Book Review: She by H. Rider Haggard
SHE by H. Rider Haggard (First Published in 1886/Penguin Red Classics Edition 2007)
Summary: On his twenty-fifth birthday, Leo Vincey opens the silver casket that his father has left to him. It contains a letter recounting the legend of a white sorceress who rules an African tribe and of his father’s quest to find this remote race. To find out for himself if the story is true, Leo and his companions set sail for Zanzibar. There, he is brought face to face with Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed: dictator, femme fatale, tyrant and beauty. She has been waiting for centuries for the true descendant of Kallikrates, her murdered lover, to arrive, and arrive he does – in an unexpected form. Blending breathtaking adventure with a brooding sense of mystery and menace, She is a story of romance, exploration discovery and heroism that has lost none of its power to enthrall.
This marks my third book in the year-long book reading project. I had originally picked this up in the bookstore a while ago, based off the cover. Penguin had a display of their “Red Classics” and this one definitely caught my eye. I think it’s quite the striking illustration of “She who must be obeyed.” I had never heard of it before, nor of the author. When you read the summary above, it sounds fascinating, right? And it was originally published in 1886. I think the last time I read a “classic” book was in college. All of my reading since then has been contemporary. I must admit, it was a bit tough to get back in that sort of reading mindset, especially since the language and sentence structure was so different. However, the book did not falter: it kept moving right along, very swiftly.
The narrator is Horace Holly, who, at the request of his dying friend, adopts young Leo Vincey and raises him as his own. And at the appointed time, they open up the mysterious casket on Leo’s 25th birthday and find all these ancient artifacts and translations that Leo’s father had been working on. As it turns out, Leo’s father was able to trace back the family tree all the way to the year 339 BC (more or less). The family tree begins with the priest, who runs away with a “Princess of Royal blood, who had fallen love with him, and was finally wrecked upon the coast of Africa[...]Here they endured great hardships, but were at entertained by the mighty Queen of a savage people, a white woman of peculiar loveliness, who [...] murdered Kallikrates. His wife, however, escaped…” Thus, it is assumed that Leo is actually a descendant of Kallikrates, whom She loved. And so, Leo, Holly, and Job (the male attendant who helped raise Leo with Holly) embark on a journey to find this place that Leo’s father described in previous letters, a land that almost sounds mythical.
When they finally do come upon this land, they are met with both kindness, curiosity, and the threat of cannibalism. There is definitely a sense of mysticism throughout. Holly is fascinated by the people who inhabit this remote part of the world for they speak a slightly different language than the Arabic that he knew, and the society appears to be matriarchal. A woman right away takes a liking to Leo and by instantly embracing him and kissing him, they are married (according to the custom), since a woman is at leisure to do so. According to their guide, “women do what they please. We worship them, and give them their way, because without them the world could not go on; they are the source of life.” Eventually, Holly comes face-to-face with She, who remains wrapped in cloth for when she disrobes, for any man instantly falls in love with her and worships her. While Leo is recovering from a fever, Holly and She engage in a few conversations about her life and philosophy and religion. She is clearly the same Queen that was spoken of earlier.
I do not want to divulge any information about what happens when Leo finally meets She, and what happens afterwards. It’s really more fun to find out yourself. I feel like anything I say about the ending or the events leading up to it would be saying too much. However, I will say that I was not disappointed. Even the conversations that Holly and She had were quite fascinating. It was rather poetic when she spoke, actually: “‘Because I wait for him I love. My life has perchance been evil, I know not–for who can say what is evil and what good?–so I fear to die even if I could die, which I cannot until mine hour comes, to go and seek him where he is; for between us there might rise a wall I could not climb, at least, I dread it. Surely easy would it be also to lose the way in seeking in those great spaces wherein the planets wander on for ever…’” This book had the adventure and mystery and definitely the substance to even make you think about some things. But again, I never felt like the pace was slow. Oh, and the reason why I had She italicized here was because it is done so in the book as well. It’s definitely one I would recommend if you’re looking for something different, and for something that is not out there today that would offer this to you.