In She: A History of Adventure, by H. Rider Haggard, Horace Holly, an Oxford scholar, is entrusted with the guardianship of a five-year-old boy, Leo Vincey, by the boy’s dying father. Leo’s father also makes stipulations about Leo’s education and gives Holly an iron chest with instructions that it is to be opened when Leo is 25. These instructions are duly carried out, and as it happens there’s ancient familial business to be attended to. Two millennium before, an ancestor of Leo’s named Kallikrates was murdered by a sorceress in a fit of jealous rage because Kallikrates had married another woman in preference to her. This other woman, Leo’s ancestress, escaped and had a son, to whom she imparted the story (inscribed on a potsherd) and the need for revenge. After two thousand years of forbears who, it seemed, all lacked the time, inclination, or wherewithal to undertake the quest, the buck and the broken potsherd have finally been passed to Leo. So, Leo and Holly set off for Africa, as much out of curiosity as out of any real faith in the story inscribed on the broken potsherd.
Much adventure ensues. One shipwreck, encounters with large dangerous animals and pestilent mosquitoes, and wanderings within a vast swamp later, the men are taken in charge by the cannibalistic Amahaggers, and finally presented to the Queen of the Amahaggers, known to them as "She-who-must-be-obeyed". Ayesha (pronounced Assha) lives in a tremendous network of caves that are also occupied by flawlessly preserved corpses of ancient times. She can (and does) zap anyone dead where he or she stands for the slightest disobedience, and is so fabulously beautiful that she must go veiled lest the male Amahaggers fall madly and tiresomely in love with her. Ayesha is indeed the sorceress who killed Kallikrates, declares Leo the reincarnation of his ancestor, and decides that he must undergo the same ritual as she has, and become nearly immortal as she is so that they can then rule the world together.
She, originally published in 1887, was the runaway bestseller of its day, a book that “everyone” read. Critics sniffed at it, but as with almost anything that is so very widely read it had a profound effect on the public imagination. Margaret Atwood traces its influence to a number of later, more literary works – to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to James Hilton’s Shangri-La, to the White and Green Witches in C.S. Lewis’s Narnian series, to Tolkien’s Galadriel and Shelob.
The reason for the book’s popularity is clear – the book is a top-drawer good read, well plotted, very suspenseful, and satisfyingly thrilling. Haggard provided well for the suspension of disbelief, since he lived for a time in Africa and could provide accurate geographical detail and construct a convincing African tribe in the Armhaggers. His characters Holly and Leo have learned Greek and Arabic for the express purpose of this quest of theirs, and they converse with Ayesha in those languages – she understandably doesn’t know a word of English, much less speak it perfectly, unlike say, the aliens with zipper front suits in fifties sci-fi movies. Holly, who is the book’s narrator, keeps allowing for and challenging the disbelief of the reader by sentences like, “I am almost ashamed to submit it to you lest you should disbelieve my tale.” The supernatural occurrences are never jarringly unbelievable compared to the more realistic details in the book. Ayesha keeps insisting to Holly that her powers are not magical, that she has only attained to a very advanced knowledge of nature by working in the very primitive chemistry lab that she has set up in one of her caves. As indeed she would have had ample time to do in two thousand years, especially when there is no necessity for her to earn a living (i.e., “Bring me food or die,”) and she has numerous servants to take care of the housework, or rather cavework.
The modern reader can appreciate these qualities much as the Victorian reader must have done. And of course there are what we of the early twenty-first century would consider racist and sexist mores, but that is almost to be expected when one is reading a book written in another era. But in examining my own response to this book and in comparing it the one I imagined a Victorian reader might have had, I did find myself wondering if the Victorian reader ever split a corset or waistcoat laughing at certain passages. I did not damage any items of clothing, thanks to the modern practice of including 2% spandex in many items of casual wear, but I did laugh at things that I think Haggard never intended to be humourous.
Specifically, it was Ayesha’s 2,000-year-old case of unrequited love that I found hilarious. I did take into consideration her incredible longevity – after all, when one expects to live as many centuries as ordinary people live years one needs some sort of sustaining passion. The mortals around her would have died off with monotonous regularity and she couldn’t work in her chemistry lab all the time. But still! This woman with her incredible knowledge and beauty has spent 2,000 years living in a cave and mourning a single man, and nursing her passion and preserving her virginity for Leo Vincey – Leo, with his unfortunate if socially and historically accurate habit of exclaiming, “Hullo!”, and who may be great looking and a decent, brave, honest man but really isn’t remarkable in any other way. Holly, however, doesn’t find this sustained passion absurd at all, and in fact reflects that Ayesha’s evildoings are counterbalanced by the fact that she has other virtues, like that of constancy, in a high degree. It’s very indicative of a certain point of contrast between Victorian times and now.
The Victorian era revered fidelity so much that it was often taken to extremes. I’ve often read references to what is now described as its Cult of Death. Mourning – the wearing of prescribed black clothes and the abstinence from social events – was socially compulsory in the event of a family member’s death, even if one was really thinking how jolly it was to inherit Aunt Maud’s best jet necklace and to never have to watch Cousin Josiah spit tobacco into the corner again. People wore brooches and other items of jewellery with the hair of the departed in them. Queen Victoria mourned her lost prince for 40 years. In fiction, heroines went into attractively wan declines from broken hearts (interestingly enough, no Victorian romantic heroine ever worked through rejection or consoled herself for her grief by indulging in shortbread cookies and cherries jubilee cake as Queen Victoria did). This grief as a fixed pose was idealized. It meant True Love, which was only supposed to happen once, instead of as regularly as it does to say, Jennifer Lopez. Dickens parodied this excessive fidelity in Great Expectations. His Miss Haversham was jilted by her prospective bridegroom and remained stubbornly in her wedding dress for the rest of her life.
These days in contradistinction to the Cult of Fidelity we have the Cult of Moving On. Grief is seen as something to be overcome in stages and as efficiently as possible. We’re urged to read a self-help book, get some counselling, get over it, to let it go, progress to the next thing. I don’t find either philosophy of grief to be particularly satisfactory. In both cases, we are trying to put people on an emotional schedule.
Ayesha’s 2,000-year-old passion is admirable from the Victorian perspective and ridiculous from the modern perspective. I laughed the hardest at one particular scene in which she leads Holly and Leo into her bedchamber, where she points out the slab bearing the perfectly preserved corpse of Kallikrates and the nearby slab where she has slept for two millennium “with but a cloak to cover me. It did not become me to lay soft when my spouse…lay stiff in death.” Truly, Ayesha is the ultimate Victorian mourner. No hair-encrusted brooches or collection of coffin plates for her – she’s kept the entire corpse. In her bedroom. Where she could – and did – talk to it. Beat that, Queen Victoria.
However, I must add that Ayesha’s marathon case of unrequited love is at once both laughably excessive and a refreshing counterpoint to the modern Anthony Robbins-style mores. As with Miss Haversham, I wanted to tell her, “Damn, honey! Feel what you feel! Don’t let anyone force you into some emotional mould as constructed by some facile self-help book!” But I did wish that she’d provided herself with a more comfortable bed. After all, a good mattress and cherries jubilee cake are just as much a part of life as the grief one has to endure. Why partake of one and deny oneself the others?