Bertram Mitford (1855-1914) could be said to have been the darker cousin to H. Rider Haggard (1856-1925). Both authors wrote adventure novels set in the perilous wilds of Africa, but Mitford seems to have used that setting, and his own experiences, to explore the darker side of human nature much more than Haggard.
To me, Mitford’s magnificent work The Sign of the Spider is a study of human desperation: the main character is an anti-hero whose attempts to earn his fortune lead him — both figuratively and literally — down an increasingly dark path. Mitford’s compact ghost story The Weird of Deadly Hollow looks at the motivations and consequences of revenge.
Mitford’s novel Renshaw Fanning’s Quest (1894), his eighth, is an African treasure hunt story reminiscent of King Solomon’s Mines, but more significantly is a story of human greed and betrayal. Valancourt Books still leads the charge on this fascinating author, and has reprinted ‘Quest with a facsimile of its original cover:
One thing that I’ve learned about Mitford’s work is that he has a wonderful way of lulling the reader into a complacency early in his books. Charming scenes and tales of African colonial life give way to scenes of horror and violence so suddenly that it almost feels like a physical blow to the gut.
The title character, Renshaw Fanning, is a Boer farmer who works an isolated farm in the arid South African plains. During a severe drought which eliminates most of his livestock (and consequently his finances), a recurrence of malaria leaves him raving and near death.
He is fortuitously found by an Englishman, Maurice Sellon, who is wandering lost through the barren lands, and Sellon begins nursing Fanning back to health. While indisposed, however, Fanning raves about fantastic treasures hidden in the “Valley of the Eye.” In a moment of moral weakness, Sellon finds Fanning’s hidden “map” to the valley, but it is snatched from his grasp mysteriously before he can puruse it.
Fanning is grateful for Sellon’s help, however, and offers to cut him in on the spoils if he joins the quest to find the Valley of the Eye, which holds what is potentially the largest uncut diamond in the world. The valley is hidden in a wild mountainous wasteland, however, and guarded by hostile natives armed with poison arrows. Fanning’s previous solo attempts to find the valley ended in failure and very nearly death, but with Sellon’s help he feels confident that they will succeed. To speed Fanning’s complete recovery, they travel to the much more hospitable farm of Fanning’s good friend Christopher Selwood at Sunningdale.
It vexes me that I don’t know more about Mitford’s personal life, because consistent themes crop up in all of his works that suggest the author’s own world-weariness. In particular, each of Mitford’s novels I have read so far have featured, as a prominent plot point, severely disfunctional marriages and romantic relationships. In the case of ‘Quest, both Fanning and Sellon find themselves competing for the attentions of Violet Avery, a beautiful distant relative of Selwood who is visiting from England. The competition, and the secrets behind it, builds tension between the would-be adventurers.
Much of the early part of book is a pleasant description of pastoral life in South Africa, which might fit equally well in a Merchant Ivory Production. This is significantly punctuated by a very disturbing and unexpected action scene, in which the residents of Sunningdale must repel a gang of murderous and well-armed fugitives. This scene is especially unsettling after having read some of Mitford’s other works, and knowing how nasty Mitford can be when he wants to be.
Roughly halfway through the book, the treasure hunt begins proper. The description of the expedition, and the search for the valley aided by very ambiguous clues, is quite fascinating.
As I have said, however, Mitford is a master at blindsiding the reader, and when things start to go wrong for the adventurers, things happen very quickly and go sour very fast. This part of the novel feels like one shocking emotional blow after another to the reader, especially after we have developed a liking of the characters from the “Merchant Ivory” part of the novel. Once I reached this latter third part of the book, I couldn’t put it down until the end.
Without going into too much detail, i.e. spoilers, there’s another nice aspect to Mitford’s novels: throughout, he maintains a stark realistic view of how the world works, and refuses to gloss over its flaws and injustices. Things don’t always work out exactly as a “typical” adventure story would, and that provides a lot of food for thought long after the novel is finished.
Renshaw Fanning’s Quest is an excellent novel which tells an adventure story but does a bit more on top of it: it explores the darker side of human nature. I can strongly recommend it, and I am looking forward to reading his “Zulu warrior trilogy” next…