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: Title
The title uses a classic title archetype, the Antagonist: Ayesha or ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’.
(For more on titles, see How to Choose a Title For Your Novel)
She by H Rider Haggard: Logline
A Victorian professor and his adopted son travel to Africa in search of a lost civilisation. Finding it ruled by a near-immortal woman of extraordinary beauty, power and cruelty, they are helpless to resist her plans to marry the son and rule the British Empire.
(For more on loglines, see The Killogator Logline Formula)
She by H Rider Haggard: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain spoilers The major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the mid-nineteenth century. A Cambridge professor, Horace Holly, receives a visit from an old friend. The friend says he’s dying and asks Holly to become guardian to his young son, Leo. Holly agrees. The friend then 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. Inside they discover an ancient shard of pottery bearing an extraordinary tale of a lost city in East Africa. Holly and Leo decide to discover whether the story is true.
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 tribes-people find them. They tell Holly that their queen, ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’, had foretold the arrival of strangers.
Somehow, Leo finds himself ‘married’ to a woman of the tribe, Ustane. Others of the tribe try to kill the strangers, gravely wounding Leo. The chief asks the adventurers to go with him to the lost city of Kôr. There, ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’ awaits.
Arriving at the city, Holly meets ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’, whose real name is Ayesha.
Ayesha claims she’s thousands of years old. She has waited 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’. Holly discovers Kallikrates was Ayesha’s 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’s dumbfounded, convinced that he’s 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. There, Leo once more meets Ustane, who has returned to ask Leo to run away with her. 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, she will win him over as soon as he sees her beauty. She unveils herself, and indeed Leo finds himself instantly smitten…
The Pillar of Life
Ayesha [blackout]tells Leo that they will marry soon. Then he will bathe 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 plan will inevitably succeed and, although horrified, feel compelled by their love for Ayesha to do nothing to stop it.[/blackout]
The group [blackout]travel to the Pillar of Life, which is within the mountains outside the city. After an arduous journey, they reach the cave and Leo and Ayesha get married. Despite this, Leo is reluctant to enter the fire. Ayesha says she will go first to prove it’s safe. She enters the fire. Instead of renewing her powers, the Pillar of Life reverts them. As she’s thousands of years old, Ayesha shrinks to a husk. Dying, Ayesha asks Leo to wait for her reincarnation as she waited for his.[/blackout]
Finally, [blackout]Leo and Holly return to England, where Holly writes the history of their adventure and speculates that Ayesha will indeed return.[/blackout]
(For more on summarising stories, see How to Write a Novel Synopsis)
She by H Rider Haggard: Analysis
Let’s get this out of the way first. Obviously, She by H Rider Haggard is a Victorian novel and steeped in the conventions of the time. Victorians worried that female empowerment might lead to emasculation, that Britain’s racial or civilisational superiority over other cultures might not actually be real, and that premonitions that the British Empire was fading were correct. These racist and sexist views are offensive to most people these days.
However, as I’ve noted in many of my reviews of other classics like The Riddle of the Sands and The Great Impersonation, we must make allowances for the views of the time. 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 a monologue like this one:
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 (see Novel Plots).
The protagonists start with a mission: find the lost city of Kôr and meet ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’. Once they’ve done so, the story becomes a Gothic Romance. Scenes such as the ‘hot pot’, the tombs of Kôr, and burning the mummified remains of the citizens of Kôr, are macabre.
Before arriving in Kôr, there’s much 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 propels the narrative.
But for me, the novel really gets going about halfway through, when the protagonists arrive in Kôr and meet Ayesha herself. The philosophical discussions between Holly and Ayesha—about 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.
Unfortunately, the ending of She is a real let-down because there’s no ultimate confrontation or dilemma for the protagonists. I was expecting Leo and Holly to struggle 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 found it difficult to use my logline formula to summarise She by H Rider Haggard. It isn’t clear what the protagonists’ goal actually is once they get to Kôr. They simply become in thrall to Ayesha. They then 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. They spend 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, is an unattractive personality. Leo barely speaks, and the author only sketches in the characters the protagonists meet during their adventures.
Ayesha herself though is a phenomenal character. For a start, 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 dead lover. The reader can believe she really is two thousand years old and morality has ceased to have meaning for her.
However, the fact that Leo is such a complete non-entity, while Ayesha is astonishing, ruins their romance. Why she’d even be interested in Leo, let alone wait two thousand years for him, I do not know.
Reality: Great Zimbabwe
At the time H Rider Haggard was writing She, much of Africa was unknown to Europeans and Europeans had only recently realised that the ruins of the city of Great Zimbabwe existed. Great Zimbabwe is 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. Speculation that the biblical ‘Queen of Sheba’ might have built the city was common in Victorian times, though purely fanciful.
The writing style in She by H Rider Haggard varies between the overblown and the ultra-plain. It’s 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 Rider Haggard wrote it—they became clichés because the book was so phenomenally successful, and hence influenced whole genres, being the prototype of the science-fiction and fantasy adventure. She‘s influence continues, in the Indiana Jones movies, for example.
She by H Rider Haggard: My Verdict
They don’t write them like this anymore. Except, this novel was so influential that they kinda do.
She by H Rider Haggard: Movies
Movie studios have filmed She by H Rider Haggard many times. The most notable is the Hammer Films version of 1965, starring Ursula Andress as Ayesha.
It’s not a terrible film, but it’s pretty low budget, despite being the highest budget movie Hammer Films ever produced. In consequence, it’s not particularly faithful to the novel. For example, it’s set in Israel and Egypt and features 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 encountering her Egyptian nemesis.
- The second, She and Alan, is a prequel and a ‘franchise crossover’, where the hero of many of H Rider Haggard’s other novels, Allan 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’s long out of copyright, She by H Rider Haggard is available for free on the Guttenberg Project here.
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