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.
Fun facts about the life and work of Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines and She
1. He is the author of one of the biggest-selling books of all time. 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, precursor to the fiction of Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and countless other writers of the twentieth century. The novel is also the origin 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, along with… Read the rest of this entry