Between the ages of eleven and seventeen, I read M. R. James, the master of the creepy tale, and all of H. G. Wells’s fantastical stories— The War of the Worlds , The Island of Doctor Moreau , The Invisible Man , “The Country of the Blind,” and many more. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World , complete with dinosaurs and Primitive Man, was a favourite; so were H. Rider Haggard’s once highly popular King Solomon’s Mines , Allan Quatermain , and She , with their lost civilizations frequently ruled over by beautiful, shoulder-baring, drapery-fluttering queens; and whatever derivative Boy’s Own Annual adventure stories I could get my hands on.
I found the lost city of Kôr, I fell in love with the immortal queen, be she evil as it might seem and saw Africa through the eyes of an 18th century man. How different would their travels have been if they had flash-lights?
“When I first read H. Rider Haggard’s highly famous novel She , I didn’t know it was highly famous. I was a teenager, it was the 1950s, and She was just one of the many books in the cellar. My father unwittingly shared with Jorge Luis Borges a liking for nineteenth-century yarns with touches of the uncanny coupled with rip-roaring plots; and so, in the cellar, where I was supposed to be doing my homework, I read my way through Rudyard Kipling and Conan Doyle, and Dracula and Frankenstein , and Robert Louis Stevenson and H. G. Wells, and also Henry Rider Haggard. I read King Solomon’s Mines first, with its adventures and tunnels and lost treasure, and then Allan Quatermain , with its adventures and tunnels and lost civilization.
And then I read She. I had no socio-cultural context for these books then—the British Empire was the pink part of the map, “imperialism and colonialism” had not yet acquired their special negative charge, and the accusation “sexist” was far in the future. Nor did I make any distinctions between great literature and any other kind. I just liked reading. Any book that began with some mysterious inscriptions on a very old broken pot was fine with me, and that is how She begins.
There was even a picture at the front of my edition—not a drawing of the pot but a photograph of it, to make the yarn really convincing. (The pot was made to order by Haggard’s sister-in-law; he intended it to function like the pirate map at the beginning of Treasure Island —a book the popularity of which he hoped to rival—and it did.)
Most outrageous tales state at the very beginning that what follows is so incredible the reader will have trouble believing it, which is both a come-on and a challenge. The messages on the pot stretch credulity, but, having deciphered them, the two heroes of She —the gorgeous but none too bright Leo Vincey and the ugly but intelligent Horace Holly—are off to Africa to hunt up the beautiful, undying sorceress who is supposed to have killed Leo’s distant ancestor. Curiosity is their driving force, vengeance is their goal. Many a hardship later, and after having narrowly escaped death at the hands of the savage and matrilineal tribe of the Amahaggar, they find not only the ruins of a vast and once-powerful civilization and the numerous mummified bodies of the same but also, dwelling among the around wrapped up like a corpse in order to inspire fear; but once tantalizingly peeled, under those gauzy wrappings is a stunner, and—what’s more—a virgin. “She,” it turns out, is two thousand years old.
Her real name is Ayesha. She claims she was once a priestess of the Egyptian nature-goddess Isis. She’s been saving herself for two millennia, waiting for the man she loves: one Kallikrates, a very good-looking priest of Isis and the ancestor of Leo Vincey. This man broke his vows and ran off with Leo’s ancestress, whereupon Ayesha slew him in a fit of jealous rage.
For two thousand years she’s been waiting for him to be reincarnated; she’s even got his preserved corpse enshrined in a side room, where she laments over it every night. A point-by-point comparison reveals—what a surprise!—that Kallikrates and Leo Vincey are identical. Having brought Leo to his knees with her knockout charms, and having polished off Ustane, a more normal sort of woman with whom Leo has formed a sexual pair-bond, and who just happens to be a reincarnation of Ayesha’s ancient Kallikrates-stealing enemy, Ayesha now demands that Leo accompany her into the depths of a nearby mountain. There, She says, is where the secret of extremely long and more abundant life is to be found.
Not only that, She and Leo can’t be One until he is as powerful as She—the union might otherwise kill him (as it does, in the sequel, Ayesha : The Vengeance of She ). So off to the mountain they go, via the ruins of the ancient, once-imperial city of Kôr. To get the renewed life, all one has to do—after the usual Haggard adventures and tunnels—is to traverse some caverns measureless to man, step into a very noisy rolling pillar of fire, and then make one’s getaway across a bottomless chasm.
This is how She acquired her powers two thousand years before, and to show a hesitating Leo how easy it is, She does it again. Alas, this time the thing works backward, and in a few instants Ayesha shrivels up into a very elderly bald monkey and then crumbles into dust. Leo and Holly, both hopelessly in love with She and both devastated, totter back to civilization, trusting in Her promise that She will return.
