thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

How to be awesome like Ayesha, “She-who-must-be-obeyed”

In gender, How to be Awesome Like, race on March 26, 2012 at 9:39 am

brian psi

First edition

[From H. Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure, 1886-7]

The Set-Up. Just finished Haggard’s classic adventure novel, about an expedition mounted by a few good Englishmen into the Darkness[t] Heart of Africa. Their quest:  to find the white goddess-queen Ayesha, ruler of the once-great inland empire of Kôr, which exceeded even Egypt in its architectural, technological, and medical sciences. The team is made up of L Horace Holly (LHH), the ugly and bookish scholar-narrator; beautiful Leo Vincy, descendant of Kallikrates, priest of Isis,  slain by Ayesha 2000 years ago for daring to love another; and Job, Leo’s boyhood caretaker and salty sub-paragon of the English lower orders (and also their many servants and their pilot, “a stout swarthy Arab, Mahomed by name,” all of whom perish violently within the first few chapters). After a number of perilous adventures, they meet Ayesha, “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” the focus of the next few paras. Mostly, I want to talk about about Ayesha herself, and what (and how!) she represents awesomeness. But first…

*…A Long-Winded Disclaimer. Since I read Victorian novels  (and comics, and play video games) a lot of the media I consume is deeply troubling: so much sexism, racisim, and heteronormativity! I can live with myself by finding those little moments of possibility that at least hint at redemption: hence the 2000 words on She I am about to expose you too. BUT, this also means I have to foreground the bad, before rocking the good, else we forget that texts are multivalent, complicated, always both progressive and reactionary. So: an important note on how not to be like Ayesha:  her position within the text is clearly deeply problematic: a ‘white queen’ and sole survivor of Africa’s greatest (mythical) civilization mostly serves to prop up numerous paternalistic and racist assumptions and tendencies. Haggard’s rather slippery ambivalence towards the colonial project which he was so deeply implicated in (he held several government posts in occupied South Africa, and wrote novels like King Solomon’s Mines which heroically portray white colonial adventurers and treasure-hunter/looters) are well documented. Some of his work does serve to critique aspects of English empire, and to occasionally show sympathy towards its victims, so it is a shame that it is only the English characters that exhibit any of these, Haggard’s better(-ish) inclinations. Ayesha, whose voice is the most compelling one in the novel, never speaks to these issues, and, largely because of her role within it, represents  and is often the mouthpiece for his worser ones. Without sympathy nor patience for the mostly nameless and faceless black Africans over which she rules, She orders them around, casually puts them to death, and acts in all ways the little despot. This is doubly strange because her own racial and cultural origin is somewhat obscured: described as genotypically white, she identifies herself as Arabian, and speaks in the novel only in an obscure dialect of the Arabian language, but she is never more specific as to nation or city, and never delivers on her promise to Vincy to lift the veil on her full backstory. This is disappointing.

THAT SAID. Putting these issues aside for the moment, and, rather optimistically assuming you’re still with me, I present without further ado, adornment, and qualification, some tips on how to share in She’s own better inclinations, so that you too can feel the Ayeshamness.

Hodder pulp edition cover

1.       Don’t let established religious, philosophical, or social dogma put you in your place

Ayesha, having standing orders to bring any white men to her unharmed, immediately summons the group to audience after they are found within her domain. As poor Job is uneducated and unworldly, and Leo still recovering from wounds suffered in battle with a neighboring tribe, it is left to scholar-narrator LHH to first meet with her. She’s first words to him are, “Stranger, wherefore art thou so much afraid?” and, immediately, we know who is to be on the defensive in this encounter and throughout the progress of their relationship (143). In the series of conversations which follow, Holly,  Cambridge Don, finds himself increasingly horrified by She’s alien worldview, conforming to none of his own beliefs, and more unsettling, that she not only refuses to change her mind, but slowly begins to change his.

