by Henry Rider Haggard
‘I looked up again and now her perfect form lay in his arms, and her lips were pressed against his own; and thus, with the corpse of his dead love for an altar, did Leo Vincey plight his troth to her red-handed murderess.’
I’ll begin my review with a question: to what extent does the morality of a novel written in the 1890s imprint itself on the modern reader? To put it another way, is it possible that we apply our own morality and thereby miss the whole point?
To my mind, She, which Haggard wrote in 1886 is that kind of story. Like Allan Quatermain, which I reviewed a few days ago, it is a romantic adventure, typical of the lost civilisation/lost city novels that were so popular at the time. Like Quatermain too, it is full of what, by today’s standards, is considered racist language.
However, unlike Quatermain, it has a strong element of true fantasy, and its pages are full of moral and philosophical argument. Ayesha [She]’s morality would not be out of place today, I suspect, while Holly [the narrator]’s outlook on life is strangely old-fashioned to 21st century minds.
‘ “Believe me, ill will it go with mortal woman in that heaven of which thou speakest, if only the spirits be more fair, for their lords will never turn to look at them, and their Heaven will become their Hell. For man can be bought with woman’s beauty, if it be but beautiful enough ….. The world is a great mart, my Holly, where all things are for sale to whom who bids the highest in the currency of our desires.” ‘
The plot of She is great fantasy stuff! The narrator, Holly, a middle-aged Cambridge don, is charged with the task of bringing up Leo, the young son of his friend Vincey. Vincey has traced his descent back sixty-something generations to a Graeco-Egyptian priest named Kallikrates and his wife Amenartas, who fled Egypt and were shipwrecked on the coast of Africa. There, they found themselves in an unknown land, ruled by a beautiful ‘white’ queen, of Arabian decent. Kallikrates was murdered, but Amenartas escaped and eventually reached Athens with her child. This story is written in detail on an ancient piece of pottery, hidden in a silver casket in an iron chest that Leo inherits on reaching the age of twenty-five.
Leo is so impressed by the tale that he decides to go on an expedition to find this secret country and to learn the truth of the legend surrounding the mysterious white queen. With Holly and Job, their manservant, he sets out for Africa.
‘All that I remember is a shrieking sea of foam, out of which the billows rose here, there, and everywhere like avenging ghosts from their ocean grave.’
After enduring a storm at sea and a terrifying journey through mosquito-ridden marshes, the three Englishmen, along with the sea captain Mahomed, find themselves among the Amahagger, a cannibalistic tribe ruled by She-who-must-be-obeyed, the ‘white’ Queen Ayesha. The Amahagger decide that Mahomed, not being white, should be their next meal. [She has ruled that the white men mustn’t be killed.] Meantime, Leo has taken the fancy of Ustane, a local tribeswoman who, in the fashion of her people, takes him as her husband.
The men must fight for their lives against the ‘savages’. Leo is gravely wounded and Mahomed is killed. The three survivors are rescued by Billali, the patriarch of the tribe, who has orders to bring them before Ayesha.
Ayesha, rendered near immortal in the sacred fire, and gifted with unnatural powers, has waited two thousand years for her lover Kallikrates to be reborn. And when Leo, near to death, stumbles with his two remaining companions into her queendom, she sees in him the reincarnation of her long-dead lover. She saves his life and offers him love and immortality, an offer which is extended to Holly (though without the love).
‘ “Those who are weak must perish; the earth is for the strong, and the fruits thereof. For every tree that grows, a score shall wither, that the strong one may take [their] share.” ‘
Holly’s relationship with Ayesha is a bizarre one. Both have a great deal to say about morality. Ayesha seems to have the wisdom of the ages, while Holly sees in her beauty only evil and devilry. Yet when she unveils to him for the first time, he prostrates himself before her and declares (to the reader anyway) his undying love.
All the men have to do to gain immortality is to bathe in the flame of life. Holly’s decision is easily made. Even undying love will not entice him – one wonders what decision he would make if that love were reciprocated. But the young Leo is tempted – who would not be at twenty-five? Tempted and willing, but afraid.
The ending of the book is fairly well known, especially for those who have seen the ghastly movies based on this novel. However, I won’t reveal it for the sake of any readers who do not know it. Instead, let’s return to the questions I posed in the first paragraph.
‘ “Therefore live for the day, and endeavour not to escape the dust which seems to be man’s end.” ‘
Do we read and understand She today the way Haggard intended? Ayesha’s philosophy has its contradictions. Her carpe diem advice to Holly appears to be at odds with a passion that has endured for two millennia. Evil she may be by his standards, yet her morality is really no different from his. She rules a savage people but does not engage with them. Her racial superiority does not permit it (and here I’m talking sexually as well as in other ways). Her laws and justice are uncompromising, which for a queen they have to be. In what way did the laws and justice of the British imperialists differ from that?
I do not think Haggard’s audience would have seen that. We do, and that makes She a fascinating read for our century.