As a good read in the cellar, this was all very satisfactory, despite the overblown way in which She tended to express herself. She was an odd book in that it placed a preternaturally powerful woman at the centre of things: the only other such woman I’d run into so far had been the Wonder Woman of the comics, with her sparkly lasso and star-spangled panties. Both Ayesha and Wonder Woman went all weak-kneed when it came to the man they loved—Wonder Woman lost her magic powers when kissed by her boyfriend, Steve Trevor; Ayesha couldn’t focus on conquering the world unless Leo Vincey would join her in that dubious enterprise—and I was callow enough, at fifteen, to find this part of it not only soppily romantic but pretty hilarious. ”
The above excerpt was taken from Margaret Atwood – In Other Worlds p106-109.
I got so excited to see a novel mentioned in Margaret Atwood’s essay on fantasy that I decided to give the book a go. It’s a hard read, the English is old and every sentence is a masterpiece of its own. What really surprised me though is that the concepts of good and evil, the politics of the world, the way that men see beautiful women and the way people treat other people as their lesser has not changed in almost 200 years since the book was written.
“Ah! how little knowledge does a man acquire in his life. He gathers it up like water, but like water it runs between his fingers, and yet, if his hands be but wet as though with dew, behold a generation of fools call out, ‘See, he is a wise man!’ Is it not so?”
The love story of Ayesha and Leo, the young re-incarnation of Kalikrates is not quite a love story. It’s most like a one-sided crush, powerful enough to swipe Leo’s woman from the way and at first, put a white streak in her hair with her magic, and then strike her dead. Ayesha is a woman to be reckoned with. Beautiful, powerful and dedicated to Leo until eternity. When she is asked by Holly about the magic that she uses, she replies:
“There is no such things as magic, though there is such a thing as knowledge of the hidden ways of Nature.”
Her lair underground had chemistry sets and she was advanced in her studies of nature and physics. I think she gathered all of her knowledge by her long years of life but also by travelling. The old Billali said to Holly when they returned that “She” had a habit of disappearing, sometimes 12 years, sometimes an entire generations. There were tales of her returning to find a new queen on the throne and “She” striking her dead on on the spot.
“Time after time have nations, ay, and rich and strong nations, learned in the arts, been, and passed away to be forgotten, so that no memory of them remains. This is but one of several; for Time eats up the works of man.”
She is most curious about England. Surprised about the queen that they had back there and questioning their ways. When she proposed to slay the current queen of England and set herself in her stead, both recoiled and protested strongly. She was amazed that they had a queen they loved, that did not rule through fear and death, that they would keep there instead of herself. She is highly ambitious and sees herself and Leo ruling the world, above the law, an immortal couple.
“Without Hope we should suffer moral death, and by the help of Hope we yet may climb to Heaven, or at the worst, if she also prove but a kindly mockery given to hold us from despair, be gently lowered into the abysses of eternal sleep.”
The book ends with Leo and Ayesha and Holly travelling to the source of her immortality, the place where she had slain her first lover Kalikrates. The path is dangerous and hidden through caves made of natural formation behind the city of Kôr. They described the life giving process as flames engulfing a person, roaring in a circle, sounding like a mad river churning, coming closer and then going back away, for infinity.
When Ayesha asks Leo to step into the flames and feel the eternal power change him into an immortal, Leo hesitates. To show that there is no harm, she goes into the energy flames herself and even though for a minute she looked powerful, with shinning eyes, the force of Nature reverses the process that made her immortal in the first place and she ages 2000 years very quickly. Her hair falls down and her skin yellows. She shrinks to the size of a baby and dies off. Shocked by what they saw, their man-servant dies and Leo’s hair turns white. Holly can only see what happened to him when he went out of the caves and looked himself in a pool of water to find that he wore a permanent look of startlement.
Why I loved the book: Who wouldn’t want to discover a hidden city? A lost civilization? An immortal beauty. I loved the way Ayesha dedicated herself to a man (even though he was the man of another and the other was carrying her child). The stony steps worn down with her descent to his grave shows a deep and unrelenting love. It’s possible that when she gained her immortality, she was frozen in time with the same feelings she had at the time: deep love for Kalikrates and jealousy of other women. When Leo turns up, she is re-vitalized and her desire and love know no bounds. She would do anything for him.
I also loved the philosophies that She had about the world.
I loved She’s quirkiness. Your lover’s corpse is definitely a creepy keepsake.
Why I hated some parts: It’s a very tedious read. Very verbose descriptions of items the author did not understand fully. Poor Holly is described as ugly throughout the book. And told to his face. Did these people not learn manners?
The description of the African people (*cough* racism *cough*).
Leo was uni-dimensional. I understand the story was told by Holly, but Ayesha and even the slave girls are well rounded characters. Leo just seems to be a pretty boy with not enough intelligence to matter.
All in all, a good read.