Chasing Beauty: She, by H Rider Haggard, Part II

Whiter Shade of Pale

Haggard’s book is full of both careless bigotry and acerbic comments about women and beauty. This might have been the tradition of the time, but some seems almost sly, as if Haggard is commenting on his own national character.  Some isn’t exactly bigotry, either.  Ayesha says she disliked the pre-Christian Jews because they wouldn’t let her argue philosophy in their temples.  However, the absence of black Africans in Africa is uncomfortably obvious. When Holly is first being taken to meet Ayesha, he remarks to himself that he “did not feel overwhelmed with gratitude at the prospect of seeing some savage, dusky queen:’

“So, fortified by an insular prejudice against ‘kootooing,’ (kowtowing) which has, like most of our so-called prejudices, a good deal of common sense to recommend it, I marched in boldly after Billali.”

Later, Ayesha moves aside the curtain she sits behind with “a most beautiful white hand ,white as snow . . .”

Midway through the book, Holly finds a woman’s mummified foot.  It is a tiny, perfect white foot, and Holy puts it in his Gladstone bag (a strange image right there).  Later, in the crypt, Ayesha shows off the perfectly preserved mummies of Kor.  The ancient city must have been in its prime six thousand years earlier, she tells Holly.  Its inhabitants, we discover, knew that the world was round, and could carve statues of marble that rivaled Michelangelo’s.  And they were white.

King Solomon’s Mines also had a hidden white society in deepest Africa.  Partly, this is so that the white hero can marry an African princess without outcry.  But what else is it about?  Isn’t it really likely that the people of the city of Kor, at least, would be dark-skinned?

A more cynical reader—someone like me—might see something else going on with this veritable explosion of hidden white cities in a place the British called the Dark Continent: something like a rationalization for imperialism.

Haggard didn’t write his novels to make people think, or offer a critique of society, or exercise his philosophy. He wrote to entertain people.  The loudest theory about popular culture is that it reflects society’s fears, desires and beliefs; it doesn’t create them.  This might be true, but popular culture entertainment forms also feed and support those fears and desires.  If, long, long ago, the great civilizations in Africa were actually white, then colonialism is justified because, after all, white people were there first.  At the very least, it ameliorates any discomfort we might have about denying rights and respect to dark-skinned people, because it reassures us that our negative opinions about them are justified.

Interestingly, in the sequel, Ayesha, the Return of She, Haggard also gives us a hidden western city, deep in central Asia.  Borrowing from his friend Rudyard Kipling, he postulates a lost regiment of Alexander the Great settling a remote valley.  In that book, however, the white race is losing ground to the natives, and the remaining descendents of the regiment are corrupt and dissolute. Maybe Haggard just liked Asians better.

What do women want?

The Amahagger are matrilineal and cannibalistic; strong women will devour men.  Haggard connects those dots without apology.  In 1887, when the book was published, women didn’t have the vote.  The Married Women’s Property Act had passed only five years earlier.  Until then, a woman could not maintain control of property, even property that had been given to her.  It’s hard to see what Haggard was so afraid of.

Fortunately, women can be kept in line by murdering the older ones periodically.  This helps the men feel strong, even though they are ruled by a woman.  Or maybe it’s that since there is one powerful, uncontrolled woman, other women have to pay to keep the balance. Like the ruins of Kor, the British Empire was ruled by a widowed queen.

Of course, it is the tyranny of beautiful women that Holly, at least, professes to fear.  He himself becomes addicted to Ayesha’s beauty, casting himself at her feet, surrendering his autonomy and his critical faculties.  Toward the end, he ruminates on the horrible things Ayesha has done (murdering Ustane, for example) and decides that a man wouldn’t think badly of a beautiful woman who committed such crimes for him. Still, a woman who is beautiful, passionate, intelligent, wise and immortal is too much, and Holly is worried.

It’s interesting that Ayesha began her love affair with Kallikrates by murdering him.  All the biographical material about Haggard says that a woman named Lily broke his heart by marrying someone else.  I haven’t read a biography yet, so I don’t know if he and Lily had an “understanding” (it would seem not), but soon after she married, he left for South Africa.  Haggard himself married later, a woman who was clearly a partner, although not the love of his life. Lily’s marriage was a bad one, and she died early.

Leo, the center of the love triangle that persists through this book and the sequel, is passive here, accepting whoever chooses him. For a Victorian novel, he is almost acting the part of the maiden.  Leo does not begin to grow as a character until after the end, when Ayesha has been—well, transformed– in the celestial fire, and Holly and Leo are trying to find their way back out of the hidden chamber deep in the darkness, through the long hidden tunnel, to the surface.  Only at the end of the book, free of Ayesha’s influence, does Leo behave like an adult.

So, women are fearsome creatures, yet two of the strongest characters in the book, Ustane and Ayesha, are women. In thinking about Ayesha (which he does a lot) Holly thinks, “. . . her wickedness had not detracted from her charm.  Indeed , I am by no means certain that it did not add to it.  It was after all of a grand order, there was nothing mean or small about Ayesha.”

Nobody Does it Better

What works, and is frustrating, in She, is the character of She herself. Haggard creates a supernatural character with an ethos and a moral code that is different from humanity’s.  The problem, then, is how to contain her. Ayesha is quite clear that her near-immortality, her gifts for chemistry, her ability to kill with a thought, and her astounding beauty make her formidable.  Her plans to rule the world with Leo seem possible, even plausible. Haggard creates, near-perfectly, a being with no limits.

Then he has to finish his book without outraging the conventions of his day.

It is this challenge that makes the book interesting to scholars and casual readers, even if it is a less-than-perfect adventure, even if the two main human characters are passive to the point of immobility. Ayesha is a dragon, or a goddess; an alien being with great power and no need to follow the consensual reality at hand. She is pre-Christian, and does not believe in helping the weak or showing forgiveness.  She believes in strength and power. Leo, who she loves and who loves her, will not control her.  Haggard has to dig deep to find the secret weapon that will shift the balance; and he does—they go deep into the womb of a mountain, to find a magical energy that even Ayesha cannot control.  The British Empire wins again, and She is once again relegated to the demesne of myth and romance—but with a great struggle, and not without pain.

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