Ayesha v.s. the Imperialist Romance
While it is important to note Ayesha’s role in defying the typical Victorian gender structure of what a woman should or ought to be, I was more interested in seeing the way that Ayesha functions in response to the typically male-dominated literary genre of the “Imperialist Romance”, in which H. Rider Haggard’s works – particularly She, dominated the scene.
To see the way in which Ayesha turns the imperialist romance on its head, one must first briefly outline it. According to critic Richard F. Patteson, the basic structure of such a novel would include: men traveling in unknown or dangerous lands, normally embedded in sexual terminology – i.e. referring to the land with gendered pronouns, and verbs like “penetrate” or “enter”; blatant misogynistic characters, in this case, the flagrant Holly; and women who are either villainous, burdensome, or helpless – in essence, either wholly good or wholly bad (5). Ayesha is able to subvert each of these points and become a woman whose “goodness” is mutable, whose power is strong and developed enough to charm even the most hardened man, and whose mental resiliency allows her to take charge, despite strangers infiltrating her land.
Patteson asserts that in such imperialist romances, the central female figure is either evil, and represented as a wicked sorceress, an old mischievous hag, or an adulteress; and if they are not evil, then they must be the pure, virginal, ideal woman. However, Ayesha fluctuates between these two extremes, and at times seems both like a weakened creature, destroyed by her past actions – “[flinging] herself on her couch, and bury[ing] her face in the cushions”, but just a page later, Holly remarks on the immense power that she has (Haggard 161). Ayesha is able to penetrate Holly after he and his coterie had done the same to her. Ayesha’s penetration is more difficult and of more importance because she does not cross any lands or physical barriers, but instead she overcomes Holly’s lifelong misogyny, where he states,
“I was a hardened vessel in such matters, having… put the softer sex (I sometimes think that is a misnomer) almost entirely out of my thoughts. A person… with the command of such tremendous powers… was certainly worth falling in love with” (Haggard 163).
Ayesha’s power also extends into her veil, which covers her face so that no man could look upon her beauty. In imperialist romances, this veil is usually the object of the infiltrating men’s attentions, and they desire to rip it off to posses that which is hidden beneath. However, Ayesha is in complete control of her face covering, and she uses it as a tool to control and shape the emotions of the men seeing her. An entire chapter is entitles “Ayesha Unveils”, not “Ayesha Unveiled” placing all of the power into her hands. She plays with veil, and, once she knows that she has complete power over Holly, she threatens to take away the only thing he wishes to see at that moment: her face. She tells him: “If thou troublest me again I will veil myself, and though shalt behold my face no more” which turns Holly into a being “quivering with emotion”, a reaction normally reserved for the “softer sex” as Holly so incorrectly stated before (Haggard 194).
Therefore, Ayesha’s seemingly unlimited power that she exerts over the men in the novel, even those with the hardest of hearts, balloons in consequence because she’s not only undermining the men that she encounters, but she’s undermining the whole damn system of the phallocentric imperialist romance.
Patteson, Richard F. “Manhood and Misogyny in the Imperialist Romace.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literaute 35.1 (1981): 3-12. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <http://0-www.jstor.org.library.uark.edu/stable/1347718>.