Haggard’s She and Audience
At the time of Rider Haggard’s publishing of She, Western Europe had already become transfixed with the still largely unexplored African continent. Colonization was rampant, but Africa was a thing to be coveted, conquered, and loathed. As a result, colonial and imperialist works were booming, as were the “Lost World” genre pieces often marketed towards a young, male audience. In fact, She is considered to be the genesis of the “Lost World” genre. Haggard was well aware of his audience, even dedicating his 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines to the boys that were going to read it.
Haggard’s novels were generally romantic works about white men exploring new worlds, surviving danger, and conquering all. These themes cut to the core of what manhood meant to Haggard and his 18th-century British readership. Haggard himself was an imperialist, and had firsthand knowledge of the African continent. His time in Africa left him disenchanted with it and he viewed the African people as inferior. Yet, he chose to write an adventure novel about it.
She is no exception to the rule of these masculine ideals. The young man, Leo, is the character who Haggard’s readership would naturally identify with. He is thought to be Ayesha’s former lover, Kallikrates, thus fulfilling the need of the young male reader to be the object of desire of some great beauty. The native woman, Ustane, immediately falls in love with Leo. The woman, Ayesha, is a fantasy, she is unknowable. She is a one-dimensional powerful creature who destroys men. By the end of the book, the female characters are completely destroyed: the only thing the author can do with them.
Ayesha and her people are treated and viewed in the same way that Haggard viewed the African people whom he sought to colonize. They are viewed as “other,” and thus they are inferior. Their native culture is not understood or respected and as a result it gets met with violence.
Haggard’s She also helped to establish the Imperial Gothic genre. The book correlates with earlier works like Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in its inclusion of gothic themes of the supernatural with a bent toward evil. Works in this genre, including She express a sense of deep anxiety over the stability of Britain’s monarchy and its sense of safety against outsiders, which many in the late Victorian era were beginning to doubt. These works reflect a conquer or be conquered mentality.