Saturday, 10 March 2001

H. Rider Haggard: She (1887)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1953 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 780

Haggard's second most famous novel has many similarities to King Solomon's Mines; they are both about incredible secret nations hidden away from European eyes in the interior of Africa, still at the time almost completely unknown to Westerners.

The basic story is that M.L. Vincey, knowing his death to be imminent, entrusts the care of his young son Leo to his close friend Ludwig Horace Holly, along with a box to be opened on Leo's twenty fifth birthday. This box turns out to contain a collection of documents explaining the ancient origins of the family, as refugees from the anger and jealousy of the queen of a now unknown African civilization. The young man and his guardian set out to visit this country, and there they meet this same woman, who has not aged in thousands of years. Ayesha is given the title "She Who Must Be Obeyed" by the local people, and this is shortened to "She". It is her belief that Leo Vincey is the re-incarnation of her beloved Kallicrates, the man who fled, returned to be united with her forever, and she carries out ruthless and terrible retribution on those who stand in her way.

As an adventure story, She has some unusual features which militate against its continued popularity. Like King Solomon's Mines, it has a vein of racism running through it, and it is not a well constructed narrative. It also attributes unexplained powers to Ayesha - prolonged youth, the ability to kill with her mind. In the earlier novel, the powers of the evil witch Gagool are purely the result of superstition: if she curses someone, they die because they believe it. Here, in the interest of increasing the wonder felt by the reader, no rational explanation is given; the gases from the volcanic vent where she takes Holly and Leo is not an explanation.

A more localised problem occurs early in the novel, with the account of the opening of the box. The documents within it are quoted in full, and not just in English. This is repetitive and dull, even if it adds some badly needed verisimilitude. In the sort of book the novel appears to be, an account of an exploration, it is possible that such documents would be quoted, but even then most authors would relegate most of the material to an appendix. Haggard commits the cardinal sin for an adventure story of making it dull, and this feeling spreads to the novel as a whole.

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