Brainy but manly English gentleman Horace Holly, his handsome young friend Leo Vincey and various others adventure their way into darkest Africa where they meet the fabled "She-who-must-be-obeyed". And here you have it: after a surprisingly turgid start, with lots of faffing around an ersatz rossetta-stone complete with long stretches of transcribed Greek, Latin and medieval English, this book metamorphoses into a nicely-paced adventure yarn in unexplored Africa, and a titular character who expertly focusses erotic intensity, mystery, and deep history into one doll-shaped fetish. Good stuff, although its ideological limitations (its naked imperialism; its racism and cultural condescension) are harder to forgive than is the case with many other Victorian novels. Still: the eighth bestselling single book of all time? Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman. Surely? Mr Feynman? Excuse me?
Can't hear me.
I could speculate about the book's appeal: its imperial mysticism must have appealed to large number of people in the US and the Commonwealth (really?), for only global success can explain sales like this. But I suspect that actually the explanation is staring us in the face. The enormous success of this volume is like that of Nabokov's Lolita (the 14th best-selling book of all time) and Delany's Dhalgren -- two great books, hard, even rebarbative works, that sold as well as they did because people thought they were all about sex. They're not, really; either of them. But people thought they were. In an age before the widespread availability of sexually explicit material (and Delany's book is at the latter end of this long-lasting era), even books like these two could ride the wave of popular lubriciousness. And I'd say that's surely what appealed to so many people about She.
At any rate, I think I have plumbed the mystery of this novel, the secret at its heart, and I am willing to share my discovery with you. The book is about sex, yes. But we can be more specific. Here, Holly is trying to get to sleep:
Above me shone the eternal stars... Oh that we should shake loose the prisoned pinions of the soul and soar to that superior point, whence, like to some traveller looking out through space from Darien's giddiest peak, we might gaze with the spiritual eyes of noble thoughts deep into Infinity! What would it be to cast off this earthly robe, to have done for ever with these earthly thoughts and miserable desires... Yes, to cast them off, to have done with the foul and thorny places of the world; and like those glittering points above me, to rest on high wrapped forever in the brightness of our better selves, that even now shines in us as fire faintly shines within those lurid balls. Lurid balls. That is what this book is, fundamentally, about -- the lurid balls and the phallic pillar of fire. These gift Ayesha her power; but also rob her of it, revealing her (at the end) to be not sexually desirable after all and therefore worthless. The lurid balls and the fiery pillar are the arbiters of worth in this text.
Where does the adventure happen? The land of Kôr. What does Kôr mean? According to Patrick Brantlinger, 'Kôr, derives from Norse mythological romance, where the deathbed of the goddess Hel is called Kor and means "disease" in Old Norse.' I think this unlikely, partly since Old Norse has so little to do with this novel, mostly because the novel generates its affect via its weird potency, rather than by any too immersive wallowing in disease and deathbeds. No: I have another theory about the meaning of the word 'Kôr'. I proceed from the observation that Haggard goes to great length to establish the Hellenistic provenance both of Ayesha and the novel itself -- the latter by inserting great slabs of Greek actually into the text:
Ayesha, on seeing Holly for the first time, 'mounted the daïs and sat down upon the chair, and spoke to me in Greek'. Greek is at the heart of this book; a confection of spiritualised sensual Hellenism.
So: Kôr -- the long 'o' is the giveaway. This is a Greek word, not an Old Norse one (Haggard had been educated in Greek, after all; not Old Norse). The Greek Κῶρ (Kôr) means a leather pouch, a little bladder, a small wallet, a sac: Κῶρυκις, according to Liddell and Scott is 'a bladder like excrescence produced on the leaves of elms and maple trees'; Κῶρυκος is 'a leathern sack or wallet'. But this is dancing around the issue. The Greeks called these things words beginning with Κῶρ because these things are ballsack-like and Κῶρ means balls ('the scrotum' is L&S's more delicate phrase). This is where the novel's action takes place: in the mysterious land of Balls.
