Friday, July 27, 2018

She: Review

She (1886) by H. Rider Haggard concerns the journey undertaken by Horace Holly, a Cambridge University professor, and his young ward Leo to find the mysterious woman who killed one of Leo's ancestors. When Holly agrees to take on the guardianship of Leo Vincey, Holly's friend gives the professor a locked iron box and instructions that the box may not be opened until Leo turns 25. In the meantime Leo is to be trained in various ancient languages and generally prepared for what awaits him when the box is opened.

As soon as Leo comes of age, he is presented with the box and he finds within materials that tell and support a story about his ancestors in a time long before Christ. It tells how two lovers, a man and his wife, were relentlessly pursued and the man killed rather than become the husband of a mysterious woman. The wife escaped and had a child. The wife left materials and her testimony as proof of the horrible treatment and tasked her descendants with returning to Africa and exacting revenge for her husband's death. Also included is the notes from a more recent ancestor who said he tried to follow the instructions, found the right place and people, but failed to carry out the directive for revenge.

Holly says the materials either reflect a myth or the deranged imaginings of the recent ancestor, but Leo insists that he is going to follow the instructions whether Holly goes with him or not. The professor agrees to join him and they--along with their servant Job--travel to east Africa by boat. Their boat is wrecked and the only other survivor is their Arab captain. They are soon captured by a violent race of people who are ruled by a powerful white queen who has demanded that these strangers be brought to her. This queen, referred to as Hiya or She-who-must-be obeyed (shortened to just "She" throughout the book), is rumored to be thousands of years old.

photo source
The men suffer through many deadly adventures on their way to She's home and it is only her protection that saves them from Amahagger people (who are revealed as cannibals). But living under her protection may not be as safe as it appears and Holly soon suspects that She will not let them go easily--especially Leo, who she believes to be the reincarnation of her great love. They must overcome one last trial if they are ever to see England again and there is reason to suspect that they might fail.

Haggard wrote his novels during the height of the British Empire. Victorian and Empirical viewpoints are heavily represented from the depiction of the native folk of Africa to representation of a powerful woman. Although, She (or Ayesha--her real name) appears to be quite intelligent and crafty, her primary power over the men is in the wiles of her sex. She uses her great beauty to ensnare both Holly and Leo--making it near impossible for them to resist her. It is interesting, however, that Holly retains his reasoning powers even though quite enthralled by She's beauty and, in fact, holds quite detailed debates with her on many subjects. She even concedes that She might need to think over many of his views--though She absolutely will not give up the idea that Leo must belong to her. 

An interesting Victorian adventure novel that runs just a tad long on the front end. While it was necessary to give the background for the adventure to come, Haggard had a tendency to over-explain and we definitely didn't need long passages in Latin (or Arabic or whichever version happened to be under examination amongst the materials in the box). A synopsis of the ancestor's story would have sufficed. ★★

[Finished 7/17/18. I started this before my long vacation and then didn't read one word while traveling to and from Montana. Too many adventures of my own, I guess!]

*The cover shown above is not my edition. My edition is a boring, gray hardcover with nothing on the front.


Ron Smyth said...

At one time I read a significant amount of H Rider Haggard adventure stories, especially the Allan Quartermain series, including SHE AND ALLAN. This led of course to my reading the trilogy about Ayesha. I enjoyed them tremendously as an adolescent but I suspect their Victorian attitudes would put me off now. I enjoyed the review but it also proves to me that I remember essentially none what I read so many years ago.

Bev Hankins said...

Ron--I have the same trouble with a great number of books that I read when I was young. There are a few that I read over and over so they stuck firmly in the memory, but others...nope. Might as well not have read them. :-)

J.G. said...

This book sounds like it would be too Victorian for me, but I'm intrigued by the reference to "she-who-must-be-obeyed." Isn't this used again in some British t.v. show? (Google says it's Rumpole of the Bailey.) I never knew it had an origin beyond being a bit of droll British wit. How interesting!

Anyway, glad you got it done!

Bev Hankins said...

Yep--I think most people probably know that phrase from Rumpole. :-)