Tuesday, July 14, 2015
She - H Rider Haggard
She is the story of a quest, an adventure that began over two thousand years before the story begins. The story is told, in the form of a long manuscript, written by Ludwig Horace Holly, Cambridge scholar, & left in the care of an unnamed Editor. Holly, a man in his 40s & considered ugly by everyone, especially women, tells of the death of his friend Vincey twenty years before. When he knew he was dying, Vincey left Holly the guardianship of his five year old son, Leo, & a chest containing documents relating to an ancient family story. In a letter accompanying the chest, Vincey sets out his instructions for Leo's education, including learning Arabic & Greek, & instructs Holly to give Leo the trunk on his 25th birthday so that he can decide whether he wishes to take up the quest. Vincey claims to be the descendant of an Egyptian priest of Isis, a Greek called Kallikrates, & only his ill health prevented him from continuing on his journey to find the forgotten land his ancestor discovered.
That same night, Vincey dies. Holly becomes Leo's guardian, employs a young man, Job, to help him look after the boy & sets about fulfilling Vincey's instructions with regard to Leo's education. Leo grows up top be extraordinarily handsome, intelligent & kind. Holly grows to love Leo as a son &, on his 25th birthday, tells him of the chest & of his father's last instructions. In the chest, they find documents, papyri & a scarab, all telling an amazing story of Kallikrates & his love for a beautiful Egyptian princess, Amenartas. There is a forgotten land in the heart of Africa & a magnificent Queen, a white woman, "who is a magician having a knowledge of all things, and a life and loveliness that does not die" who rules over them. Many of Leo's ancestors tried to find this land & failed. Leo is determined to try himself & Holly & Job go with him.
Holly, Leo & Job set out for Africa. They have many adventures, including the sinking of the dhow they hire to take them up river. Fortunately, they were towing their own boat, with all their belongings already stowed on it & they escape drowning, along with just one of the African crew members, Mahomed. They find the rock, shaped like the head of an African, mentioned in the manuscript &, soon after, are approached by a group of tribesmen, speaking an Arabic dialect. The leader of the men, an old man called Billali, tells them that he has been commanded by his Queen, She-who-must-be-obeyed, to bring the strangers to her. She seems to know everything that happens within her lands & the three white men are well-treated on their journey.
The women of the tribe are in a privileged position, deciding for themselves who they will live with. Men are reduced to the position of vassals. A young woman, Ustane, embraces Leo & when he returns her embrace, he has become her lover. Unfortunately, Mahomed, being black, comes to a terrible end as the tribesmen, the Amahagger, decide that he's fair game after he rejects a woman's advances as She did not mention a black man in her commands. The battle that ensues leaves Leo badly wounded although Billali returns to prevent the deaths of the three men. The journey through forests & swamps finally ends in the cup of a volcanic plain where they discover the lost civilization described in the legend.
Holly is summoned to meet She & is presented with a tall woman, veiled in gauze. She is all-powerful, served only by mutes who cannot reveal anything & revered by the Amahagger over whom she has the power of life & death. Over the course of many conversations, She reveals her name, Ayesha, tells him of her powers & reveals that she has discovered the secret of eternal life. She has lived for over two thousand years, waiting for the love of her life to return to her. The story in the manuscript was true. Ayesha fell in love with Kallikrates & killed him in rage when he preferred Amenartas. She immediately regretted her actions & has waited, ever since, for his reincarnated self to return to her. Ayesha recognizes Leo as her lover, cures him of his wounds & proposes to keep him with her, giving him the gift of eternal life. Ayesha has also unveiled herself to Holly & he falls in love with her, as any man must. He wonders what Leo's reaction will be when he sees Ayesha's incredible beauty.
She is a story of adventure that Haggard wrote in the aftermath of the great success of King Solomon's Mines. He wrote it quickly, drawing again on his knowledge of Africa but this time, the story is much darker. I read King Solomon's Mines about five years ago & enjoyed it very much but I don't remember it being as gruesome & violent as She. There are some truly horrible scenes of violence (the favoured punishment of the Amahagger is hot-potting & it has nothing to do with a savoury stew) & the embalmed bodies of the ancestors are used as flaming torches during an entertainment. Holly & his companions are housed in caves once used as the burial places of the Amahagger & there are murals on the walls showing the embalming process. It's not for the squeamish.
There are also some very exciting scenes. At one point, Ayesha is leading Leo & Holly to the source of eternal life in a series of caves. They have to cross a chasm to a rock on the other side that sways in the howling wind on a thin plank. Even though I knew that Holly, at least, must survive as he's writing the story, I almost shut my eyes, as if I could see what was happening. That could have something to do with my fear of heights, but still! The journey back through the caves is even more perilous.
Holly is a very sympathetic narrator. He reminded me a little of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Dr Watson. Noble, decent, loyal & so very English, in the way of Victorian heroes. His solitary life is changed by Leo's arrival & his determination to carry out his friend's instructions leads him into great peril. He impresses Ayesha with his determination not to be cowed by her (he refuses to enter her presence crawling on his hands & knees) & they have many long conversations about the history of her people. I admit, some of these conversations were too long for me. Ayesha's slightly archaic speech may have been intended to reflect the Arabic dialect she spoke but these long passages slowed down the action. I suppose long expositions of history & customs are necessary in any novel about new worlds or dystopia but I was longing for some action, even though it might have made me feel slightly ill. The story of the quest & the adventures that attend it is very exciting, however, & make She well worth reading. If only I could have got Charles Aznavour (love the cheesy album covers) & Horace Rumpole (about 5 minutes in to this episode) out of my head while I was reading...