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H. Rider Haggard’s She: A Bestselling Fantasy

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle sings the praises of one of the most popular novels of all time

This column, Dispatches from The Secret Library, is named after my first book aimed at a general (rather than narrowly academic) readership, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, the idea being to examine lesser-known books which were once much more popular than they are now. This week’s book is slightly different in that it’s still in print and enjoyed by a fairly large group of people (to judge from the fact that there are still quite a few good editions in print), but I think it qualifies as a ‘secret library’ book because its present popularity is nothing compared with its past success. I’m talking of H. Rider Haggard’s She, subtitled A History of Adventure, but as much an adventure through history, into the deep past of early civilisation, told with Rider Haggard’s trademark flair for addictive storytelling.

H. Rider Haggard’s She (Oxford World’s Classics) (1887) is reckoned to be one of the bestselling novels ever published: by 1965 it had sold some 83 million copies. Ayesha, the ‘she’ of the title, is a powerful and mysterious white queen who rules the African Amahagger people. Ayesha has magic powers and is immortal, making She a fantasy adventure novel.

The plot of Haggard’s She may be summarised as follows. A young man, Leo Vincey, learns that he is descended from an ancient Egyptian priest named Kallikrates and a princess and undertakes a journey to Africa to track down, and kill, the evil queen (who is also some kind of goddess, an immortal deity) who murdered Kallikrates all those centuries ago. After an eventful journey to, and across, Africa (involving encounters with crocodiles, cannibals, and all of the other paraphernalia of a classic imperial romance), Leo and his companion finally encounter the ‘She’ of the title: the immortal queen, Ayesha. What happens next would entail giving away one too many spoilers, but suffice to say that, after some plodding patches earlier in the narrative, the blazing finale to the novel justifies the book’s status (and huge sales figures) almost by itself. (I say ‘finale’ but in fact the big denouement actually happens some time before the end of the novel.) The title of the novel is a shortening of the phrase ‘she who must be obeyed’ – which, curiously, originated in a ‘hideous’ rag-doll owned by Haggard as a child. (The phrase would be given a new lease of life in John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey series.)

She has been filmed numerous times and was even one of the first novels adapted for (silent) cinema, when Georges Méliès filmed it in 1899 as La Colonne de feu. It remains one of Haggard’s most popular novels. It’s also had considerable influence on other writers, including Rudyard Kipling, Henry Miller, Graham Greene, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Margaret Atwood. (I got this list of authors from Andrew M. Stauffer’s introduction to the Broadview edition of the novel; I’d add Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose The Lost World would have been impossible without Rider Haggard’s pioneering novels of the ‘lost world’ subgenre, of which She is perhaps the most famous.)

The slightly battered 1960s MacDonald reprint of Rider Haggard’s novel which I own has a detailed and fascinating overview of the author’s life and how he came to write She. (It also ranks very highly in the bibliosmia stakes.) The ‘Lost World’ subgenre of fiction really stems from She and a handful of Haggard’s other great early novels: without him, we might have had no Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, no Jurassic Park. But by the same token, Rider Haggard’s novel possibly owed a debt to another bestselling Victorian novelist, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (the man who gave us the most notorious opening line in all of fiction), whose A Strange Story (1862) features a mysterious woman named Ayesha. Yet the details of African culture and superstition which Haggard includes in She were all learned through first-hand experience during his various excursions across the continent (between 1875 and 1882, Haggard had worked in South Africa as a secretary to Sir Henry Ernest Gascoyne Bulwer – who, as it happens, was the nephew of the author of A Strange Story).

Although She is his bestselling novel, it lacks the masterly control of narrative and pace which Haggard had perfected in his first great success as a novelist, King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Indeed, parts of the novel are so leisurely one could be mistaken for thinking one is reading a tourist’s account of his African safari. But thankfully, even when the plot slows to an almost gastropodic pace, Haggard’s lush descriptions of African culture and landscape carry you along. Well, they did me.

Rider Haggard famously disliked polishing and redrafting his romances (like many such writers of popular fiction, he had futile dreams that his ‘literary’ work would eventually be considered superior to his fantasy writing), asserting that ‘wine of this character loses its bouquet when it is poured from glass to glass’. She is certainly like imbibing a bottle of wine: heady, intoxicating, exotic, addictive, bringing you under its spell. But it’s a fine wine, not a cheap bottle of plonk. And She is a novel that’s worth returning to.

Oliver Tearle is the author of Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, published by John Murray.

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Posted on February 9, 2018, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’ve always thought this was Haggard’s best novel. It is amazing to me that it sold so well, and yet when I talk to people who are not literary scholars or English professors, none of them have ever heard of it. Somehow it was forgotten after the mid-20th century, despite all the film versions of it. King Solomon’s Mines is clearly better known though I found it a bit dull. Another really amazing Haggard novel is The Ghost Kings, although he never wrote a book I didn’t like at least to some degree.
    Tyler Tichelaar

    • Thanks, Tyler – it’s odd, given the phenomenal popularity of She, that it should have become less well-known while King Solomon’s Mines remains more firmly in the popular consciousness. I don’t know The Ghost Kings, so I’ll have to seek it out online. I have a pile of the lovely Macdonald hardback editions of his work, but haven’t come across that novel yet!

  2. “She is a novel that’s worth returning to.”
    I agree and indeed, after several decades, I did just that only a few days ago (with a review here https://bookheathen.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/she/
    Personally, I think the movies were awful – the 1935 and the 1965 at any rate. I wonder whether the novel being ‘forgotten’, as childrenofarthur states, is BECAUSE of the awful movies, or is it rather that the political incorrectness of Haggard’s language makes modern readers shy away from his work?
    But I think one must also read ‘Ayesha – the return of She’!

    • Superb review. I haven’t seen any of the film adaptations, but reading your review made me wonder whether George R. R. Martin had Rider Haggard’s novel in mind when created Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, the Unburnt, in A Song of Ice and Fire. She, too, is a white queen… I agree that the plot of the novel is great fantasy!

      • Thank you! You may be right about Daenerys/GRRM. although Daenerys is all too mortal (?) whereas Ayesha is part divine or maybe part satanic spirit, depending on one’s philosophic point of view.

  3. I love this book. I have a second edition copy.

  4. ‘She’ was possibly the first adult novel I read as an older child-becoming-a-man. I was intoxicated by the description of her beauty and her body and undoubtedly fell in love with her along with Leo! I remember the book with great, great fondness and must, must, must return to it one day soon.

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