Over the last few years I’ve been discovering a lot of early fantasy and adventure that I previously had little or no knowledge of. This includes authors such as Lord Dunsany, George MacDonald, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. The latter of whom I have now dedicated a number of separate posts to. One I was familiar with was H. Rider Haggard and I read King Solomon’s Mines about five or so years ago. What I didn’t know was just how prolific he was and after reading this article, I learned of his other arguably more famous story She: A History of Adventure. The linked article is highly recommended and perhaps the most interesting revelation is that I had never heard of this book yet it “sold almost 85 million copies, and has never been out of print since its initial 1887 release.” I soon found a copy of the book which included two other novels and the beautiful cover from this copy is displayed above.
What follows is a review and some commentary on passages from the novel.
She is an adventure novel about Ludwig Horace Holly, his adopted son Leo Vincey and his man-servant Job who journey to Africa to discover the secrets of Leo’s family history. Just this brief description does a disservice as it is incredibly well set-up. Leo is said to be the descendent of Kallikrates, an Egyptian priest and this information is only revealed to him when he comes of age. The discovery is what leads them to Africa and a lost civilisation ruled by the mysterious Ayesha who is known to all her subjects as She-who-must-be-obeyed. This might not read as a particularly clever premise today but it was obvious while reading (and indeed in fact), that this has influenced a great many works and the article above lists a number of prominent authors. The premise has been recycled many times but rarely with anywhere near the level of quality I found in reading the source.
What the author of the linked article describes as the, “politically unsavory frankness with which many of these authors wrote about race and sex” is certainly a feature of Haggard’s writing. This of course means that authors like Haggard hover uncomfortably close to reality with these emotive subjects and this is too much for our modern literary scolds (and it seems even the scolds a century ago too). Haggard doesn’t disappoint in this regard and early on we are reminded of just how frank you could be in a published work not-so-long-ago. The character Job’s opinion of the hired crew on their journey to Africa gives the first stark reminder:
“Lord, sir! I don’t think it would much matter of it did, it is that turned already with the sight of these blackamoors and their filthy, thieving ways. They are only fit for muck, they are; and they smell bad enough for it already.”
Soon after we get a description of a large rock marker for their journey:
“There was no doubt about it; before me were the tick lips, fat cheeks, and squat nose standing out with startling clearness against that flaming background. There, too, was the round skull, washed into shape perhaps by thousands of years of wind and weather, and, to complete the resemblance, there was a scrubby growth of weeds or lichen upon it, which against the sun looked for all the world like the wool on a colossal negro’s head.”
This vivid description would not survive any editor in a modern publisher but it gives the reader a clear picture of what the character’s are seeing. She is actually not so bad as far as these older works go but there are also cannibals and Holly comments after nearly being dinner:
“In our country we entertain a stranger, and give him food to eat. Here you eat him, and are entertained.”
Refreshingly there is also the now long-lost English self-confidence:
“I halted, and felt frightened. Indeed , my knees began to give way of their own mere motion; but reflection came to my aid. I am an Englishman, and why, I asked myself, should I creep into the presence of some savage woman as though I were a monkey in fact as well as in name? I would not and could not do it, that is, unless I was absolutely sure that my life or comfort depended thereon. If once I began to creep upon my knees I should always have to creep, which would be a patent acknowledgement of inferiority. So, fortified by an insular prejudice against ‘kootooing’ that, like most of our so-called prejudiced, has a good deal of common sense to recommend it, I marched in boldly.
There is also a lot of subtle humour throughout such as Holly’s wry comment after reading his friend’s Will:
“I put down the letter, and ran my eye through the Will, which appeared, from its utter unintelligibility, to have been drawn on the strictest legal principles.”
I am not spoiling anything other than the blurb to reveal the the titular She is a woman or Arab descent who is said to be immortal. When Holly finally meets her, he discovers this to be true to a degree and some interesting commentary on religion follows as it would if you were face to face with someone who had lived through the rise and fall of many creeds and civilisations. I am not sure if Haggard was personally religious as it was very much either/or with someone of his class and background at the time. However, he does through his protagonist at least give them impression of being a Christian as we see in his conversations with Ayesha about the ‘Man from Galilee’.
