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Ann Harries: Manly Pursuits

This is a book about that ultimate colonialist Cecil Rhodes, after whom a country was named and who left an unforgettable – some would say devastating – legacy. The book concerns one episode in his life. The narrator is Francis Wills, who was at Oxford with Rhodes. Wills was a sickly child and has remained a sickly man. He has also remained single. Like his friend, Charles Dodgson, he has a predilection for photographing young girls without any clothes on. However, there is more than a strong hint that he shares at least some of the predilections of his distant cousin, Oxford classmate and friend Oscar Wilde. However, his speciality is the nightingale. He has written a book on the subject, cruelly cut up various nightingales to see what makes them sing and devoted his life to their study. Because of this, Rhodes, who wishes to hear the singing of English birds in his African dwelling (he feels it will delay his imminent death), has asked Wills to come to Africa with a large number of birds, to persuade them to sing and then to release them into the wild, so that Rhodes can be regaled by their singing.

The story switches between Africa and England. In Africa, Wills is increasingly frustrated by his inability to get the nightingales to sing. Indeed, they are dying off, not least because the seasons have confused them. Ironically, there are only two sources for the nightingales’ singing – Wills himself, who can perfectly imitate a nightingale and the whistle of the young girl, Maria (whom he later photographs without any clothes on). Various famous people drift in and out, particularly former Oxonian companions of Wills and Rhodes. There is Alfred Milner, the Colonial Secretary, who was about to precipitate the Boer War. The colonialist novelist par excellence, Rudyard Kipling, is there with his wife and daughter. Frank Harris and Leander Jameson, fresh from his famous, eponymous raid, are both there. There is a big game hunter who has lost an arm and but has killed a huge amount of animals. But there is opposition to these colonialists, in the shape of Olive Schreiner, who forecasts the Boer War and condemns Rhodes and the evils of imperialism. She tries to elicit Wills in her plot to overthrow Rhodes but, while he does participate, he fails.

While the basic plot – the nightingale story – drives the novel, it is essentially a novel of ideas. First and foremost, it examines British colonialism and its devastating effect on Africa and Africans (human and animal). A comparison is made to its treatment of Wilde and his homosexuality. Indeed, the novel may be said to be about the hypocrisy of the British – in their treatment of those that are different, human and animal, and their feeling of their innate superiority. It is a novel about control and a world vision that excludes other visions. Harries’ own creation – Professor Wills – petty, hypocritical, self-centred, weak – turns out to be the best adult of the cast, though Wilde comes in for much sympathy, which does not say much for Britain’s imperial adventure.

Publishing history

First published 1999 by Bloomsbury