If the title brings to mind a song by the classic tenor Charles Aznavour, you wouldn’t be far off from the theme of H. Rider Haggard‘s book. The song’s tender, yet at times worshipful lyrics could be one way to describe the “spell” which She, Ayesha, inspires in those who are privileged (or cursed) to look upon her unveiled face. As might be expected, those who do so find their lives bound to hers, and, like a drug, she compels them to love her, in spite of her unpleasant ways.
But let’s start at the beginning. It’s the late 19th century, and young Leo Vincey learns from his adoptive father Horace Holly that he is heir to a special family heirloom, comprised chiefly of an ancient piece of pottery. The pottery is covered in writing, which tells a grim tale of Leo’s ancient ancestor, Kallikrates, being lusted after and then murdered by a mysterious, white sorceress, who lives in Africa. Kallikrates’ wife urges her descendants to seek out Ayesha and avenge their father. Leo, evidently finding life in Cambridge too safe for his liking, decides to go to Africa and see if there’s any truth in the story. Holly and Job, like the good friends they are, agree to accompany him.
What follows is an adventure that is both bizarre and, at times, humorous (both intentionally and unintentionally). On the one side, you have a classic premise of a search for lost treasure – in this case, lost revenge – and on the other hand, there’s a reverse Sleeping Beauty twist, in which an innocent prince is to be “awoken” by a wicked witch. This rather unique premise seemed like a good idea for a story, but personally I found its execution to be lacking, both in terms of content and message as well as in the somewhat pedestrian writing style.
In spite of its flaws, Haggard’s novel and the fierce title character influenced both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, who would later create their own “queen” characters not dissimilar to Ayesha. Fortunately for us, the less savory aspects of She – including its dated handling of race, class, and female characters – were either greatly reduced or replaced in those later works, particularly in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. For more on that (and some other fun facts), please check out my latest podcast episode on Classics Considered, which goes into it in detail.
Overall, I would give She 2.5 out of 5 stars; it’s interesting in a historical and literary context, but not a must-read. For a stronger “lost world” novel, I’d recommend The Lost World (surprise!) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.