Monday, 1 May 2017

She


H. Rider Haggard She (1887)
It's probably all those references in Alan Moore's Extraordinary Gentlemen which imprinted me with the thought that I might read this, which seems otherwise a little out of my way. I encountered a copy in a Rockport used book store which looked as though it might once have been a cow shed, and might even still be a cow shed on certain days, and I asked myself what's the worst that could happen? I vaguely recall seeing the film of She with Peter Cushing at some point, but never really cared enough to consider whether it might be based on anything, and yet here I am. Despite its status as the best selling novel ever - or whatever it says on the internet - I had a feeling I might not like it much. It sounds a bit Indiana Jones, and I never saw the appeal of him either.

She is a vaguely immortal white woman who somehow landed the job of Queen in a lost underground African civilisation, as encountered by a couple of adventuresome Cambridge chaps. In many ways it's of its time, as they say, although to be fair, it has much more going on than might be expected of a colonial Victorian novel. She was written at the height of both the British empire and faith in its civilising influence - give or take some small change - an era of social and scientific upheaval. Western society was only just beginning to get to grips with the idea of world history beyond the usual Biblical or classical realms. Jean-Fran├žois Champollion and Karl Richard Lepsius had expanded Egyptology to an unprecedented understanding of ancient civilisation in general, and W.H. Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico had awakened public interest in cultures across the other side of the globe; colonial forces were exporting a steady stream of looted arts and crafts back to the European capitals where they would soon cast their influence upon Picasso, Braque and others; Darwin was shaking things up in his own way, and western society was beginning to at least understand why social reform might not be such a terrible thing.

What surprised me most about She is Haggard's acknowledgement of Africa's past as home to innumerable developed and sophisticated civilisations at least equal to their European contemporaries. Of course most of Africa's history has been ravaged, looted, and subsequently bulldozed flat so as to make way for the myth of superstitious cannibals in mud huts requiring our civilising influence and thus allowing us to feel a bit better about both the slave trade and the wholesale destruction of more or less an entire continent. Unfortunately Haggard's take on this was a present day reality of degenerate races who, having fallen from grace, were probably better off with us lot in charge; but in his favour he tends to propose such views as opinion rather than actively rewriting history; so the racism is low level, arguably understandable given the author's heritage, and with nothing shoved in your face too hard. Indeed, most of his attitudes to race are expressed as a fairly simple fear of the unknown, which at least works in context of an adventure without leaving too foul a taste. He praises as much as he condemns, and it seems clear that his overriding motive is to instil both his tale and his readers with a genuine sense of wonder regarding the ancient world and how it relates to the modern. This still leaves us with a race of spear-chucking cannibals who have somehow chosen a white woman for their Queen, but I've nevertheless read worse.

I've seen Haggard's prose criticised as clumsy, but for the most part I found it highly enjoyable, even engrossing in places, although it probably helps if you enjoy overwrought Victorians who have to describe every last fucking thing in pornographic detail and who never quite worked out where to finish a sentence; and it's Haggard's prose which keeps this thing moving along, at least up to the point at which we meet Ayesha, and they all take to standing around having rhetorical conversations in an Arabic language, here rendered as Marvel Shakespearean with all the yonder and thou hast and methinks. It's the yacking which unfortunately spoils the book for me, downgrading it to a chore. There's so much of it, page after page and mostly dull as fuck, and somehow none of it saying anything particularly interesting - which is a shame considering the potential for discourse on the subjects of race, mythology, and so on; because I suspect if She is actually about anything, it's Haggard's lament for the passing of mythology and mysticism, represented by Ayesha herself withering in the harsh dawn of science and the world to come, or something along those lines.

In terms of literary equivalents to Jim Davidson jokes, She barely registers at all when sat next to Lovecraft's party political broadcasts on behalf of the UK Independence Party, and there's a lot to like about the first half of the book, at least until her indoors shows up and it all turns to crap; which was possibly the other point H. Rider Haggard was trying to make, but never mind.

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