The Niceties of Plagiarism

How numerous and conscientious must an author’s footnotes be? A widely known British authority, H. F. ELLIS, examines the possibility that almost everything is plagiarism in one degree or another. The misappropriations, he believes, can even go so far as to include a writing style as well as schemes and inventions.


IT HAS been pointed out to me that there exists a similarity between the scene of Umslopogaas frightening Alphonse with his axe and a scene in Far from the Madding Crowd. I regret this coincidence, and believe that the talented author of that work will not be inclined to accuse me of literary immorality on its account.”

The words are Rider Haggard’s. Not fugitive or ignoble words, and it surprises me that in all the dozen or so times I must have read Allan Quatermain they never caught my eye before. I wouldn’t claim to have read the whole book a dozen times; the customs of the Zu-vendis, for instance, I generally skip. But to the description of how Umslopogaas held the stair I return, as a hart to the water brooks, at regular intervals; as also to that earlier episode, “A Slaughter Grim and Great,” in which Quatermain himself establishes for all time (“I put on a light Norfolk jacket over my mail shirt”) the correct rig for slaughtering Masai.

The book ends with a kind of postscript entitled “Authorities,” and it is here that the author makes his chivalrous apologia to Thomas Hardy. He does much more. He acknowledges his indebtedness to “Mr. Thomson’s admirable history of travel Through Masai Land”; to his brother, John G. Haggard, R.N., “H.B.M.’s consul at Madagascar and formerly consul at Lamu,” for details of the mode of life of the same tribe; to his sister-in-law, “who kindly put the lines on page 202 into rhyme”; and to “an extract in a review from some book of travel of which I cannot recollect the name” for the idea of the great crabs in the valley of the subterranean river. “There is,” he gratuitously adds, “an underground river in Peter Wilkins, but at the time of writing the foregoing pages I had not read that quaint but entertaining work.”

“ There is an underground river in Peter Wil- kins . . .” So sensitive an admission suggests either that novelists of Rider Haggard’s time had a delicacy of conscience that has not descended to their successors or that critics and readers of the eighteen eighties (Allan Quatermain was published in 1887) were notably hot on anything that smacked, however faintly, of plagiarism.

I am willing, with Haggard’s example of manly frankness before me, to admit that I have not at the time of writing read Peter Wilkins (indeed, I will go further, now that I have looked up the plot of it in a handbook, and admit that I have no intention of reading it in the future; it is about a mariner cast up on a fabulous shore who marries a beautiful gawrey, by name Youwarkee, and accompanies her to Nosmnbdsgrsutt), but I know that it was published in 1751, and on that evidence alone would be inclined to acquit Rider Haggard of the faintest suspicion of dishonor. Even if he had read the quaint but entertaining work, what is wrong with dragging in an underground river again after a lapse of a hundred and thirty-six years? I doubt whether a modern writer would feel the compulsion to enter a disclaimer. It is not as if Robert Paltock, the author of Peter Wilkins, invented underground rivers. There is a well-known one in the Aeneid - and even that was pinched by Virgil from Homer without a word of apology. Rider Haggard’s is the first on record, so far as I know, in which the water was actually boiling and the heat sufficient to shrivel up the feathers of dead swans. He had no earthly need to feel shifty about it.

The curious case of Umslopogaas and Alphonse is on a rather different footing. Haggard is a little vague as to whether he had or had not ever read Far from the Madding Crowd. The likely inference is that he had not, but felt that a categorical admission of the fact would not help to soothe its talented author. Perhaps, like so many of us since his time, he scarcely knew whether he had or hadn’t. It is a characteristic of Hardy’s works that few people remember precisely which ones they have read; a broad general impression of fallible womanhood against a background of peasants, stocks, and thunderstorms remains, the incidental details escape one.

In any case, any fair-minded man will agree, I think, that when Rider Haggard sat down to describe how a Zulu chieftain, of the blood of the Chaka and a captain of the regiment of the Nkomabakosi, terrified a small French cook at the mission house of the Reverend Mackenzie on the Tana River in Central Africa by whirling his ax round and round his victim ("it seemed to literally flow up and down his body and limbs”), finishing up by chopping off one of his victim’s curling mustachios, it was reasonable for Haggard to believe that the thing had not been done before. He could hardly be expected to glance through Hardy’s ten published romances in case a somewhat similar scene had occurred to the interpreter of the Wessex countryside.

The shock must have been great to a man of Rider Haggard’s sensibility — a man so honorable that he could not come upon a passing reference to giant crabs in a review without acknowledging his indebtedness — when some busybody “pointed out” to him the scene in “The Hollow amid the Ferns” in Chapter XXVIII of Far from the Madding Crowd. There it all was, Sergeant Troy of the Eleventh Dragoon Guards showing off his skill with the broadsword on the dainty form of Miss Bathsheba Everdene, only surviving daughter of the late Mr. John Everdene, of Casterbridge (“she was enclosed in a firmament of light, and of sharp hisses, resembling a sky-full of meteors close at hand”), and cutting off a lock of her hair in the process.

It is true that the two scenes were not entirely parallel. A broadsword is not an ax; the veranda of a mission house on the Tana River differs from a saucer-shaped pit near Weatherbury; the caterpillar that settled on the front of Bathsheba’s bodice and was promptly spitted by the Sergeant ("I merely gave point to your bosom where the caterpillar was” explained Troy afterwards, in his rough, soldierly way, “and instead of running you through checked the extension a thousandth of an inch short of your surface”) makes no appearance in the African scene; Bathsheba rather enjoyed the experience, if anything, and got a kiss at the end of it: Alphonse did not.

But Rider Haggard scorned to call in aid such trifling divergencies. He might have argued that there is no copyright in the cutting off of hair and whiskers; swordsmen and others have been doing it since dueling began. Brigadier Gérard bagged half an Englishman’s mustache with a bullet, and Conan Doyle never dreamed of explaining in a footnote that at the time of writing he thought the incident unprecedented. But Rider Haggard — who, as we know from the dedication of Allan Quatermain, held “the state and dignity of English gentleman” to be “the highest rank to which we can attain” — had standards all his own. It is as well, perhaps, that later novelists have been content to take their similarities and coincidences for granted; otherwise the list of “authorities” at the end of their works might assume the proportions of a bibliography.

There is, for all his care, one regrettable omission in Rider Haggard’s acknowledgments. He might have told us where he got the idea that Zulu chieftains and High Priests and Queens of Zu-vendis speak, and should be addressed, in the prose of the Authorized Version. “Dost” and “hast” and “peradventure” are meat and drink to them. “Am I a good man to laugh at, thinkest thou?” cried Umslopogaas to the shrinking Alphonse, only to be sharply rebuked a moment later by Quatermain himself with a “What meanest thou by such mad tricks?” Sir Henry Curtis has the trick of it too. “Dost thou mean that thou wilt marry me, even now?” he asks the shy Queen Nyleptha, and she very properly answers, “Nay, I know not; let my lord say.”

We have a right to know where Rider Haggard picked up this convention, which in later years became almost obligatory for all Unknown White Races, Tibetans, Martian Princesses. Green Venusians — any un-English types, in fact, whose normal speech would tend to be unintelligible. In his own interests he should have fathered the idea on somebody else, perhaps on the author of Peter Wilkins. It is too heavy a responsibility for one man alone to bear.