H. Rider Haggard published She in 1887. 130 years later, She is a memorable, if strange, read. It is a romantic action-adventure seen in a fun-house mirror; almost offensive at times to modern sensibilities, but still intriguing.
The two main characters are Leo Vincey and our narrator, his adoptive father L. Horace Holly. Holly describes himself as ugly — ape-like, with bandy legs, over-long arms and thick black hair that grows low on his forehead. He is a committed misanthrope and misogynist. Leo is a golden Apollo with a cap of blond curls. With Leo came a strange iron-bound chest, to be opened when Leo turns 25.
On Leo’s twenty-fifth birthday, they open the chest, to find a pot-shard inscribed in Greek and several translated documents. The shard and documents tell the story of an Egyptian princess, Amenartas, who fell in love with Kallikrates, a Greek priest sworn to Isis. The two fled to Africa, where they encountered a hidden kingdom ruled by a white queen. The queen also fell in love with Kallikrates, and killed him when he spurned her. Amenartas (who inscribed the shard) fled, and later bore a son, the start of the Vincey lineage.
Leo and Holly resolve to go to Africa to find the remains of this hidden kingdom. By now, Holly is in his mid-forties, Leo a strapping twenty-five-year-old. You’d think that Leo would take the lead in the adventure, but he doesn’t. When their ship founders in a storm off the African coast, Leo is promptly knocked out. It is Holly, their man Job and a crewman named Mohamed who row to safety in a smaller boat. As an action hero, and later as a romantic hero, Leo has many of the qualities of a golden retriever. He is pretty, energetic, sleeps a lot, is indiscriminately friendly and has a short attention span.
The party soon meets the Amahagger tribe, who worship a distant queen, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. The queen has commanded them to bring any white men to her. The tribe, or clan, does not look African — some, Holly says, look Asian — and Holly tells us their women are equal to their men. They are matrilineal, and women choose their own mates or husbands. A strapping girl with chestnut hair named Ustane promptly claims Leo, and Leo does not object.
Holly becomes friends with Ballili, an Amahagger elder, who explains the whole “our women are equal” idea in more detail:
‘We worship them,’ he went on, ‘up to a certain point, till at last they get unbearable, which’ he added, ‘they do, about every second generation.’
‘And then what do you do?’ I asked with curiosity.
‘Then,’ he answered, with a faint smile, ‘We rise, and kill the old ones as an example to the young ones, and to show them that we are the strongest.’
Job refuses one of the women’s advances, with bad results for Mohamed, the lone black African in the story. Holly and Leo go to the aid of their comrade. In the melee, Ustane saves Leo’s life. Ballili arrives to break things up and take the travelers to meet She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.
The enigmatic queen lives in a honeycomb of caverns, the crypts of the fabled city of Kor. En route, Leo, wounded in the fight, succumbs to a fever and spends much of this portion of the book unconscious, with Ustane at his side. It is Holly who is first introduced to “She,” it is Holly who first sees her unearthly beauty, and it is Holly who first hears her story.
She — or Ayesha, as she prefers — is a stunningly beautiful white woman who looks no older than thirty; yet she learned the secret of longevity and has lived more than two thousand years if her tale is to be believed. She fell in love with Kallikrates, and has waited in these caves until he is reincarnated. Leo is that reincarnation.
Ayesha is imperious and cruel, sentencing the cannibals to death by torture. She is learned and curious, not having left these caves for two thousand years. She is a brilliant chemist, a philosopher, and scholar, translating for Holly the text the ancient citizens of Kor left on their walls because she taught herself their language. Unconscious Leo may be the love of her millennia-long life, but it’s Holly she talks to. Clearly, Holly is a much better choice of consort for this wise and ancient queen, except for the whole love-of-her-life thing and Leo’s gilded good looks.
Once Ayesha sees Leo, she recognizes the truth. Ustane is merely a speed-bump on the road to timeless love. Ayesha, a creature of many powers, (not magic, she tells Holly, just powers he can’t understand), plans to share the secret of her long life with both men. Then, immortal, Leo and Ayesha will rule the world. The men doubt that they can persuade Ayesha out of this plan. Leo thinks he can function as a conscience for her, but Holly, older and more experienced, has already seen the corrupting influence Ayesha has had on Leo.
The final chapters play out in the deserted city of Kor and deep in the heart of another mountain, in a hidden chamber with a mysterious fountain of light that seems to come from the center of the earth itself.
Haggard’s book is full of both careless bigotry and acerbic comments about women. Some isn’t exactly bigotry. Ayesha says she disliked the pre-Christian Jews because they wouldn’t let her argue philosophy in their temples. However, when Holly is first being taken to meet Ayesha, he remarks to himself that he “did not feel overwhelmed with gratitude at the prospect of seeing some savage, dusky queen:’
So, fortified by an insular prejudice against ‘kootooing,’[kowtowing] which has, like most of our so-called prejudices, a good deal of common sense to recommend it, I marched in boldly after Billali.
Later, Ayesha moves aside the curtain she sits behind with “a most beautiful white hand, white as snow…”
This is uncomfortable to read, yet Holly is a real character and I care about what happens to him. Leo is little more than a sex-object, but Ustane and Ayesha both are strong characters with believable motivations, flaws and fears. Maybe Haggard’s attitude toward women came from the fact that he found them powerful and fascinating, and, apparently, alien.
Though the trope of the “British adventurer” has not worn well in 130 years, Haggard’s descriptions are lovely, vivid, sprinkled with wit. She’s potpourri of styles — adventure? Gothic? Morality tale? — gave me vertigo but I still enjoyed it. Holly is a good character and a good narrator. As for Ayesha, I leave you with Holly’s words about her:
…her wickedness had not detracted from her charm. Indeed, I am by no means certain that it did not add to it. It was after all of a grand order, there was nothing mean or small about Ayesha.
We’ve changed in many ways in 130 years, and in many ways we haven’t. She is a century-old mirror, showing us both.