Author: H. Rider Haggard
Dates Published: 1886
On his twenty-fifth birthday, Leo Vincey opens the silver casket that his father has left to him. It contains a letter recounting the legend of a white sorceress who rules an African tribe and of his father’s quest to find this remote race. To find out for himself if the story is true, Leo and his companions set sail for Zanzibar. There, he is brought face to face with Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed: dictator, femme fatale, tyrant and beauty. She has been waiting for centuries for the true descendant of Kallikrates, her murdered lover, to arrive, and arrive he does – in an unexpected form.
Written and set during some of the strongest points of British Imperialism, ‘She’ is a classic adventure story that delves deep into the heart of Africa. Instead of languishing in the grim reality of Africa, ‘She’ further romanticises the mysteries and discoveries that should have been there for explorers, and is self admittedly by Haggard a ‘boy’s tale’. Lost cities, frightening tribes and poisonous marshlands are described with passionate and vivid detail. Of particular triumph is a dreadfully cinematic volcano setting during the last quarter of the book.
Despite the blurb, the protagonist of ‘She’ is actually Horace Holly (Leo’s step father) who accompanies Leo to Zanzibar. The two characters are opposites; Holly is ugly, even ape-like in appearance, while Leo is often likened to a Greek Adonis. The use of Holly as the voice of ‘She’ is well placed. Despite sometimes being an onlooker to the main action, Holly coats the events with interesting and clever perceptions. His inner monologue is surprisingly honest and sometimes even shallow. The first person aspect of ‘She’ is one of its strongest points. Notes are jotted at the bottom of the pages – often future reflections or background information – that add another dimension to the events. Because of this aspect, throughout the story we are aware that Holly and Leo survive, however this is handled well and does not take away from the tension.
Leo could be accused of being nothing more than a mindless hunk – an idea that is actually acknowledged throughout the text (directly and indirectly). Haggard gives the impression that Leo could have been far more interesting if it was written from his point of view, but keeps true to Holly’s first person (Holly is usually too self reflective to give much detail on Leo and probably misses more of the subtle nuances).
‘She’ gets into full swing about a third of the way through – once Ayesha makes an appearance. Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed, is the lifeblood of this book. She is the inspiration, excitement, force and guide. Ayesha is portrayed as the extreme in femininity; she is ever-changing, emotional, powerful and godly. She is the ultimate femme fatale through which Haggard portrays the duality of alluring beauty and deadly menace. The foreboding concept of Ayesha was the main reason I picked up this book (as I love reading strong female characters), and her portrayal did not disappoint.
Ayesha is a paradox; immensely powerful, yet forever waiting for her lover – wise from thousands of years lived, yet murderously jealous and immoral. In many senses, I could see this book being either a literary feminists worst nightmare or sweetest daydream (or both).
‘She’ has many long speeches about the nature of love, hate, humanity, sin, spirituality and mortality (delivered mostly by Ayesha, but also by Holly). This proved a point of great interest for me, but could bore other readers. Of particular beauty is an early musing by Holly of the bittersweet sunrise after a night where they barely survived.
The most irritating quality of Haggard’s writing is his use of insanely long and convoluted sentences (especially during the first third of the book). I had to read sentences three or four times, even then sometimes not grasping the meaning. It can also be strange to read a text that is doused in old British Imperialism. Holly is extremely British by nature and culture. Being true to the times racist elements often pervade (the assumption that African races are inferior to higher cultures, such as the British etc). The introduction to ‘She’ is good enough, describing Haggard’s political involvement and the possible influences of his time in South Africa. It also touches on its initial receival by the public and critics (even Sigmund Freud is mentioned), but is probably a little too tainted by a sense of cynicism towards the work.
‘She’ is a solidly written and very enjoyable read. It will be appreciated by those that like adventure tales and escapism as a setting for philosophical musing. Lovers of romance will also find an aspect to enjoy. Those who aren’t interested in an African settings or a plot mostly concerning a woman’s undying obsession probably won’t be drawn in though.
♥♥♥½ – 3½/5