reader, of course, also knows about those Masai. Umslopogaas, Quatermain’s Zulu companion, smelled blood. No one gets really worried, however, until a search party comes back in the late afternoon without having seen Flossie. By dinner time the Mackenzies are frantic – and so, presumably, is the reader. Finally, after dinner, they hear some news. First the severed head of one of the “boys” is tossed over the wall. Shortly thereafter the captain of the Masai warriors shows up with an ultimatum. They’ve captured the girl and want ransom, 240 cattle (one for each warrior in the group) and more:

‘Now I have a proposition for thee. We would not harm the little girl; she is too fair to harm, and has besides a brave spirit. Give us one of these three men – a life for a life – and we will let her go, and throw in the black woman with her also. This is a fair offer, white man. We ask but for one, not for the three; we must take another opportunity to kill the other two. I do not even pick my man, though I should prefer the big one,’ pointing to Sir Henry; ‘he looks strong, and would die more slowly.’

‘And if I say I will not yield the man?’ said Mr Mackenzie.

‘Nay, say not so, white man,’ answered the Masai, ‘for then thy daughter dies at dawn, and the woman with her says thou hast no other child. Were she older I would take her for a servant; but as she is so young I will slay her with my own hand – ay, with this very spear. Thou canst come and see, an’ thou wilt. I give thee a safe conduct;’ and the fiend laughed aloud as his brutal jest.

Quatermain offers himself into the deal, as one would expect, but the others turn him down. They tell the Masai that they’ll think it over and let him know at dawn.

‘Very well, white man,’ answered the savage indifferently; ‘only remember if thy answer is late thy little white bud will never grow into a flower, that is all, for I shall cut it with this,’ and he touched the spear.

Note carefully the man’s choice of words, “thy little white bud will never grow into a flower,” describing a girl known as Water-lily.

Of course, these valiant British, three Englishman and a Scotsman, are going to make a rescue attempt. They plan and prepare at night and move out before dawn. The odds are absurd, Quatermain, Curtis, Good, Mackenzie, and Umslopogaas plus twenty or so of Mackenzie’s male parishioners, all against 250 Masai warriors. Their scheme succeeds, of course: they’ve got guns, surprise, and they’re British. Flossie herself comes through unscathed, though a bit scared:

When we were finishing our breakfast the door opened, and in came little Flossie, very pale and tottery, but quite unhurt. She kissed us all and thanked us. I congratulated her on the presence of mind she had shown in shooting the Masai with her Derringer pistol, and thereby saving her own life.

‘Oh, don’t talk of it!’ she said, beginning to cry hysterically; ‘I shall never forget his face as he went turning round and round, never – I can see it now.’

In a book of 23 chapters, this incident stretches from the beginning of chapter five, when Flossie was missed at breakfast, through the middle of chapter eight, when we sit down to breakfast after having slaughtered the Masai and rescued Flossie. The reader has three full chapters (five, six and seven) in which to fear for Flossie’s life and, I suspect, her sexual innocence. The men who captured her, after all, are savages. To be sure, no one expresses any concern over her sexual innocence, no explicit statements, no hints. They certainly fear for her life, but if they’ve got any other fears, they’re not sharing those with anyone.

That is to say, if you, dear reader, are going to fear for Flossie’s sexual innocence, you are all but on your own in conjuring up such a fear. No one in the book is asserting such a concern to you. All that’s in the book is the general situation, a white girl held captive by Masai warriors bent on evil, and the mention of flowers. We’ve seen the Masai suggest cutting the “bud” with his spear, now let’s look at Haggard’s flower imagery in full.

