I remember watching She as a television serial when I was a young girl of eight years old. My Mother had recently given birth to my sister, Hayley, and I was sharing a room with her and “helping” her look after this difficult and finicky baby. I have never forgotten the scene at the end when She steps into the fire and starts to age. I remember her getting older and older and finally disintegrating into dust. I had nightmares about that scene for months afterwards. I think my Mom was a bit to distracted with her howling baby girl to actually realise what I was watching.
As an adult I really wanted to read the book and revisit the scene that scared me so much as a child. I got hold of a second edition copy about three years ago in an antique shop in Knysna in the Western Cape, South Africa. The proprietor of the shop was rather horrified when I told him I was going to actually read this book but that is exactly what I did.
While the story is very Victorian in its content and writing style and presents some very old fashioned attitudes to racial and gender issues (the views of the author on women leaders becomes more apparent at the end), if you accept this as a characteristic of colonial writing, it is an amazing tale of a woman who learns the secret of immortality and uses her power to gain control of the local people in an African country, whom she treats with great cruelty. The descriptions of an African dawn and the countryside and caverns are detailed and delightful, as are the depictions of the preservation of bodies and the history of She’s realm. The book provides some interesting insights into the thoughts of the Victorians about woman in leadership positions and their overarching inability to control their love lives. She is not portrayed as a weak woman, other than in her love interest.
Aside from the beautiful, heartless and immortal She, the other two main characters are equally interesting. Extremely ugly Horace Holly, a man of great intelligence and a professor at Cambridge and his protegee, Leo, the son of Holly’s dead colleague, Vincey. Vincey visited Holly on the night of his death and tells him the story of his fantastic lineage and leaves him with a box to be given to his son, Leo, on his 25th birthday. When the box is opened, Holly and Leo learn more of Leo’s ancestry and decide to set off on a voyage to East Africa to investigate his heritage further. They are shipwrecked, together with their Arab captain, off the coast and embark on a great adventure together.
There are some fairly barbaric scenes in the book such as the ritual of the hotpot, where a savage native tribe attempt to eat the Arab captain and the murder of many of her subjects by She but the intriguing story line and beautiful descriptions make this book a worthy read.
She is considered to be one of the best selling novels ever written. By 1965, approximately 83 million copies of this fantasy novel first published in 1887 had been sold.
Maybe I am interested in Rider Haggard as his family home was in Ditchingham, a village very near to the town of Bungay where my mother grew up. My mother mentioned Rider Haggard, and his daughter Lilias Haggard, several time during my childhood. The Haggard family was of great interest to the local community. The house in Ditchingham and Lilias Haggard’s involvement in the publication of The Rabbit Skin Cap, a book about a boy’s life in Bungay and the surrounding areas, feature in my Mom and my forthcoming book, While the Buzz Bombs Fell.
Have you read Rider Haggard’s books? What do you think of them?