What of 'She'? She is the woman who says 'yes' to sex ('Ayesha', her name has a 'yes' at the heart of it); the woman who positively worships male sexual beauty -- the name of her original lover, Καλλικράτης, means 'beautiful strength'. The novel makes a fetish of She, but not on her own terms; 'She' is nothing without the male member to make her whole, and she is prepared to wait two thousand years for the right one to come along. This, I hardly need to add, is the very definition of the phallocentric reduction of the female principle.
Indeed, the male member defines her in more ways than this. The novel's phallic imagery, from spears and knives to pillars of fire, is all clean, purifying, strong, potent: the roofs may have fallen off the palaces and temples, but 'owing to their extreme massiveness' the 'great columns still remained standing' . Of course they did. Indeed, 'She' is only desirable whilst she embodies this strength ('a tall white figure', 'a perfect and imperial shape', 'serpent-like') and she is at her best when she acts like Holly's phallus: 'as I stretched out my hands to clasp, she straightened herself, and a quick change passed over her ... life-—radiant, ecstatic, wonderful—seemed to flow from her.' Phew!. When's she happy, Ayesha grows literally erect and straight ('she shook her gauzy covering from her ... rising from her wrappings, as it were, she stood forth ... stretching out her rounded ivory arms') and when she's sad she shrinks down into detumescence ('her lovely oval face seemed to fall in and grow visibly thinner ... she bent down'). And the heart of her kingdom is the source of her power, the great 'pillar of fire' that stands up tall and makes Holly feel good: 'I rejoiced in this splendid vigour of a new-found self.' And not just him, neither: the magic phallus has remarkable effects on Vincey and Holly both:
We became sensible of a wild and splendid exhilaration, of a glorious sense of such a fierce intensity of Life ... we gazed at each other in the glorious glow, and laughed aloud in the lightness of our hearts and the divine intoxication of our brains. ... it was as though the bonds of my flesh had been loosened and left the spirit free to soar to the empyrean of its native power. The sensations that poured in upon me are indescribable. I seemed to live more keenly, to reach to a higher joy, and sip the goblet of a subtler thought than ever it had been my lot to do before. I was another and most glorified self, and all the avenues of the Possible were for a space laid open to the footsteps of the Real.Sexy!
On the other hand, Ayesha's kingdom is also threaded with images of monstrous feminity, from the vision of uterus-as-horror-chamber of 'the cave of torture' ('I afterwards saw this dreadful place,' Holly tells us; 'slabs of a porous stone, were stained quite dark with the blood of ancient victims that had soaked into them. Also in the centre of the room was a place for a furnace, with a cavity wherein to heat the historic pot'), to the 'honeycomb of sepulchres' filled with death and decay. And, ultimately, this is revealed to be the true nature of Ayesha herself:
I faint even as I write it in the living presence of that terrible recollection—-she was shrivelling up ... and in place of the perfect whiteness of its lustre it turned dirty brown and yellow, like an piece of withered parchment. She felt at her head: the delicate hand was nothing but a claw now, a human talon like that of a badly-preserved Egyptian mummy ... Smaller she grew, and smaller yet, till she was no larger than a monkey. Now the skin was puckered into a million wrinkles, and on the shapeless face was the stamp of unutterable age. I never saw anything like it; nobody ever saw anything like the frightful age that was graven on that fearful countenance, no bigger now than that of a two-months' child, though the skull remained the same size, or nearly so, and let all men pray they never may, if they wish to keep their reason. At last she lay still, or only feebly moving. She, who but two minutes before had gazed upon us the loveliest, noblest, most splendid woman the world has ever seen, she lay still before us, near the masses of her own dark hair, no larger than a big monkey, and hideous—ah, too hideous for words. And yet, think of this—-at that very moment I thought of it—-it was the same woman! 'Oh, the horrible pathos of the sight!' notes the narrator, adding a sage footnote: 'What a terrifying reflection it is, by the way, that nearly all our deep love for women who are not our kindred depends-—at any rate, in the first instance—-upon their personal appearance. If we lost them, and found them again dreadful to look on, though otherwise they were the very same, should we still love them?' It's a profound truth: for is not upstanding pure beauty of the phallus not, in some sense, the same thing as these wrinkled monkey-brown shrivelled-up sacs? Oh, horrible!
That's enough lurid balls for now.
[Various format e-texts of the novel here]