She clapped her hands in childish glee. “Of a truth, ugly tree that thou art, thou growest the fruits of wisdom, oh Holly,” she said; “but of those Jews whom I hated, for they called me ‘heathen’ when I would have taught them my philosophy—did their Messiah come, and doth He rule the world?”
“Their Messiah came,” I answered with reverence; “but He came poor and lowly, and they would have none of Him. They scourged Him, and crucified Him upon a tree, but yet His words and His works live on, for He was the Son of God, and now of a truth He doth rule half the world, but not with an Empire of the World.”
“Ah, the fierce-hearted wolves,” she said, “the followers of Sense and many gods—greedy of gain and faction-torn. I can see their dark faces yet. So they crucified their Messiah? Well can I believe it. That He was a Son of the Living Spirit would be naught to them, if indeed He was so, and of that we will talk afterwards. They would care naught for any God if He came not with pomp and power. They, a chosen people, a vessel of Him they call Jehovah, ay, and a vessel of Baal, and a vessel of Astoreth, and a vessel of the gods of the Egyptians—a high-stomached people, greedy of aught that brought them wealth and power. So they crucified their Messiah because He came in lowly guise—and now are they scattered about the earth? Why, if I remember, so said one of their prophets that it should be.
Here Haggard hasn’t spared the Jews his now incredible frankness either. On another meeting the discussion about Christianity continues:
“So,” she went on, “now eat some fruit; believe me, it is the only true food for man. Oh, tell me of the philosophy of that Hebrew Messiah, who came after me, and who thou sayest doth now rule Rome, and Greece, and Egypt, and the barbarians beyond. It must have been a strange philosophy that He taught, for in my day the peoples would have naught of our philosophies. Revel and lust and drink, blood and cold steel, and the shock of men gathered in the battle—these were the canons of their creeds.”
I had recovered myself a little by now, and, feeling bitterly ashamed of the weakness into which I had been betrayed, I did my best to expound to her the doctrines of Christianity, to which, however, with the single exception of our conception of Heaven and Hell, I found that she paid but scant attention, her interest being all directed towards the Man who taught them. Also I told her that among her own people, the Arabs, another prophet, one Mohammed, had arisen and preached a new faith, to which many millions of mankind now adhered.
I should make an aside here to point out that Haggard has given consideration to language and Ayesha doesn’t magically speak the King’s English. Holly is a scholar and familiar with Greek, Latin and Arabic. Ayesha and her subjects speak an older form of the latter which is what they converse in. Leo also understands though the humble Job is often left to guess at what is happening around him. This is but one example of how well thought out the story is and still today, it rises above many similar tales.
Ayesha reveals herself to be agnostic with regard to religion:
“Ah!” she said; “I see—two new religions! I have known so many, and doubtless there have been many more since I knew aught beyond these caves of Kôr. Mankind asks ever of the skies to vision out what lies behind them. It is terror for the end, and but a subtler form of selfishness—this it is that breeds religions. Mark, my Holly, each religion claims the future for its followers; or, at least, the good thereof. The evil is for those benighted ones who will have none of it; seeing the light the true believers worship, as the fishes see the stars, but dimly. The religions come and the religions pass, and the civilisations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and human nature. Ah! if man would but see that hope is from within and not from without—that he himself must work out his own salvation! He is there, and within him is the breath of life and a knowledge of good and evil as good and evil is to him. Thereon let him build and stand erect, and not cast himself before the image of some unknown God, modelled like his poor self, but with a bigger brain to think the evil thing, and a longer arm to do it.”
