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Thou dost not know me, Holly. Hadst thou seen me but ten hours past, when my passion seized me, thou hadst shrunk from me in fear and trembling. I am of many moods, and, like the water in that vessel, I reflect many things; but they pass, my Holly; they pass and are forgotten. Only the water is the water still, and I still am I, and that which maketh the water maketh it, and that which maketh me what I seem, seeing that thou canst not know what I am.
It is always a great pleasure for me to encounter a classic adventure serial or novel and still be gripped by the narrative. Too often the trickle-down effect caused by plagiarizing and imitative creators robbing the beats of these original tales in the years since its publication lessen the impact. H. Rider Haggard has been a writer I have avoided precisely because of this. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ has appeared in different guises not only in the writer’s own sequels featuring Allan Quatermain, but the work of J.R.R. Tolkien with the Lady Galadriel and of course in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey.
As was the fashion of the time with fantastical adventure stories, Haggard plays up the conceit that this is an account of true events. So the story we are reading is in fact a document received by an nameless editor – the author himself – from one L. Horace Holly. The manuscript describes an incredible journey taken by Holly and his charge Leo to Africa, hoping to unravel a dynastic mystery connected to the younger man that stretches back in time to the pre-Christian era and may have led to the death of his father. Accompanied by long-suffering manservant Job, the group follow the directions left to them on a preserved clay shard , only to be shipwrecked and left stranded in a dangerous and unexplored region of the continent.
The group are rescued from certain death at the hands of a hidden civilization of man by the wise and venerable Bilali. Holly and Leo manage to communicate with the old fellow via a corrupted modern day version of his language and are informed that ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’, the white-skinned ruler of these people desires to see them. What unfolds is an adventure that becomes increasingly perilous for these proto-Indiana Joneses – being Cambridge academics that are also a dab hand at fighting off a multitude of opponents when the occasion arises – and one that may cost the young Leo his very soul.
My edition of She comes with an introduction from Margaret Atwood, lampshading the present-day relevance of the book by claiming Ayesha as prefiguring feminism. This feels unnecessarily shallow. The quotation I opened this review with comes from the most interesting section of the book, wherein Haggard flirts with the anti-Christian substance of She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha is fascinated by Christ’s message of peace, because in her eyes this is a typically weak and perilous philosophy for the cruelties of existence. It is a fantastic scene, because Holly is of course merely spouting the party line of what Christianity represents, as opposed to the realities of conquest, occupation and oppression that empowers the Church as an institution.
In that sense Ayesha in fact prefigures the secularist critique of Christianity, albeit in a fantastical way.
Haggard work is of its time, so there remains issues of chauvenism, racism and anti-semitism (towards both Jews and Muslims) in play here. If the modern reader can accept these caveats, the book can be enjoyed as an adventure story with ambitions beyond its seeming rip-roaring escapism.
Rumpole is determined to win the appeal of that ghastly terrorist who is now safely in Belmarsh Prison. This is absolutely the right place for Dr Mahmood Khan, if you want my opinion, or that of most sensible people, but when I tell Rumpole this he starts talking about Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. And he hardly listens when I tell him that there were no suicide bombers and no al Qaeda when King John signed up to the charter on the island of Runnymede.
John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey has become an enduring fictional creation. Leo McKern’s performance as the character on television immortalised him and the phrase ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’ is possibly more famous than the Rumpole himself. I remember watching the show when I was a kid and being fascinated not by the witty badinage, or plot twists, but by the wigs! Oh those wigs, I always wanted one.
Rumpole’s own wig has lost its lustre and has developed an unsightly yellowish tincture, to match his raggedy robes. He’s a man out of time it seems, coasting on successes that no one remembers, refusing to use a computer in court (pen and paper are faster he maintains) and reduced to relying on the dreadful Timson family for cases, as getting caught committing petty crimes is something of a tradition for them.
Things take a turn for the decidedly worse, however, when Rumpole agrees to defend a doctor from Pakistan who has been accused of crimes under the new anti-terrorism laws drawn up by the New Labour government. Under the terms of the legislation the defendant and their counsel are forbidden from learning what the particulars of the arrest are, such as what the crime in question was, when it occurred, what evidence has been presented. The days of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, have come and gone it seems, with pressure mounting on Rumpole to drop the case from above and below. A New Labour stooge attempts bribery and the Timsons withdraw their business. Rumpole himself begins to doubt his client’s innocence. Dr Khan’s seems almost too good to be true, waxing lyrical about cricket and the Queen, all the while wearing a patient, bemused expression on his face while sitting in Belmarsh prison. Is it all an act? What’s more She Who Must Be Obeyed, Hilda, receives an unusual proposition from Rumpole’s enemy Justice Leonard Bullingham, whom he nicknames Mad Bull, all of which she details exhaustively in her own memoirs! Could Rumpole’s lady wife be looking to sweep the carpet from under him?
Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is a quick read, with amusing asides from our hero to the reader. As far as I know She Who Must Be Obeyed was previously an invisible presence in the books, at least that was my impression from the television show as a kid. Mortimer introduces extracts from her own memoirs as a counterpoint to Rumpole’s struggles with the Dr Khan case. Much of the humour derives from witty quips traded between the long suffering couple and the courting of Hilda by Mr Justice Mad Bull makes for a diverting secondary plot.
However, at its heart this book is an angry broadside against the policies of New Labour, its shirking of the letter of the law and dismantling of civil liberties. Rumpole finds himself stuck in a situation Kafkaesque in its absurdity, attempting to defend a man stripped of any right to a fair trial. Any appeal on our hero’s part to the rights of a citizen of Britain is dismissed as unfashionable and behind the times. Rumpole himself is treated as a relic of a by-gone age.
That Mortimer ties this all together in a gripping, yet also witty package is a testament to his skills as a writer. This is my first taste of the Rumpole series and I’ll be happy to investigate further.