A Flower for Allan and Flossie

Let’s return to the middle of chapter four, when the trio first arrives at the Mackenzie mission. After this and that we learn of Mrs. Mackenzie’s gardens and are introduced to Miss Flossie. After some other business Miss Flossie returns:

Just as I returned his axe to Umslopogaas, Miss Flossie came up and took me off to see her collection of flowers, African liliums, and blooming shrubs, some of which are very beautiful, many of the varieties being quite unknown to me and also, I believe, to botanical science. I asked her if she had ever seen or heard of the ‘Goya’ lily, which Central African explorers have told me they have occasionally met with and whose wonderful loveliness has filled them with astonishment. This lily, which the natives say blooms only once in ten years, flourishes in the most arid soil. Compared to the size of the bloom, the bulb is small, generally weighing about four pounds. As for the flower itself (which I afterwards saw under circumstances likely to impress its appearance fixedly in my mind), I know not how to describe its beauty and splendour, or the indescribable sweetness of its perfume. The flower – for it has only one bloom – rises from the crown of the bulb on a thick fleshy and flat-sided stem, the specimen that I saw measured fourteen inches in diameter, and is somewhat trumpet-shaped like the bloom of an ordinary ‘longiflorum’ set vertically. First there is the green sheath, which in its early stage is not unlike that of a water-lily, but which as the bloom opens splits into four portions and curls back gracefully towards the stem. Then comes the bloom itself, a single dazzling arch of white enclosing another cup of richest velvety crimson, from the heart of which rises a golden-coloured pistil. I have never seen anything to equal this bloom in beauty or fragrance, and as I believe it is but little known, I take the liberty to describe it at length. Looking at it for the first time I well remember that I realized how even in a flower there dwells something of the majesty of its Maker. To my great delight Miss Flossie told me that she knew the flower well and had tried to grow it in her garden, but without success, adding, however, that as it should be in bloom at this time of the year she thought that she could procure me a specimen.

Not only is this 10-year-old known as Water-lily, but she has her own garden and is actually familiar with a particularly rare and fine species of lily. Note also the length of this passage and the detailed description of this rare lily – over 300 words. Thus, well before he puts Flossie in danger, Haggard has impressed upon the reader her identification with flowers in general and with this particular flower in particular.

Later on Flossie informs Quarermain that she carries a Derringer for protection. She has even used it to kill a leopard that had jumped on her donkey. That leopard’s skin is now on her bed. Not only is she a rare African flower, but she’s licensed to kill and well-equipped to handle danger.

Now let’s look at the note she left the next day when she went out on a ramble:

‘Dearest M–, – It is just dawn, and I am off to the hills to get Mr Q– a bloom of the lily he wants, so don’t expect me till you see me. I have taken the white donkey; and nurse and a couple of boys are coming with me – also something to eat, as I may be away all day, for I am determined to get the lily if I have to go twenty miles for it. – Flossie.’

And she found the lily. When the Masai captain delivered his ultimatum, he also delivered a large basket. The basket contains a bulb and flower of the Goya lily, “in full bloom and quite uninjured,” and a note from Flossie:

‘Dearest Father and Mother,’ ran the note, ‘The Masai caught us when we were coming home with the lily. I tried to escape but could not. They killed Tom: the other man ran away. They have not hurt nurse and me, but say that they mean to exchange us against one of Mr Quatermain’s party. I will have nothing of the sort. Do not let anybody give his life for me. Try and attack them at night; they are going to feast on three bullocks they have stolen and killed. I have my pistol, and if no help comes by dawn I will shoot myself. They shall not kill me. If so, remember me always, dearest father and mother. I am very frightened, but I trust in God. I dare not write any more as they are beginning to notice. Goodbye. – Flossie.’

Scrawled across the outside of this was ‘Love to Mr Quatermain. They are going to take the basket, so he will get the lily.’

Once again she writes of the lily, but also manages to incorporate some useful intelligence.

That’s it for the flower imagery, but I want to offer one last passage, the scene where Flossie uses her Derringer. We’re in the thick of battle and Quatermain notices that Flossie is still alive and without a guard:

There were no living Masai near, but the black nurse was on her feet and with a spear cutting the rope that bound Flossie’s feet. Next second she ran to the wall of the kraal and began to climb over it, an example which the little girl followed. But Flossie was evidently very stiff and cramped, and could only go slowly, and as she went two Masai flying down the kraal caught sight of her and rushed towards her to kill her. The first fellow came up just as the poor little girl, after a desperate effort to climb the wall, fell back into the kraal. Up flashed the great spear, and as it did so a bullet from my rifle found its home in the holder’s ribs, and over he went like a shot rabbit. But behind him was the other man, and, alas, I had only that one cartridge in the magazine! Flossie had scrambled to her feet and was facing the second man, who was advancing with raised spear. I turned my head aside and felt sick as death. I could not bear to see him stab her. Glancing up again, to my surprise I saw the Masai’s spear lying on the ground, while the man himself was staggering about with both hands to his head. Suddenly I saw a puff of smoke proceeding apparently from Flossie, and the man fell down headlong.

