She by H Rider Haggard: Book Review
She by H Rider Haggard is one of the first and probably the most famous of the ‘lost world’ novels. H Rider Haggard published it in serial form in 1886-87 and with minimal revisions as a novel in 1887. It was incredibly popular and is still one of the best-selling books of all time, having sold over a hundred million copies.
She by H Rider Haggard: Logline
A Cambridge professor and his adopted son travel to Africa in search of a lost civilisation and the near-immortal woman who rules it.
She by H Rider Haggard: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the mid-nineteenth century. A Cambridge professor, Horace Holly, is visited by an old friend. The friend claims he is dying and asks Holly to become guardian to his young son, Leo. When Holly agrees, the friend also gives him a locked box, asking him not to open it until Leo is twenty-five. That night, the friend commits suicide.
Twenty years later, Holly and Leo open the mysterious box to discover an ancient shard of pottery bearing an extraordinary tale of a lost city in East Africa. Holly and Leo decide to discover if the story is true or not.
They charter a ship to take them to the nearest coastline, but nearing the area it sinks in a storm. Escaping the sinking ship in the ship’s boat, they land and make their way inland until a group of tribesmen find them. The tribesmen tell Holly that their queen, ‘ She-who-must-be-obeyed’, had foretold the arrival of strangers.
Leo finds himself ‘married’ to one of the women of the tribe, Ustane, but others of the tribe try to kill the strangers and Leo is badly wounded. The tribal chief returns and asks the adventurers to go with him to the lost city of Kôr where ‘ She-who-must-be-obeyed’ awaits them.
Arriving at the city, Holly meets ‘ She-who-must-be-obeyed’, who’s real name is Ayesha. Ayesha claims she is thousands of years old and has been waiting in the ruined city of Kôr for the reincarnation of her lover for two thousand years. Ayesha allows Holly to see her face, which he describes as unutterably beautiful, but cruel. Later Holly witnesses Ayesha, distraught, speaking to an embalmed corpse she addresses as ‘Kallikrates’. It seems that Kallikrates was her lover who she murdered in a fit of jealousy.
Next day, Leo is critically ill, and Holly asks Ayesha to help him. When Ayesha sees Leo, she is dumbfounded, convinced that he is the reincarnation of Kallikrates…
Ayesha gives Leo medicine that saves his life. She also orders Ustane to leave the city and never return. When the recovered Leo asks Ayesha what happened to Ustane, she lies, claiming Ustane left of her own accord.
The group attends a dance where Leo once more meets Ustane, who has returned to ask Leo to run away with her. But Ayesha sees the two talking and uses her power to kill Ustane. Leo attacks Ayesha but her power makes her invulnerable. She tells Leo that despite her brutality he will be won over as soon as he sees her beauty. She unveils herself and Leo is indeed instantly smitten.
Ayesha tells Leo they will be married as soon as he has bathed in the ‘Pillar of Life’, a fire that confers long life, great beauty and incredible powers. They will then travel to London and rule the British Empire, if not the entire world. Both Leo and Holly see the inevitability of the plan’s success and, although horrified, feel compelled by their love for Ayesha to do nothing to stop it.
The group travel to the Pillar of Life, which is within the mountains outside the city. After a difficult journey they reach the cave and Leo and Ayesha are married. Despite this, Leo is reluctant to enter the fire. Ayesha says she will go first to prove it is safe. When she enters the fire, instead of renewing her powers, the Pillar of Life reverts them, and as she is two thousand years old she shrinks to a husk. Just before she dies she asks Leo to wait for her reincarnation as she waited for his.
Finally, Leo and Holly return to England, where Holly writes the history of their adventure and speculates that Ayesha will indeed return.
She by H Rider Haggard: Analysis
Lets get this out of the way first. Obviously, She by H Rider Haggard is a very old novel now and steeped in the conventions and concerns of Victorian Britain: that female empowerment might lead to emasculation, that Britain’s racial or civilisational superiority over other cultures might not actually be real, that premonitions that the British Empire was fading were correct.
These racist and sexist views are offensive to most people these days, but as I’ve noted in many of my reviews of other classics like The Riddle of the Sands and The Great Impersonation , allowances must be made for the views of the time if you are to enjoy the story, and as a spotlight on the late-Victorian way of thinking She by H Rider Haggard is fascinating.
Also, I’m not sure how seriously we should take the sexism of a novel that contains the surely-tongue-in-cheek line:
True, in uniting himself to this dread woman, he would place his life under the influence of a mysterious creature of evil tendencies, but then that would be likely enough to happen to him in an ordinary marriage.
She by H Rider Haggard has a Hybrid plot. The protagonists start with a Mission – find the lost city and meet ‘ She-who-must-be-obeyed’, but once they have done so it becomes a Gothic Romance.
There’s also a lot of the episodic Travelogue to the story, betraying its original publication in weekly instalments. Many chapters centre on an encounter either with a new character or a new place and this ‘what happens next?’ element was interesting.
