I so enjoyed Michael Dirda’s review of this in his book Classics for Pleasure that I thought I would love the story. I didn’t.
From the back cover of the book:
On his twenty-fifth birthday, Leo Vincey opens the silver casket that his father has left to him. It contains a letter recounting the legend of a white sorceress who rules an African tribe and of his father’s quest to find this remote race.
To find out for himself if the story is true, Leo and his companions set sail for Zanzibar. There, he is brought face to face with Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed: dictator, femme fatale, tyrant and beauty. She has been waiting for centuries for the true descendant of Kallikrates, her murdered lover, to arrive, and arrive he does — in an unexpected form.
Blending breathtaking adventure with a brooding sense of mystery and menace, She is a story of romance, exploration discovery and heroism that has lost none of its power to enthrall.
It was boring.
It’s a well-written story and though I was interested in seeing what would become of Holly and Ayesha, there was something about the book that turned me off. I can’t say for sure what that something was. Though I didn’t agree with the ideologies expressed in the story — Haggard is misogynistic and ethnocentric and Holly, the narrator, expresses such beliefs, — that didn’t turn me off from the story. The adventure was quite interesting and was the only thing that kept me reading. I guess it’s the writing, then, that turned me off. It was descriptive yet dry and though I love descriptions, I think this one has too much…or maybe it’s that the descriptions made are critical and not simple observations. Also, there were too many explanations, which I guess were needed to really understand Holly’s point of view. I don’t know. It just bored me.
I also don’t get why it’s considered a classic. Is it because it was written so long ago or is it a precursor for adventure stories? I think it must be the former because to me it’s just a romantic adventure story with erotic undertones — what with a mysterious white woman ruling over an inferior, savage race in Africa and she’s so beautiful that she keeps her features hidden from her “people”. She only “unveils” (whatever that means) herself for Holly and Leo. (I read so much into those scenes that I’m sure I’m wrong about them.) The discussions Holly has with Ayesha does bump it up some and though I don’t agree with most of them, I did enjoy the ones on man’s place in the universe, his limited knowledge, and his religions and morals.
I also didn’t like the ending, or rather, how Ayesha was disposed because it was a bit too abrupt. I thought that Holly and Leo would have more difficulty trying to escape her or something of the sort. Her death was understated to me but I guess it’s her greed or lust for immortality that really brought about her end. I don’t know. I did like the imagery of the scene, though, and I reread that passage to replay it in my head.
As for the characters, I didn’t find Ayesha as intriguing as I was supposed to, probably because I didn’t get why such a powerful, beautiful woman would keep herself wrapped up and hidden in a cave among people she deems inferior all because she must remain pure while awaiting the return of her true love. I think that’s pretty damn pathetic. I mean this lady sat on some hard-ass rock in the dark waiting for years for some dude to return to her….What?? She’s intelligent, beautiful, powerful, and terrible yet she refuses to show any of that to the world because she has to stay in place and wait for some dude to turn up.
Holly reminded me of Tyrion from the Song of Ice & Fire series, though they differ when it comes to women. Leo wasn’t notable and Job, whose purpose is to add a touch of comedy to the tale, was not funny.
As stated before, the ideas and opinions expressed in the story weren’t appealing. Most notable is Haggard’s belief that the savage Africans need someone of the lighter race to guide, civilize, and perfect them. That niggled me. Then there’s the structure of the Amahaggar’s society, which Ayesha rules over. It’s a matriarchal society so at first it seems that it’s women who have the power but it’s really the men. One would think that the highest seat within their communities would be held by a woman but it’s a man that holds it and everyone refers to him as “Father.” Then, every second generation the men rise up and kill the older women “as an example to the young ones, and to show them that [the men] are the strongest.” I rolled my eyes at this.
Interesting story. Well written. Read it if you want to but I don’t think it’s so great that you have to.
Quotes from the book:
“…so I lay and watched the stars come out by thousands, till all the immense arch of heaven was strewn with glittering points, and every point a world! Here was a glorious sight by which man might well measure his own insignificance! 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. Too much wisdom would perchance blind our imperfect sight, and too much strength would make us drunk, and overweight our feeble reason till it fell, and we were drowned in the depths of our own vanity.”
“If once I began to creep upon my knees I should always have to do so, and it would be a patent acknowledgement of inferiority.”
“Ah, how little knowledge does a man acquire in his life. He gathereth it up like water, but like water it runneth through his fingers, and yet, if his hands be but wet as though with dew, behold a generation of fools call out.”
“What is imagination? Perhaps it is the shadow of the intangible truth, perhaps it is the soul’s thought.”
(Added to the Classics Club Reading Challenge.)