Wednesday, April 9, 2014

She - H. Rider Haggard

Not the edition I read, sadly. Source.
I first read She in 2002, for a university subject titled "Archaeology in Film and Literature" (yes, the subject WAS the most awesome thing of ever, because I got to watch Indiana Jones and The Mummy for credit). It led me into a serious H. Rider Haggard jaunt, where I ploughed through all the Haggard books my university library had fairly quickly. I remembered enjoying this a lot and, given that it was basically the start of the "lost world" sub-genre, it seemed only appropriate that I add it to my Classics Club list.

Plot Summary:
Cambridge professor Horace Holly is surprised when a friend of his turns up, hands over a mysterious box and custody of his five year old son, Leo, and then promptly dies. Twenty years later, Leo - who's now smoking hot - opens the box to find that it contains an ancient piece of pottery and numerous documents, indicating that he's descended from an old Greek dude named Kallikrates, who was killed by a mysterious white queen in deepest Africa. On the pottery sherd, Kallikrates' wife, the Egyptian princess Amenartas, demands that her son and/or his descendants seek revenge.

So Holly and Leo set off for Africa with their trusty servant, Job. They get shipwrecked, contract malaria, and nearly get eaten by cannibals, but eventually they make it to the queen's home, near the ruined city of Kôr, which predates ancient Egypt by several thousand years. There, they meet Queen Ayesha, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, who claims to have the secret of immortality (she's over 2000 years old) and who promptly falls in love with Leo, who's apparently a dead ringer for Kallikrates. Shenanigans ensue.

Oy. This was kind of rough. The story took a long time to get going, partly due to the fact that the part where Leo's going through all the documents is filled with slabs of Greek and Latin and Medieval English. Much of the dialogue once they arrive in Africa is meant to take place in an antiquated form of Arabic, and is therefore written thusly: "blame me not if thou dost wear away thy little span with such a sick pain at the heart that thou wouldst fain have died before ever thy curious eyes were set upon me." (p. 144 in the crappy, independently published "YAY THIS IS OUT OF COPYRIGHT" edition that my library had)

So that made it quite difficult to get into the story because it was constantly flicking between nineteenth century English (for Holly's observations) and something resembling Shakespearean English for the dialogue. As a result, my brain struggled to keep up, and I found myself unable to read more than 25-30 pages at a time before my eyes started to glaze over.

It's really hard to read this type of book in the twenty first century without constant headdesking over the Victorian ideas about women and race. Here, the Amahagger people over whom Ayesha rules are billed as uneducated, cannibalistic savages who practice animal sacrifice. It's billed as a matriarchal society, but then we're told that every decade or so, the men rise up and kill off all the older women to put them back in their place again. Ayesha rules over them because she's white and educated, but even then, a lot of her ideas are billed as "the noble savage"-esque.

In Kôr, we're given a lost African civilisation, which YAY! But Ayesha shows Holly the catacombs of Kôr's citizens, and they're all white (Their perfectly preserved 4000 year old corpses also make excellent fire starters, apparently). Obviously, the idea of a lost civilisation that was highly educated AND populated by people of colour was too much for Victorian sensibilities to handle...

Ayesha's an interesting character. She's a woman in a position of power who's not afraid to use her beauty to convince men to do her bidding. Even Holly, who happily proclaims himself a misogynist, falls under her charms when he sees her face. But on the other hand, she's obsessed with the idea of her "lost love", despite the fact that Kallikrates chose his wife over Ayesha, and she killed him for it. It's her way or the highway - anyone who displeases her is rapidly put to death, and she considers all her subjects to effectively be primitive slaves. She uses her beauty as a weapon, and ultimately it betrays her.

Headdesking aside (because let's be honest - if we discounted books based on the attitudes of the times in which they were written, there would be an awful lot of classic books deemed not worth reading), the last 50-odd pages were pretty exciting stuff. Yes, it was still a little slow but FAR more thrilling than the book's early stages.

On the whole, it wasn't nearly as action packed as I remembered it being, and I can't help but feel like it would have been a lot more enjoyable if the dialogue hadn't been so formal and stilted a lot of the time...

Have you read it? What did you think?

K xx

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