She by H. Rider Haggard is one of the worst books I’ve ever enjoyed. The writing is stilted, the dialogue is ridiculously both overwrought and formal, the plot is absurd, the characters are two dimensional, the laughs are unintentional.
I loved it.
The story follows an aging Oxford don, “on the wrong side of 40” as he says, Horace Holly and his young ward the handsome Leo Vincey, called the Lion because of his wonderful golden curls. The two set out with their man servant Job in search of a lost African kingdom ruled by a powerful, undying woman, Ayesha called She Who Must Be Obeyed by her terrified subjects. Leo’s father, whom he never knew, left him an iron box to be opened on his 21st birthday. The box contains evidence, written and physical, linking Leo back through a long lineage to a ruler of ancient Egypt who loved Ayesha only to die by her hand. Aeysha is cursed with long life, forced to live over 2000 years alone while she waits for the reincarnation of her beloved Kallikrates to appear. Leo, of course, looks just like the paintings of Kallikrates.
Then story starts to get ludicrous.
I can understand why She was huge a success when it was first published in 1887. I can even understand why it would spawn three successful sequels. (It has sold over 83 million copies and been translated into 44 languages. I just wish one of them had been English.) At the end of the 19th century powerful women were a major concern among English authors. The New Woman was asserting herself all over the place making more than a few male authors very nervous. Africa was of great interest to the reading public in the 19th century, and Haggard is credited with inventing the lost kingdom genre of adventure fiction with his very popular stories of Allan Quartermain the hero of King Solomon’s Mines. (The phrase She Who Must Be Obeyed later resurfaced as the “name” John Mortimer’s Rumpole used to call his long-suffering wife.) All this makes sense to me given the culture of the time, but why She and its sequels should still be in print today is a mystery to me. Maybe just for the laughs. Take this passage:
“Ah, so!” he answered. “Thou seest, my son, here there is a custom that if a stranger comes into this country, he may be slain by ‘the pot’ and eaten.”
“That is hospitality turned upside down,” I answered feebly. “In our country we entertain a stranger, and give him food to eat. Here you eat him, and are entertained.”
“It is a custom,” he answered, with a shrug. “Myself, I think it an evil one; but then,” he added by an afterthought, “I do not like the taste of strangers, especially after they have wandered through the swamps and lived on waterfowl.”
Or this one:
“My love! my love! my love! Why did that stranger bring thee back to me after this sort? For five long centuries I have not suffered thus. Oh, if I sinned against thee, have I not wiped away the sin? When wilt thou come back to me who have all, and yet without thee have naught? What is there that I can do? What? What? What? And perchance she–perchance that Egyptian doth abide with thee where thou are, and mock my memory. Oh, why could I not die with tjee, I who slew thee? Alas, that I cannot die! Alas! Alas!” and she flung herself prone upon the ground, and sobbed and wept till I thought that her heart must burst.
Or this one:
“I want a Black Goat, I must have a Black Goat, bring me a Black Goat!” and down she fell upon the rocky floor, foaming and writhing, and shrieking for a Black Goat, affording as hideous a spectacle as can be conceived.
See what I mean.
In spite of this there were a few scenes in She that came close to brilliant. One in particular described a ritual sacrifice She presided over in one of the many temple chambers in her underground palace. Slaves enthralled to her mysterious powers brought forth the mummified bodies of kings left for centuries in the tombs. Some they threw on a large bonfire while others the put inside holders along the walls lighting their heads as though they were torches. There’s an image to haunt your dreams and something a Freudian analyst could really sink his teeth in to.
The main reason I was able to enjoy reading this book was not to read it but to listen to it. If you’ve not discovered it yet Librivox.org is an excellent site for free downloadable audio books. It’s an organization run by volunteers. People from all over the world can sign up to read a chapter from a wide selection of works in the public domain. These chapters are then collected and posted as downloadable zip files. Hearing She read by so many different people and with so many different accents made it much more fun. I heard male and female voices from America, England, India, New Zealand and one who struck me as having a Russian accent. Some readers were better than others and each came up with their own way to pronounce Kallikrates, but this added to the overall charm of the project. It was like having your parents read to you, a kind of outsider audio art. I’ve downloaded several more books, none of them sequels to She.
I found this trailer for the 1965 Hammer Films version of She starring Ursula Andress as She with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. I have not seen the entire movie, though C.J. is a big fan of Hammer Films, but judging from this trailer the movie is not only very loyal to the book, it is also much, much better.
It’s nice to see a movie version that’s better than the book once in a while.
It’s been six years since I read this book and posted this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. I have not become a H. Rider Haggard convert nor have I watched the Hammer Film version, though it looks like a fun midnight movie. In preparing this re-post I was pleased to find a sequel, The Vengence of She. I don’t know if Hammer ever finished the trilogy. 😉