What I learned from She by H(enry) Rider Haggard: There is nothing more horrible than a woman of great beauty unless it is a woman who is old and ugly. Actually there is, but I’ll get to that later.

Ah those crazy Victorians and their adventure stories filled with misogyny, racism and classism and all kinds of other isms. All in all, it comes down to being a really silly adventure story in which two British gentlemen like to shoot animals and marvel at the backwardness of the natives who, because they are not British and wear animal skins for clothes and use mummies as torches, are obviously savages. But, I get ahead of myself.

Haven’t read She? Let’s see if I can summarize it for you. Newly minted Cambridge professor Horace Holly is visited late one night by his friend and colleague Vincey. Vincey is ill and tells Holly he will die soon. He makes Holly promise that he will take on the guardianship of Vincey’s five-year-old son, Leo. He then spins a tale about how ancient his ancestry is and leaves Holly a locked iron box he is not to open until Leo turns 25.

Holly raises Leo as promised. Leo turns out to be smart and tall and very blond and so beautiful that people refer to him as a Greek god. Every woman who sees him falls madly in love, which Leo finds mildly amusing. The day of his 25th birthday arrives and Holly brings out the iron box. Inside are all kinds of goodies that include writing in uncial Greek and also Latin, which our narrator Holly is kind enough to reproduce and then translate each one into English for us. The main prize is the Sherd of Amenartas. It tells the tale of the beautiful Amenartas running away from Egypt with the equally as beautiful Kallikrates. They end up in the clutches of Ayesha who falls in love with Kallikrates, demanding he abandon Amenartas and stay with her. But Kallikrates refuses and Ayesha in her rage kills him. Amenartas escapes. It turns out she is pregnant, bears a son, and then passes down from son to son the story of Kallikrates and the injunction to one day take revenge upon Ayesha, who, while not immortal, has a lifespan of thousands or years.

Can Holly and Leo believe such a fantastic story? Holly doubts it but Leo, bold and brave like a lion, is eager to find out. So they set off with their trusty servant, Job, to the wild lands of Africa. After their ship sinks and they get lost in the swamps, they are rescued by savages sent by She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. These savages are the Amahagger who pretty much worship She and do her bidding. These savages do savage things like allow their women to be in charge. Almost immediately, Leo is claimed by Ustane. Young Leo is tickled by the whole idea of women being in charge — what a lark! —and goes along especially since Ustane is attractive and uh — shall we say attentive to his manly needs? Holly is too old and ugly to be of interest but servant Job is approached and offends the woman and the whole tribe with his proper British manners.

The savages are also cannibals and decide that they are going to take a bit of revenge on their guests by eating Mahomed, the ship captain who survived with them. The Amahagger don’t end up killing Mahomed, but Holly does. Aiming at the female agressor who holds him while a man is about to put a burning hot pot on top of Mahomed’s head, Holly somehow shoots the woman and Mahomed. Oops! is pretty much as grief stricken as Holly gets about that.

Anyway, Leo turns out to be the spitting image of the dead-for-two-thousand-years Kallikrates. She believes in reincarnation, she has been waiting around all those years for Kallikrates to return to her. Holly at first had a hard time figuring this out. He could not believe that She was immortal or even close to it because

The person who found it [near immortality] could no doubt rule the world. He could accumulate all the wealth in the world, and all the power, and all the wisdom that is power. He might give a lifetime to the study of each art or science. Well, if that were so, and this She were practically immortal, which I did not for one moment believe, how was it that, with all these things at her feet, she preferred to remain in a cave amongst a society of cannibals? This surely settled the question. The whole story was monstrous, and only worthy of the superstitious days in which it was written.

If you were nearly immortal your goal would be to rule the world, right?

Holly’s lack of imagination weaves its way all through this book where he repeatedly excuses himself from describing things because, well he simply cannot. For instance, when She removes her veil and he sees her face:

I gazed above them at her face, and—I do not exaggerate—shrank back blinded and amazed. I have heard of the beauty of celestial beings, now I saw it; only this beauty, with all its awful loveliness and purity, was evil—at least, at the time, it struck me as evil. How am I to describe it? I cannot—simply I cannot! The man does not live whose pen could convey a sense of what I saw.

Holly is really good at long moralizing passages though. Here’s a short snip:

Soon I gave up thinking about it, for the mind wearies easily when it strives to grapple with the Infinite, and to trace the footsteps of the Almighty as he strides from sphere to sphere, or deduce His purpose from His works. Such things are not for us to know. Knowledge is to the strong, and we are weak.

Of course, both Holly and Leo fall under the spell of She’s beauty. They lose their will, they can’t help themselves. Only when She steps back into the flame that gave her long life to discover that standing in it a second time takes it away and she shrinks into a hideous shriveled thing the size of monkey and then dies, are the two men released from her spell. Then Holly quickly tosses a robe over her horrible ugliness before the stunned Leo can see what happened.

Even with She dead, the two men have the chance to become nearly immortal themselves. The moralizing Holly of course refuses. Leo also refuses because he does not have the patience to wait two thousand years for She to return. And men call women fickle and inconstant!

This is a ridiculously terrible book. I have no idea why it caught the popular imagination and has been so influential. There is even a sequel called Ayesha, the return of She. But now I’ve read it and I don’t know if I am glad or wish I could wash it off my eyeballs. There is the real horror right there. It’s not She or the cannibals but the book itself that is horrible, which of course makes it more than appropriate for the RIP Challenge.

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