Reviewed by Steven H Silver
H. Rider Haggard's novel She is, in many ways, a typical Victorian novel and, as such, it suffers from many of the vices and tropes associated with Victorian novels. The novel tells of the adventures of L. Horace Holly and Leo Vincey as they travel to the east coast of Africa to track down an ancient legend regarding Vincey's ancestry. In order to tell their story, Haggard posits a letter delivered to him from Holly, the first indication that this is a Victorian novel.
As with many Victorian novels, Haggard's novel appears somewhat overwritten by today's reader's sensibilities. At the same time, this very act of overwriting brings a poetic sense to the story. For instance, in "Chapter IV: The Squall," Haggard writes, "The moon went slowly down in loveliness; she departed into the depth of the horizon, and long veil-like shadows crept up the sky through which the stars appeared." Haggard is able to use this style to aid in building the setting of his story, although in the 1990s, it also serves to slow the pace of the novel. If She were a philosophical novel, this would not cause any problems at all, however as an adventure novel, the last thing the writer wants is the interrupt the pace.
Perhaps more importantly, She is rife with the racism and sexism of the period in which it was written. Africans and Arabs are constantly looked down upon, the former being ruled by the Caucasian She-who-must-be-obeyed, who sees them as little more than animals. Another instance of these attitudes comes in a lengthy diatribe by She-who-must-be-obeyed against the Jews, who apparently treated her poorly in pre-Christian times. When Holly is forced to kill an Arabic member of his party, he shows no remorse for having taken the life. Before knowing She-who-must-be-obeyed is Caucasian, Holly refuses to bow to her as his guide, the reformed-cannibal Billali, does, Holly notes that to do so would be to admit that he, an Englishman, was inferior to an African tribal chieftain.
Women also fare badly, despite the the title character. The first indication of Haggard's apparent misogynism occurs in the second chapter when Holly, finding himself in charge of the infant Leo, looks for a nurse and notes that "I would have no woman to lord it over me about the child, and steal his affections from me. The boy was old enough to do without female assisance, so I set to work to find a suitable male attendant." Further demonstrations also occur, even having She-who-must-be-obeyed note that she is but a woman, despite her extreme age and power.
She is best read as a period piece, espousing the bigotry and nationalism of late nineteenth-century Europe. The adventure is good, firmly belonging to an era in which the African continent was being opened up to European knowledge. To a late twentieth-century reader, however, She comes across as being even more misguided than Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan novels which are descended from Haggard's writing.
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