The Victorian Male Mystique: An Examination of Masculinity in H. Rider Haggard’s She
The Victorian Era was a time of rapid change in England. Industrialization rapidly changed the landscape of England and the middle class. And while women had to struggle with having to perform roles both inside and outside the home, expectations for men changed as well. H. Rider Haggard’s novel She shows one character, Horace Holly, struggling with the new expectations of society while still having some of the Romantic era traits as well. Holly’s initial interactions with women leave him scarred and scared of trying to get married or start a family. Holly also avoids going out into the world not wanting to leave the comfort of his home, in this case the scholarly world. But he is soon forced to confront both women and the outside world due a young ward left in his care. Holly must confront his fear and conquer the outside world by going to Tibet (and Africa) on a quest. One of the things that define masculinity for Victorian men is leaving the comforts of home to achieve success in the greater world and Holly’s journey starts this process for him. It is a sort of growing up but late in life for Holly.
Another thing important for men in Victorian society is that they get married and are able to support their families. Holly states that he is unable to start a family because of his looks scaring away women. The character isn’t the good looking Byronic hero of the romantic era who suffers from personal flaws. Holly is physically imperfect in terms of good looks. But in Victorian terms, he’s still somewhat of an ideal gentleman. He’s physically strong and capable in addition to having great intelligence. And this strength helps him save his surrogate son later on in the story as well as a character he calls father (a guide who acts as tribal father to the natives they encounter). This shows that as the story progresses, Holly demonstrates himself able to save his symbolic family.
Finally, Holly must confront his one fear and learn to overcome it – his fear of women. Ayesha is an imposing female character who is somehow chaste and yet sexually alluring while also being intellectually challenging. She is also presented as a “home wrecker”, having destroyed the marriage of Isis and Kallikrates before and now looking to undo Holly’s makeshift family. Ayesha is a challenge to Holly in terms also of the threat she presents to his family – in the possibility of her taking Leo and destroying his family structure. Victorian women were to be the builders of the home but not to be the head of the home. As calls for more rights for women (in part due to an increase of a female workforce) increased, Victorian men were feeling threatened in regards to their place in society. When Holly faces Ayesha and decides to stand by Leo and brave the fire, he stands with the family and against that imposing independent woman and becomes a Victorian gentleman in his own right.
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Haggard, H. Rider, and Patrick Brantlinger. She: A History of Adventure. London: Penguin, 2001. Print.
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