20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 4
I first read She for a British Imperial Lit course when my workload didn’t allow a leisurely pace. The professor was especially keen on well-used/integrated quotes so my first time through this book was a mad rush for themes and quotables. Fortunately, imperialist themes are easy to pick out…
Writing ‘at white heat’, and in the flush of success after the publication of King Solomon’s Mines, Haggard drew again on his knowledge of Africa and of ancient legends, but also on something deeper and more disturbing. To the Englishmen who journey through shipwreck, fever, and cannibals to her hidden realm, She is the goal of a quest bequeathed to them two thousand years before; to Haggard’s readers, She is the embodiment of one of the most potent and ambivalent figures of Western mythology, a female who is both monstrous and desirable—and, without question, deadlier than the male! (back cover of the Oxford World Classics edition)
Some passages in She are very dated, but I don’t expect a book from 1887 to reflect modern sensitivities. That said, I first read She after Conrad’s Lord Jim so it seemed downright progressive by comparison. Haggard has far less talk about the ‘natural superiority’ of British men and She-who-must-be-obeyed (a.k.a. Ayesha) easily winds Leo and Holly, two Victorian gents, around her little finger.
Like all good adventure stories, She follows the fulfillment of a millennia-old quest. Leo, a handsome and learned young man, inherits an iron chest and potsherd that outlines an improbable story written by an Egyptian woman, Amenartas. The story goes that Amenartas was fleeing Egypt with her husband, Kallikrates, when they encountered Ayesha, who wanted Kallikrates for her own. When he rejected her offer of power, immortality, and “love,” she killed him. According to the sherd and its accompanying history, Leo is a direct descendent of Kallikrates and must kill Ayesha to avenge his forebear.
Along with his mentor/father-figure, Holly, Leo decides to follow the path laid out by the relic. They travel to Africa and encounter a cannibalistic tribe. While under attack, they’re saved on the orders of She-who-must-be-obeyed, but not everyone obeys her order to immediately release Leo and his companions. Accompanying Ayesha’s grand entrance is her pronouncement of death upon everyone who failed to heed her command the instant it was issued. Holly entreats her to be merciful, but she explains:
“Were I to show mercy to those wolves, your lives would not be safe among this people for a day. Thou knowest them not. They are tigers to lap blood, and even now they hunger for your lives. How thinkest thou that I rule this people? I have but a regiment of guards to do my bidding, therefore it is not by force. It is by terror. My empire is of the imagination. Once in a generation mayhap I do as I have done but now, and slay a score by torture. Believe not that I would be cruel, or take vengeance on anything so low. What can it profit me to be avenged on such as these? Those who live long, my Holly, have no passions save where they have interests. Though I may seem to slay in wrath all because my mood is crossed, it is not so. Thou hast seen how in the heavens the little clouds blow this way and that without a cause, yet behind them is the great wind sweeping on its path whither it listeth. So it is with me, oh Holly. My moods and changes are the little clouds, and fitfully these seem to turn; but behind them ever blows the great wind of my purpose.” (161)
Unfortunately (or perhaps not, in terms of entertainment value), Ayesha isn’t quite how she presents herself here. In this snippet, she seems to be a grand creature existing on a higher plane. She sees the big picture and can’t concern herself with trifling humans. But, the more time Holly spends with her, he finds that she’s vain and petty. In Leo’s presence, she further downgrades to a squirming schoolgirl with a crush. And the contrast is fantastic! Haggard balances Ayesha between two stages of development: on one hand, she has spent millennia contemplating philosophy, beauty, and language; on the other, she has spent 2,000 years in a cave and her social skills are non-existent.
In Ayesha’s flightier moments, Holly bemoans the weakness of her sex (it doesn’t help that he doesn’t get on well with the ladies back home). There’s low-key sexism at work, but other than her womanish vices, there’s little about Ayesha that’s human. Her long life and departure from social mores means that she acts according to her whims; she’s uninterested in kindness, traditional morality, or the concerns of mortals. So while her connections to humanity are through girlish stereotypes, these flashes of relatability are necessary. Somehow, the first analogy to mind is the way people get very excited when big cats act like house cats. There’s less fear or being mauled when you’re looking at big cat in a box and thinking: “Aww, just like my little cat at home!” When Holly looks at the more human side of Ayesha, he’s less frightened of her for a moment.
Throughout the book, Ayesha consistently has the upper hand. Holly and Leo are reduced to inane babbling in the face of her insurmountable beauty. At times, their compliance to her plans and goals feels overdone. Possible counterargument: Ayesha appears to engage in minor mind control since their affections for her wax and wane according to her wants.
Perhaps my favorite part of the story, however, is when Ayesha leads Holly through a massive network of caves and catacombs of a lost people. These people had the power to preserve their dead exactly as they looked in life. Holly and Ayesha tour long, twisting caves and vast antechambers, musing on the faces of the dead and the tragic end of the city. Their tour culminates with a suitably eerie scene which Haggard pulls off to great effect.
Haggard’s prose is smooth and easy to read. The antequated speech between Holly and Ayesha (“thou seest,” etc.) is a constant reminder that she’s from another age. They converse frequently in Arabic, though she offers to speak in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew (ancient forms of each). It’s not until Ayesha shows some interest in the modern world that Holly and Leo show a flash of fear—Ayesha thinks the Queen of England can be toppled! Oh, to be writing a paper on this book again…
Overall: 4.5 She moves quickly and reads so smoothly that it feels modern at times. The pacing is excellent, building to a fever pitch by the end. The story is strange, as you can already tell, but it’s absorbing. How will Leo and Holly deal with Ayesha when they’re utterly powerless in the face of her beauty??
Translation: Read it.
20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books
16 to go!