But for me the novel really gets going about half way through once the protagonists arrive in Kôr and meet Ayesha herself. The philosophical discussions between Holly and Ayesha – concerning male-female relationships, life and death, love as a redeeming force, the nature of evil and truth, religion as a bromide – still have relevance to a modern reader, though they may not agree with the opinions of the characters.
Some of the Gothic scenes in the novel, such as the ‘hot pot’, the tombs of Kôr, and the natives using the mummified remains of the citizens of Kôr as flaming torches, are macabre. But the romance between Ayesha and Leo is rather ruined by the fact that Leo is such a complete non-entity, while Ayesha is astonishing. Why she’d even be interested in Leo, let alone wait two thousand years for him, I have no idea.
Unfortunately, I felt the ending of She was a real let down, because there’s no final confrontation or dilemma for the protagonists. I was anticipating Leo and Holly struggling to fight the bewitching beauty and immense power of Ayesha and so save the British Empire. Instead, in a completely unheralded deus-ex-machina, an accident effectively, the genie is simply put back in the bottle. Imagine my disappointment.
It’s interesting to note that I was unable to use my logline formula to summarise She by H Rider Haggard, as it isn’t clear what the protagonists’ goal is once they get to Kôr, they simply become in thrall to Ayesha and tag along with her until the author runs out of ideas and brings the narrative to an end. Perhaps though this says something about modern obsessions with ‘narrative arcs’ – can a hundred million readers be wrong?
Aside: The Location of Kôr
Holly describes the first section of the journey inland along the river after the shipwreck as covering about one hundred and forty miles. They then spend four days paddling and towing the boat along an ancient canal before they meet the tribesmen who carry them to their village in about a day. From the village to Kôr through the swamps takes them another two days and a day walking along the dry canal across the plain to the city itself. This all makes Kôr about two hundred to two hundred and fifty miles inland. On their return, Holly describes the Zambezi as being one hundred and seventy miles south of Kôr.
Interestingly there is a mountain that fits this description: Mount Mulanje, which is in Malawi.
The only interesting character in She by H Rider Haggard is Ayesha herself. Holly, despite being the narrator has little personality and what he does have is unattractive. Leo barely speaks, and the author sketches in the characters the protagonists meet during their adventures.
Ayesha herself though is a phenomenal character. For a start, the idea that she has to wear a veil because anyone who looks upon her falls immediately and uncontrollably in love with her is intriguing. But she’s also by turns magnificent, imperious, seductive, intellectual, merciless, philosophical, and brave. Her actions, though objectively evil, come from her timeless indifference to mortality and her conviction that nothing in the world matters, except for her all consuming obsession with her reincarnated love. The reader can believe she really is two thousand years old and morality has ceased to have meaning for her.
Reality: Great Zimbabwe
At the time H Rider Haggard was writing She, much of Africa was unknown to Europeans and the ruins of the city of Great Zimbabwe had only recently been found. They are situated near Lake Mutirikwe in what was then South Zambezia, later Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. Built in the late Iron Age, probably by ancestors of the Shona people, the city would have housed up to eighteen thousand people. At the time, speculation that the ruins might have been built by the biblical ‘Queen of Sheba’ were common, though purely fanciful.
The writing style in She by H Rider Haggard varies between the overblown and the ultra-plain, it is not in any way a novel to be read for the beauty of the language. ‘Show don’t tell’ is a classic rule and one that is horribly ignored by the author. Many, many times in the novel the narrator says, in so many words, ‘it was awesome, but I can’t describe it very well, sorry’, which is dreadful writing.
It also suffers from the Victorian tendency to explain logistics in great detail, becoming long-winded and slow. Many modern readers would find the first half of the novel so boring they’d never get to the entrance of Ayesha herself.
However, like a lot of very influential novels, the clichés in She weren’t actually clichés when it was written – they became clichés because the book was so phenomenally successful, and hence influenced whole genres, being one of the prototypes of the science-fiction and fantasy adventure. And that influence continues, with the Indiana Jones movies being hugely influenced by both She and King Solomon’s Mines.
She by H Rider Haggard: My Verdict
They don’t write them like this any more. Except they kind of do.
She by H Rider Haggard: Movies
She by H Rider Haggard has been filmed many times. The most notable is the Hammer Films version of 1965, staring Ursula Andress as Ayesha.
It’s not a terrible film, but it’s pretty low-budget, despite being the highest budget movie the studio (Hammer Films) ever produced. In consequence, it’s not particularly faithful to the novel, for example being set in Israel and Egypt and featuring a different ending.
She by H Rider Haggard: Sequels
There are three sequels to She by H Rider Haggard.
- The first Ayesha , concerns Holly and Leo, searching for the reincarnation of Ayesha and also encountering her Egyptian nemesis.
- The second, She and Alan, is a ‘franchise crossover’, where the hero of many of Rider Haggard’s other novels, Alan Quatermain, travels to Kôr and battles a rebellion among Ayesha’s subjects.
- The last novel in the series is another prequel, Wisdom’s Daughter, which tells the story of Ayesha’s two thousand year life, from ancient Arabia, to Egypt, Persia, Greece and on to Kôr.
Want to Read It?
As it is long out of copyright, She by H Rider Haggard is available for free on the Guttenberg Project here.
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