The second of H. Rider Haggard’s novels I’m featuring in this series of ‘lost world’ reads, She was serialized in the newspaper The Graphic in 1886 and 1887 and surpassed King Solomon’s Mines in popularity. Even more inspired by the recent rediscovery of Great Zimbabwe than his previous novel, She tells of a lost African kingdom whose inhabitants are ruled over by a white sorceress with terrifying powers. Written at a time when there was great discussion on the topic of ‘civilizing’ lesser races and whether or not black people could even have built impressive stone cities like Great Zimbabwe, the novel is very much of its era; an era that also saw much skepticism of women entering the workforce and the emerging independence of the ‘New Woman’. She is the embodiment of female power in its most terrifying form.
The protagonist is Horace Holly, a physically strong but hideously ugly scholar who agreed to be the guardian of his best friend’s son, Leo Vincy, on the death of Leo’s father. The Vincys go way back, descended from an Egyptian priest who was exiled for falling in love with and marrying a priestess. Holly’s best friend also entrusts him with a locked box not to be opened until Leo’s twenty-fifth birthday. This they do and find within the ‘Sherd of Amenartas’; a section of an amphora which tells the story of Kallikrates and Amenartas; the priest and priestess who ran away and from whom Leo is descended. Various generations of the Vincy family have added to the sherd over the centuries, telling of a lost city in the depths of Africa ruled over by a sorceress who is linked to the family in some way.
Holly puts this down as nonsense but his ward is keen to find out the truth and so an expedition sets out including their faithful and forever doubting servant Job. After being shipwrecked off the coast of Africa, the trio, along with the Arab captain of their vessel, travel upriver in a whaling boat and soon find themselves in the company of a native tribe. One of the tribe – a woman called Ustane – takes a liking to Leo and marries him by publicly embracing him according to their matriarchal customs. Leo doesn’t object, returning Ustane’s affections. After nearly being killed and eaten by a splinter faction in the village (and their Arab companion is in fact killed in the fray) the travelers are brought to the city of Kôr which is ruled over by ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’; a white sorceress who has been keeping an eye on the progress of the white men and demanded that they be brought to her. When she sees Leo in the flesh she exclaims that he is the reincarnation of his ancestor Kallikrates whom she fell in love with when he and Amenartas washed up in Kôr centuries ago. But Leo isn’t interested in She or her offer of immortality for he loves Ustaine, a declaration which rouses She’s furious rage.
Haggard wrote three sequels to She including one where she meets Allan Quatermain. The novel had a huge influence on fantasy and adventure literature and Ayesha (She-who-must-not-be-named) stands as the archetypal demon queen of a hundred lost civilizations.