If there’s one I love, it’s a book that I can just pick up and sink straight into, with no trouble or struggling to get to grips with places, people or style of writing – a readable book, and the latest tome I tackled was certainly that! “She” by H. Rider Haggard was kindly provided to me as a review copy by Hesperus Press, who have recently published a set of 4 volumes about the mythical Queen (as I wrote about here) and I’ve been very keen to make a start on them!

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H. Rider Haggard was quite a writer and Wikipedia says:

“Sir Henry Rider Haggard, KBE (22 June 1856 – 14 May 1925) was an English writer of adventure novels set in exotic locations, predominantly Africa, and a founder of the Lost World literary genre. He was also involved in agricultural reform around the British Empire. His stories, situated at the lighter end of Victorian literature, continue to be popular and influential.”

Certainly, the “She” books and also “King Solomon’s Mines” seem to be eternally popular and I was interested to see what all the fuss was about!

“She” is the first volume to feature the eponymous heroine, and opens with the ‘editor’ recounting how he met with the two main protagonists of the stories, Horace Holly* and Leo Vincey in Cambridge. Leo is a beautiful golden youth, almost perfect it seems physically and temperamentally, and Holly is guardian; he is as ugly physically as Leo is beautiful, but has a strong, intelligent nature. Holly took Leo in at the request of the latter’s dying father, and there is a strange legend and history attached to Leo’s lineage. When Leo reaches 25, the two men travel to Africa to investigate the legend and are shipwrecked in savage country. After difficult travels they are captured by the very unpleasant Amahagger people, who it turns out are cannibals, and have to fight their way to survival, before being taken deeper into unknown territory where they meet the Queen, Ayesha or She-who-must-be-obeyed. It soon transpires that She has a kind of immortality and has been waiting for thousands of years for the return of her Egyptian lover, Killikrates, who she believes Leo is the reincarnation of (and also his descendent, which is a little confusing…) Both Leo and Holly are by this time under her spell – will they escape, will She keep them in thrall forever and will the cannibalistic Amahagger reappear and attempt more of their nasty rituals?

This book is a *real* ripping yarn, make no mistake! As I’ve said before, Haggard is credited with creating the Lost World genre, and if this is one of the earliest I can understand why it had such an impact. It’s eminently readable – I raced through it in huge gulps – and very well written; the prose does get a little purple in places, but I really didn’t mind because it fitted in with the whole story. But Haggard was not just telling a tale on a surface level; there is quite a lot of discussion of the philosophical kind, about the nature of life and death, the point of existence and whether it is better to aim to stretch your life on forever, or whether the human span is enough.

There’s also some wonderfully vivid description of the landscapes and adventures the characters pass through. And Holly, the narrator for most of the tale, is an appealing character. Nicknamed “Baboon” by Billali, one of the tribal elders who becomes a friend, he is an engaging personality, prone to wander off into passages of pondering and philosophising, only to bring himself (and us!) back down to earth with a wry or humourous comment.

“ Above me… shone the eternal stars… Oh that we should shake loose the prisoned pinions of the soul and soar to that superior point, whence, like to some traveller looking out through space from Darien’s giddiest peak, we might gaze with the spiritual eyes of noble thoughts deep into Infinity! What would it be to cast off this earthly robe, to have done for ever with these earthly thoughts and miserable desires… Yes, to cast them off, to have done with the foul and thorny places of the world; and like those glittering points above me, to rest on high wrapped forever in the brightness of our better selves, that even now shines in us as fire faintly shines within those lurid balls…I at last managed to get to sleep, a fact for which anybody who reads this narrative, if anybody ever does, may very probably be thankful.”

In fact, Horace is the dominant presence in the book – Leo the golden boy is (dare I say it?) a little dull and in fact during much of the adventure is ill and possibly dying, so it is Holly who is the companion by our side during our reading journey.

“…I was not then old enough to be aware how many things happen in this world that the common sense of the average man would set down as so improbably as to be absolutely impossible, This is a fact that I have only recently mastered.”

And the conception of the book itself is also fascinating – a lost race in the African interior, untouched by civilisation for thousands of years; but spookily enough, it lives amongst the ruins of an immeasurably older one whose existence is all but forgotten apart from the mummies and the caves left behind. Haggard includes enough of this world to make it intriguing but not overshadow the tale of Holly, Leo and She.

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This is, of course, a book written when British Imperialism was at its height. There are inevitable racial stereotypes and attitudes, no doubt inculcated into Haggard’s psyche during his time in South Africa. The natives are generally bad, vicious or cowardly, and the fact that women are quite dominant in Amahaggar society is shocking to Job, Holly and Leo’s rather conventional servant who travels with them. However, by allowing She and the women characters to be so strong Haggard is not only ahead of his time somewhat, but also aware of the history of matriarchal societies and cleverly weaving them into his tale.

As for Ayesha herself, she is a complex woman. Declaring herself of Arabian descent, she is clever, intelligent, skilled as a chemist, and single-mindedly determined when she wants something. She is also capricious and prone to some very dramatic mood swings if she doesn’t get her way. I expected her to be presented as entirely evil, but despite the cruelty she exhibits, she is still sympathetic. She is very much aware of the effect her great beauty has on men (as both Leo and Holly fall under her spell) and doesn’t hold back from using it for whatever purpose necessary. Unfortunately, I think I would disagree with attempts to claim her as a feminist icon, as her motivation is entirely her love for Killikrates, and when she believes she has found him in the form of Leo, she immediately makes herself subservient to him!

If I have any disappointments at all with this book, it would be with a slight feeling that the end was a little rushed and could perhaps have been just a bit more detailed. Nevertheless, this was a cracking read – an exciting, interesting, thought-provoking and well-written page turner. What more could you ask for?

(Thanks once again to Hesperus for providing the review copies – I’m looking forward to the next volume of these beautifully produced works!)

*As an aside, “She-who-must-be-obeyed” was of course the nickname Rumpole of the Bailey used for his wife in the series of books by John Mortimer – and isn’t it interesting that his first name was Horace?!

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