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Manly Pursuits.

Ann Harries. Manly Pursuits. New York. Bloomsbury (St. Martin's, distr.). 1999. 342 pages. $24.95. isbn 1-58234-019-6.

Manly Pursuits is that rare thing, an authentic novel of ideas. Set in 1899 just before the outbreak of the Boer War, it brings together juxtapositions of ideas which justify the remark of one character that "it's a bloody small world." The characters whose encounters and conflicts dramatize these juxtapositions include the imperialists Cecil Rhodes, Leander Jameson, and Alfred Milner and the writers Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, Olive Schreiner, and Frank Harris. Other writers are seen in flashbacks (John Ruskin, Lewis Carroll), and there are allusions to Darwin and Huxley and to noted fictional characters (Alan Quartermain and Sherlock Holmes). Francis Wills, the fictitious narrator and the world's foremost authority on bird song, published a definitive study of nightingale song and then was disgraced by the outcry of antivivisectionists.

Public disgrace - Oscar Wilde's affair with Alfred Douglas being the most notable example - is an essential theme in Manly Pursuits, and Wills flees from his when Cecil Rhodes, himself disgraced by his encouragement of the 1895 Jameson Raid, hires him to bring English birds to South Africa for the sake of their singing, which Rhodes believes will prolong his life. Meanwhile, Milner is working to bring about a war with the Boers to achieve possession of South Africa's gold and diamond wealth.

So much for plot and historical background in an absolutely believable historical novel. What makes the book more than this is the way Harries has defined the essential conflicts of her chosen era. Rhodes's dream of a British empire which will control the whole world - "I would annex the planets if I could!" - is balanced not only by Olive Schreiner's dream of perfect equality of the sexes but also by her attempt to convince Milner that a war with the Boers, regardless of the outcome, will create a South Africa which inevitably will deny civil rights to its African majority.

The disgrace of Oscar Wilde is directly related not only to his belief that "aesthetics is higher than ethics" but also to the teachings of John Ruskin on the need to reconcile physical labor and art. Rhodes admires both Ruskin and Kipling and assumes that art and correct imperialist thinking have been combined in the latter's poem about "the white man's burden." References to Darwinism relate not only to Rhodes's justification of imperialism on the grounds of the alleged superiority of "the Anglo-Saxon race" but to the extinction of the dodo, itself related to the illustrations of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. Carroll's obsession with little girls is a platonic (and photographic) version of the active pedophilia of Frank Harris, a darker reflection of the combination of sexual perversity and late Victorian hypocrisy in the disgrace of Oscar Wilde. The case of the narrator Wills echoes Carroll's, and when he is doubly disgraced by his failed attempt to help Olive Schreiner prevent war with the Boers and by the discovery of his preoccupation with a ten-year-old girl, he is obliged to exile himself to a distant outpost in what is now Tanzania.

Ann Harries has written a remarkable novel which can be read not only as a commentary on the historical origins of South African society but also as a meditation on the conflicting forces - philosophical, political, and moral - which defined the late nineteenth century and which, in so many ways, illuminate those of our own time.

Robert L. Berner

Oshkosh, Wi.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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