Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Inaugurating my new journal page with Mr. Meeson's Will, by H. Rider Haggard

Waking Lion Books, 2006
originally published 1888
193 pp

I've been stockpiling quite a few lesser-known Victorian and British novels for a while, and figured that I needed a separate space for talking about them.  Just to set the record straight, I'm not an English major, not a reviewer, and definitely not a writer.  I'm just a plain old casual reader person who loves books and loves to share my thoughts about them.  So if it's real reviews you're looking for, or deep insights on the books I'm reading you won't find them here -- there are plenty of bloggers much smarter than I who can help you out. 

So now to Mr. Meeson's Will.  I first found this title while doing research for my year-long project of reading in the area of the history of mystery/crime/detective fiction, but it didn't take too long to realize that this book really didn't fit into that category.  In fact, there's a tag at the top of the cover that says "Classics Books Library: Suspense," but  it's really one of those novels that sort of defies any attempt at pigeonholing, since it combines small touches of satire, shipwreck, adventure, romance, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek courtroom drama.   The story begins when a mean-spirited, hot-tempered, avaricious publisher from Birmingham refuses to give any more money to one his bestselling authors, whom he has also cheated out of her rights to that book and any future work.  His nephew, Eustace, just happens to be in the office that day and tells his uncle just what he thinks about how Miss Augusta Smithers had been treated, and is thus disinherited.  It gets worse: without the money to take her very sick sister away to a warmer climate, the sister finally succumbs to her illness.  Refusing to go back to Meeson, Augusta arranges to start her life over in New Zealand, where she has a relative who will take her in.  Off she goes on the RMS Kangaroo, and as luck would have it, discovers that her nemesis Mr. Meeson is on board as well.

After a terrible tragedy not too far away from the Kerguelen Islands, Augusta finds herself stuck in a lifeboat with Meeson, two sailors and the young son of a friend made on board the Kangaroo. Landing on these desolate islands, where only a few whalers ever turn up, Meeson becomes ill and decides that maybe he was too hasty in disinheriting his nephew.  He wants to write a new will, but there are neither writing materials nor any sort of paper to be had.  The only option, it seems, is to tattoo a new will onto the skin of one of the survivors, but the only person willing to volunteer is Augusta.  Luckily one of the sailors is handy with a tattoo needle, and the will is eventually written on Augusta's back.  But the fun really begins when Augusta is rescued, brought back to England, and young Eustace makes his claim. 

from Wikipedia
The sad part of reading a modern reprint of this novel is that it leaves out the lovely illustrations, as in the drawing above showing the judge examining the will on Augusta's back.  On the other hand, while I'd never give it the moniker of great literature, it's a lighthearted fun read and pokes fun not only at capitalist greed, the anonymity of the working man and as in Bleak House, the legal profession and the plight of inheritors when a case gets stuck in Chancery court.  This book, however, was controversial in its day, which I discovered by following a Wikipedia link that took me to an Australian newspaper article of 1888, where Haggard was accused of plagiarizing the story.  According to the article's author, 
"The central idea, and in fact the only idea in it ... is that of a girl who allowed a will to be tattooed on her shoulder.  The entire plot is hung upon this ridiculous incident.  The 'idea' -- such as it was -- sold the book, but unfortunately it belonged to another writer.  The writer from whom Mr. Rider Haggard borrowed the tattooing idea is Mr. Charles Aubert, and his book is a collection of stories called "Les Nouvelles Amoureuses," published by Marpon or Flammarion, Paris, 1886."
The specific story in that book he was said to have plagiarized from was  "Le Cas de Mademoiselle Suzanne," evidently with a similar plot device.  But looking past Haggard's reputation for plagiarizing, his books are still widely read, and recently Mr. Meeson's Will has been re-examined by scholars, noting that the "plot seems to lend itself to feminist interpretation." 

It's good for a relaxing afternoon read, fun, not too taxing on the brain; if that's the sort of story you're looking for, then you've found it.

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