She: A History of Adventure by Henry Rider Haggard (1887)

5 August 2012

She is generally agreed to be one if the classics of imaginative literature and, with over 83 million copies sold in 44 different languages, one of the best-selling books of all time. Extraordinarily popular upon its release, She has never been out of print. (Wikipedia have an interesting list of bestselling books of all time: She is at number eight just behind The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.) It’s been adapted into a movie no fewer than 11 times (compared to the five versions of King Solomon’s Mines.)

Why so popular? Well, it ticks a number of boxes.

Quest It is an adventure quest: prompted by inherited treasure containing a map and a key, a small band of heroes (Cambridge academic Ludwig Holly, his ward the handsome hero Leo, trusty working class retainer Job) set off in search of a long-lost civilisation which allaegedly knows the secret of Eternal Life. Ie the deep structure of the narrative is mythic, archetypal.

Chaps The protagonists are upper-class white men, supremely confident of their values and society. Thousands die, the crew of their ship die, their Arab helper dies, flocks of savages (the cannibalistic Amahaggers) die – but the white men survive and prevail. And we, the readers, partake of that superiority, that invincibility (as in all adventure stories).

Thrills There is a steady stream of adventure, from the melodramatic handing over of the secret chest, through the squall which sinks the dhow off the coast of Africa, the fight to the death between a lion and a crocodile, the battle against the Amahaggar trying to kill and cook their Arab helper, the perilous approach to the Eternal Flame. Haggard knows how to pace his story with regular injections of suspense and adrenaline. Even after all these years it feels like a James Bond or Indiana Jones movie.

Woman The dominant figure is Ayesha, “She who must be obeyed”, a woman who has discovered the secret of Life and made herself the most beautiful, most wide, most powerful woman in the world, commanding obedience and awe in all who see her. For feminists I’m not sure whether she would represent a truly powerful woman – or is the acme of (controlled) Woman On A Pedestal. Despite her power, Haggard lavishes her with Victorian stereotypes of femininity; all too often she weeps, or flops down or is inconsistent or various other attributes said to be classically ‘female’. Who knows why people buy and enjoy books in such numbers but quite obviously this female power figure is central to the book and so must account for a good deal of its success.

Spirituality Haggard had a lifelong interest in seances, clairvoyance and the afterlife. This taste was to become more common in the last decades of Victoria’s reign and on into the Edwardian decade, and then receive a further boost after the disaster of the Great War. Haggard leaves the young ‘hero’ Leo unconscious and feverish for the last third or more of the book, devoting page after page to pseudo-philosophical discussions between Ayesha and Holly about the meaning of Life, not as strict philosophy but filtered through fiction; she gives Holly a tour of the ruins of the ancient civilisation of Kor and both of them reflect on the passage of time, the wisdom of the ancients, the possibility that our souls are reborn again and again which appears to be the main idea or narrative spur for the entire story. Some of these speculations airily dismiss Christianity or Islam as just the latest forms of the veiled fear and egotism which underlie all religion. Striking that Haggard could get away with such heterodox speculation; that there’d been such a shift to the acceptance of sceptical speculation in the generation since the stifling orthodoxy of even late Dickens in the 1860s. Haggard even sounds like Nietzsche at moments:

“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.”

Empire In an interesting article in the London Review of Books, historian Linda Colley describes how, up until World War II, Great Britain was held together by histories, narratives and symbols founded on a “sense of British imperial and Protestant destiny”. Rider Haggard’s romances enact these assumptions in fiction; we know the white hunter will triumph because he and the civilisation he represents just is superior. Though the heroes often have to escape the boredom of civilised society, they take it with them in their minds, in their definitions of civilised and savage, in their ideas of justice, mercy and fair play, which they act on throughout the narratives. Rider Haggard’s books are Romances, for children, because these values are never challenged. Occasional comments about white men’s greed or corruption make no impact because we know they don’t apply to our white men, our heroes. The prose is clear and calm and confident. Conrad’s work is Literature because these “Western values” are tested to destruction in stories which focus on their crisis, and in a style which is itself stricken and overwrought.

End of Empire That said, the dominant strain in She is about the passing, the fading, the death of empires. Ayesha lives among the millenia-old ruins of an ancient civilisation, one which, she and Holly speculate, might have predated and given birth to Egyptian culture. At the heart of the book is an imaginative vision of the mutability of all things, combined with a vague and poetic hope of eternal life in the form of eternal rebirth. Very fin-de-siecle, and designed to appeal to spiritually-minded adolescents of all ages. It’s striking that critics often point out the same thing in Kipling: even as he celebrates Empire he feels for its brittleness, its evanescence, as in Recessional.

Style The Quatermain books deal with concrete things, guns and animals and native battles. The style of She feels noticeably softer, wordier, more purple. The text, from the introduction onwards, is driven by a more misty, grandiose vision, and this is the enduring impression the book leaves:

“Behold the lot of man,” said the veiled Ayesha, as she drew the winding sheets back over the dead lovers, speaking in a solemn, thrilling voice, which accorded well with the dream that I had dreamed: “to the tomb, and to the forgetfulness that hides the tomb, must we all come at last! Ay, even I who live so long. Even for me, oh Holly, thousands upon thousands of years hence; thousands of years after you hast gone through the gate and been lost in the mists, a day will dawn whereon I shall die, and be even as thou art and these are. And then what will it avail that I have lived a little longer, holding off death by the knowledge that I have wrung from Nature, since at last I too must die? What is a span of ten thousand years, or ten times ten thousand years, in the history of time? It is as naught—it is as the mists that roll up in the sunlight; it fleeth away like an hour of sleep or a breath of the Eternal Spirit. Behold the lot of man! Certainly it shall overtake us, and we shall sleep. Certainly, too, we shall awake and live again, and again shall sleep, and so on and on, through periods, spaces, and times, from æon unto æon, till the world is dead, and the worlds beyond the world are dead, and naught liveth but the Spirit that is Life. But for us twain and for these dead ones shall the end of ends be Life, or shall it be Death? As yet Death is but Life’s Night, but out of the night is the Morrow born again, and doth again beget the Night. Only when Day and Night, and Life and Death, are ended and swallowed up in that from which they came, what shall be our fate, oh Holly? Who can see so far? Not even I!”

Well, this kind of misty pseudo-spiritualism is not to my taste. But it obviously was to the 83 million or more people who’ve bought it and the scores of millions more who must have borrowed and read it.

Out of ten For this reason I found She a bit hard going and liked it less than the three or four Allan Quatermain stories I read previously. Put simply, they are more full of derring-do. They generally have two heroes, Quatermain and the super-manly Henry Curtis, plus the noble blacks who feature in each AQ adventure. She focuses on the figure of Ayesha and the dialogues between her and Holly, on tours of the ancient ruins and wonder at the mutability of time. It’s more about awe than action.

‘She’ – poster for the 1965 Hammer production

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