Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Pro-tip: it's never a good idea to open mysterious old chests bequeathed to you by your dad--especially if he dies in shifty circumstances. Ever.

When Leo Vincey's father leaves him said mysterious chest filled with fragments of myth and family legend calling for ancient vengeance, rather than chalking it up to good, old fashioned insanity and ditching the thing to gather dust in the attic, Leo and his guardian Horace Holly set off on an adventure with to search for a fabled African kingdom. 

From the orderly, venerable world of Cambridge, their journey takes them through the dangerous African wilderness to the heart of a primitive and ancient cannibal society ruled by Ayesha, an immortal sorceress more commonly known as "She-who-must-be-obeyed."

And she's been waiting for them.

If you should so choose to crack this dusty old book open, be prepared for lengthy dialogues on scholarly obscura, historical detritus, and ancient feels, as well as ADVENTURE (according to its subtitle). Because the prose of H. Rider Haggard's She is as densely and elaborately Victorian as it gets. There's stirring descriptions of the African landscape and exciting escapades with crocodiles, but also walls and walls of text about how time is really old and also how it sucks to be immortal.

At the heart of She is the story of Ayesha, a woman who waited thousands and thousands of years for the man she loved to be reincarnated. Of course, there's the whole trifling matter of her murdering him for loving someone else back in the day, but details, am I right?

Rather than venturing forth from her mountain kingdom to rain terror and conquest down on the rest of the world with her ancient earth magic powers and terrible beauty, Ayesha waited for him in her cave. Her hobbies to while away the centuries included hanging out with his perfectly preserved corpse and cursing his long-dead girlfriend every night. That's dedication. I mean, I can barely remember to take all my allergy meds in a day.

All her waiting pays off when Holly shows up with Leo, who is the very spitting image of her murdered beloved. Here is her chance to finally venture forth from her caves with him immortalized at her side (as a living person, rather than the mummified corpse, which is presumably preferable)

This, however, is not a love story.

It's the story of good old Victorian racism and misogyny holding up in the face of dangerous foreign cultures. Our narrator Horace Holly is a product of his time -- and his face. Holly's an intellectual molded by a combination of Western superiority and bitter misogyny for being rejected for his gorilla-like features. 

But he's a nice, smart guy so we're supposed to overlook all that.

It's kind of a shame. Despite everything, the story is a fascinating study of female empowerment in the Victorian age. Yes, it's because of the murdered lover that this whole story happens, but Ayesha reaches the pinnacle of her unearthly powers through her own doing. Holly and Leo, two independently-minded British men, are held powerless and spellbound by Ayesha, who wields her feminine authority with majesty and grace.

There's a lot that can be read into Ayesha and the implications of her authority. I'm sure the idea of a woman ruling over men was startlingly progressive for the time period (wonder if Queen Victoria had anything to do with it), but in She, it's portrayed as something alien and terrifying, rather than a possible alternative. Patriarchal good triumphs as Ayesha's arrogant confidence in her power ultimately leads to her downfall.

So while I was reading this, I made a joke on Twitter about how they should remake the old movie (apparently there was one) just so people would confuse it with Spike Jonze's "Her." As it turns out, though, I'm one of those people, because I keep accidentally calling it "Her" in my head. Which proves I'm susceptible to my own stupid suggestions and deserving of mockery.

To the surprise of exactly nobody.

However, after reading the book itself, I've come to the ready conclusion that a faithful movie remake of She would be a terrible idea that no one would look forward to. (Except maybe for legions of social justice crusaders looking for the next thing at which to angrily wave their virtual pitchforks.)


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