Flossie had shot him with her Derringer. She then managed to scramble to apparent safety.

For the battle doesn’t end here. There’s more killing to do. The reader won’t know that Flossie is OK until the battle is completely finished and we meet her at breakfast afterward. Still, any reasonably experienced reader will give a sigh of relief at this point.

And at this point the Mackenzies leave the story. Mr. Mackenzie decided that he’d had enough of “savages,” and, besides, he’d managed to put away thirty thousand pounds from his work as a trader. Quatermain, Curtis, Good, and Umslopogaas tarry a week longer at the mission to rest-up and allow things to settle down and then they go on their way in search of a lost white civilization somewhere beyond Mt. Kenya.

What’s Going On?

These chapters may well be the most intense extended section in the book. A bit later there’s a long transit through a deep dark tunnel where our trio come near to death, and there’s a long battle sequence near the very end. But none of that is as intense as the endangerment and rescue of Flossie, with both her flower and her Derringer.

So: What’s up?

I’m not sure and, as I’ve been thinking it through, it just gets more and more complicated, more interesting as well but, on the whole, more than I want to tackle at the moment. So I’m going to have to make do with a rather impressionistic account.

What it does, in the first place, is to draw Quatermain himself deeply into this story. Yes, he wrote the story, but then he wrote King Solomon’s Mines, too. That wasn’t really his story, rather, it was about Henry Curtis’s search for his lost brother; Quatermain was simply the guide and Africa-hand that made the search possible.

The story in this book begins with no specific aim other than getting out of civilization and deep into adventure in Africa. It ends with romance, intrigue and civil war, all centered on Curtis and Good, not Quatermain. The Flossie story, however, moves Quatermain into focus. She shows him her garden and he tells her of a certain rare and wonderful lily. She tells him that she’s seen it and then sets out to find a specimen for him. At this point their relationship is interrupted by the Masai, forcing heroic measures to restore that relationship. Quatermain is at the center of this action; he volunteered to sacrifice himself for her and, when he was turned down, he planned and directed the rescue. In particular, he is the one who provided the cover she needed to make her escape from the early morning melee. Flossie and her family then leave Africa while Quatermain and his crew continue on their journey where they, in effect, rescue Africa from the Africans.

This extended incident has no causal consequences for the rest of the story, but it has emblematic consequences, if you will. My rough impression is that the sexualized violence of the Flossie-Quatermain story generates an aura for fears and desires that inform the rest of the adventure. The sexual aspect finds a home in the complicated romantic quadrangle set up between Curtis, Good, and the sister Queens of Zu-Vindis, Nyleptha and Sorais. Those romantic complications interact with existing political tensions to produce civil war, thus answering to the violence of the earlier episode. The good guys win, of course, and Curtis ends up ruling as King-Consort while Good creates a navy. Quatermain writes the story while he is laid-up by a lingering wound. When the manuscript is complete, he dies and is given an appropriate burial. Curtis vows to keep Zu-Vendis isolated from the rest of the world, and he certainly includes Europeans in that interdiction.

In effect, our trio saves the (white) heart of Africa from Africans, but also from Europeans. This salvation is prefigured as a rescue from rape. But, where Flossie and her parents return to England, to civilization, Quatermain and friends disappear from the civilized world leaving only this story as evidence of their last journey. Their trip takes them nowhere, that is, to a utopia (cue Adam Roberts). Just as saving Flossie from the Masai is a good thing, so saving Zu-Vendis must be a good thing as well. We’ll just forget that this good thing is out of this world.

As a rational argument, it’s worthless. As a mythic statement, it’s not so bad. As a novel, it’s a heck of tale. 


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