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 (actually pronounced ‘Assha’), 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. (This beautiful and beloved copy 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.