England in the 1880’s and 1890’s saw a great upsurge of interest and popularity in the historical adventure story, especially in the works of three vivid, skillful writers—Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, and H. Rider Haggard. Although posterity has granted the greater artistic status to Stevenson and Kipling, the prolific Haggard was, in his own time, the most popular and immediately influential of the three. At his very best, as in King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and She, Haggard’s work is not unworthy of comparison with Stevenson and Kipling. In these two early works, Haggard established plot conventions and character types that became central to the jungle tale from the Victorian age to the present.
Like King Solomon’s Mines and most adventure tales, She centers on a heroic quest. This one, however, is not for anything as mundane as hidden treasure but for something more mysterious and exotic—a white jungle queen who may or may not be a goddess. This shift in emphasis almost turns She from an adventure narrative to a dark fantasy. The object of the quest, She-who-must-be-obeyed, is discovered about halfway through the narrative, and thereafter the question, What will happen to the heroes? changes to Who or what is She? Where does She come from? What does She want? and What will happen to her?
Ayesha may never be completely believable, but her vivid, ambiguous presence dominates the book. She is, as American novelist Henry Miller once said, “the femme fatale.” Haggard succeeds in conveying a sense of her physical perfection and sensuality by judiciously presenting only a few details, leaving her essentially an abstract, idealized vision of feminine beauty. Nevertheless, she is also depicted as very human, as a woman deeply in love who can be something of a coquette, even, for all her two thousand years, somewhat girlish. Ayesha is a determined, ruthless lover and ruler, a contradictory character who combines cynicism and innocence, weariness and...
(The entire section is 839 words.)