Friday, March 2, 2012

Adventure classics -- She: love, grief and power


by H. Rider Haggard


This March, Adventure classics enters the dangerous territory of the suspense, or thriller, novel. Whether these works include elements of mystery, romance, or science fiction, their defining characteristic is sheer edge-of-the seat storytelling. And H. Rider Haggard’s breakout novel She grandmothered many such tales.

The story appeared as a serial in The Graphic magazine in 1886-1887. (The publisher expected to illustrate the story, “although possibly the lack of costume may prevent it,” according to a letter quoted in D.S. Higgins’s biography, Rider Haggard.)

It was a best-seller upon release and has never been out of print since. Taking into account its numerous movie adaptations, spin-offs and parodies, it’s one of the most-referenced literary works in the English language.

(American actress Betty Blythe, whose picture illustrates this post, starred in the last of at least six silent movie versions in 1925. Blythe’s film was shot in mid-winter in an unheated Zeppelin shed near Berlin and Higgins notes the lightly-clad heroine suffered a great deal from the cold.)

To summarize the story, She recounts the adventures of reclusive English scholar Horace Holly and his ward, Leo Vincey. Following the directions in an old manuscript, Holly and Vincey discover a lost kingdom in East Africa ruled by a strange and beautiful queen known by her followers only as She-who-must-be-obeyed. Or, briefly, She, who’s languished in mourning for more than two thousand years awaiting the reincarnation of her dead lover. A lover who, not so coincidentally, is Vincey’s many times great-grandfather.

A never entirely explained process has not only kept She alive for millennia, but made her irresistibly beautiful, as both Holly and Vincey learn, to their grief.

Meanwhile, back in nineteenth century England, Queen Victoria had been in virtual seclusion for more than twenty years following the death of her beloved husband, Albert. Victoria, of course, was not nearly as old or beautiful as Haggard’s heroine. Still, it’s hard to imagine the story of a reclusive, aged, grieving queen being written in any other era than Victorian England.

And despite the eponymous “Victorian” attitudes of rigid sexual morality and limitations on women’s rights, it was impossible not to notice that the greatest empire in the world was headed by a woman. Whether propelled by Victoria or She, before the end of Haggard’s century, powerful women had become a topic hot enough to keep readers and psychoanalysts busy for years to come.

(In case anybody missed the connection to Victoria, Holly reports that while She recounted the story of her sorrowful love to him, “she gave a little sob, and I saw that after all she was only a woman, although she might be a very old one.”)

Victoria’s grief could not bring back Prince Albert. Neither could She’s long vigil assure her happiness with Vincey. In the end, natural processes reasserted themselves and She suffered a terrible end. And the men who loved her marked forever.

Do I even need to say She, in both novel and movie versions, is widely available at

(Next Friday: Even spinsterish Louisa May Alcott could pen fire-breathing heroines, at least under cover of a pseudonym, as Adventure classics demonstrates with a look at her novella of romance, treachery and suspense, Behind a Mask.)

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