This is a rather more eloquent form of what you would hear from any atheist mid-wit today though here it is being said by someone murderously inclined to self-worship. Holly doesn’t feel up to the task of arguing with her which was prudent given she’s had two millennia to discover the truth and it has still eluded her. Holly’s reflection on this and it is still relevant today:
I thought to myself, which shows how old such reasoning is, being, indeed, one of the recurring qualities of theological discussion, that her argument sounded very like some that I have heard in the nineteenth century, and in other places than the caves of Kôr, and with which, by the way, I totally disagree, but I did not care to try and discuss the question with her. To begin with, my mind was too weary with all the emotions through which I had passed, and, in the second place, I knew that I should get the worst of it. It is weary work enough to argue with an ordinary materialist, who hurls statistics and whole strata of geological facts at your head, whilst you can only buffet him with deductions and instincts and the snowflakes of faith, that are, alas! so apt to melt in the hot embers of our troubles. How little chance, then, should I have against one whose brain was supernaturally sharpened, and who had two thousand years of experience, besides all manner of knowledge of the secrets of Nature at her command! Feeling that she would be more likely to convert me than I should to convert her, I thought it best to leave the matter alone, and so sat silent. Many a time since then have I bitterly regretted that I did so, for thereby I lost the only opportunity I can remember having had of ascertaining what Ayesha really believed, and what her “philosophy” was.
Ayesha is revealed to be a cruel and evil woman yet also sympathetic and in some ways likeable. She is described as so beautiful that it is necessary for her to keep her face hidden so as not to drive her male subjects wild. Even the intelligent and otherwise iron-willed Holly who had already given up on romance due to his ugliness (he is called a baboon), is driven to hope in vain when she removes her veil. She is also a complex character and despite her cruelty, she is also chaste and has kept her virginity for thousands of years waiting for who she believes to be her lost love returned: Leo Vincey. This leads her in the same cycle that lost her love originally when Leo has fallen in love with one of her subjects, Ustane and Ayesha therefore decides she must die like Kallikrates’ love all that time ago:
“Where is her sin? Her sin is that she stands between me and my desire. Well, I know that I can take him from her—for dwells there a man upon this earth, oh Holly, who could resist me if I put out my strength? Men are faithful for so long only as temptations pass them by. If the temptation be but strong enough, then will the man yield, for every man, like every rope, hath his breaking strain, and passion is to men what gold and power are to women—the weight upon their weakness. 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 upon them, and their Heaven will become their Hell. For man can be bought with woman’s beauty, if it be but beautiful enough; and woman’s beauty can be ever bought with gold, if only there be gold enough. So was it in my day, and so it will be to the end of time. The world is a great mart, my Holly, where all things are for sale to him who bids the highest in the currency of our desires.”
Ustane nonetheless stands up for her love:
Then I think I saw the most tremendous exhibition of moral courage and intrepidity that it is possible to conceive. For the poor doomed girl, knowing what she had to expect at the hands of her terrible Queen, knowing, too, from bitter experience, how great was her adversary’s power, yet gathered herself together, and out of the very depths of her despair drew materials to defy her.
“I did it, oh She,” she answered, drawing herself up to the full of her stately height, and throwing back the panther skin from her head, “because my love is stronger than the grave. I did it because my life without this man whom my heart chose would be but a living death. Therefore did I risk my life, and, now that I know that it is forfeit to thine anger, yet am I glad that I did risk it, and pay it away in the risking, ay, because he embraced me once, and told me that he loved me yet.”
“I have no magic,” went on Ustane, her rich voice ringing strong and full, “and I am not a Queen, nor do I live for ever, but a woman’s heart is heavy to sink through waters, however deep, oh Queen! and a woman’s eyes are quick to see—even through thy veil, oh Queen!
There is a strong moral teaching present that doesn’t need to be explained as it is evident in the events and climax of the novel. Something I keep having to remind myself is that this was written for young boys and men yet the prose is much better than most of what you find today. It certainly isn’t Dostoyevsky but it still reflects human nature and is orientated towards the good. There are at least two sequels to this book and I can’t speak for their quality but between this and King Solomon’s Mines at least, it is a shame Haggard isn’t better appreciated today. Even if not appreciated, he remains influential and I could see the skeleton of this story in the 1999 The Mummy film though it doesn’t seem to be listed as an influence. Like many great works, it is also available online for free and is highly recommended. There is far more to this story than I have commentated on here.