First he attempts to convert her to his Christian religion. She answers:

Ah! I see—a new religion! I have known so many, and doubtless there have been many more since I knew aught beyond these caves of Kôr. Mankind asks ever of the skies to vision out what lies behind them. It is terror for the end, and but a subtler form of selfishness—this it is that breeds religions. Mark, my Holly, each religion claims the future for its followers; or, at the least, the good thereof. The evil is for those benighted ones who will have none of it, seeing the light the true believers worship, as the fishes see the stars, but dimly. The religions come and the religions pass, and the civilizations come and pass, and nought endures but the world and human nature. Ah! If man would but see that hope is from within and not from without—that he himself must work out his own salvation! …Thereon let him build and stand erect, and not cast himself before the image of some unknown God, modeled like himself, but with a bigger brain to think evil; and a longer arm to do it (183-4).

Ayesha’s great criticism of Holly (other than his greater physical ugliness upon which she constantly remarks) is his study of western and classical thought. And when, beaten down by his intellectual sparring partner (in the very arena in which he had thought to have the upper hand) Holly begs for a retreat to his quarters and regenerative sleep, She denies him, saying “in truth thou dost bring back to my mind certain of those old philosophers with whom in days bygone I have disputed at Athens and in Arabia, for thou hast the same crabbed air and dusty look as though thou hadst passed thy days in reading ill-writ Greek, and been stained dark with the grime of manuscripts” (180). Take that, academics. Denying his retreat, she does allow him a change of subject, and the conversation moves on to “talk of pleasant things” (181). Essentially, she allows him his ignorance without forgiving it, and, sitting in triumph, condescends to chat about the weather, the countryside, and all of those other small things… for a while, at least.

Next, Holly and company accuse her of sorcery; Ayesha retorts:

…there is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as understanding and applying the forces which are in Nature (184).

Their ignorance of the natural processes she has mastered, their (to her) savage and superstitious stupefaction at her abilities** shifts the critique from her pretensions to power to their own pretensions to knowledge (of the hidden ways the world really operates). They are found wanting, and are bewildered.

Ayesha basks in the fire of life. Holly, Vincy, and Job take cover. Original illustration by E.K. Johnson.

**Did you know? Ayesha’s abilities include…

  • Immortality
  • A functioning scrying pool
  • A faculty for alchemy and the distillation of wondrous medicines
  • The ability to mark or even kill with a gesture
  • Enchanting beauty, entrapping all whom gaze upon her
  • Fruitarianism

Collect them all..!

Surpassing even this advanced knowledge, what Holly and Leo find most troubling about Ayesha is her pointedly materialist philosophy… and her quite pointed materiality. Her physicality, her fleshliness contain danger and the promise of destruction.  After securing Leo Vincy, her reborn Kallikrates, for her husband, Ayesha informs him that she will not mate with him until he undergoes the same transformation that she has, and becomes likewise immortal, for fear that in their comingling “the very brightness of my being would burn thee up, and perchance destroy thee” (227). Even looking upon her is disastrous: Ayesha mostly remains veiled to avoid inadvertently trapping all men she encounters, which inevitably renders them obsessed, useless, pathetic.

Her insistence on the superiority of the earthly, of matter and materiality, so opposed to our Englishmen’s elevation of the spirit, leads us to…

2.a      Never fear to champion love, marriage, and those domestic pursuits which have traditionally been the domains of women and are, therefore, so often belittled by men.

Despite the evidence of her advanced intellect and physical powers, Holly is relieved to find that Ayesha’s own obsession–with rejoining the lover she killed in jealousy millennia before–demonstrates that She is, after all, “only a woman” (156). Ayesha herself remarks later that in this weakness, she is indeed “a very woman,” which has many of the same connotations, even if his onlys are limiting and her verys expansive (188). But the importance of this so-slight variance is indicated by the large number of volleys against marriage launched by the novel’s men. Billali, one of Ayesha’s subjects, even works a ‘take my wife, no seriously!’ joke in, when he informs Holly that his wife was killed a few years back for unsettling the group’s fragile matriarchal order by trying to take on too much authority. It is unclear if Billali himself did the killing or whether it was someone else, but he explains that “It was very sad, but to tell thee the truth, my son, life has been happier since, since my age protects me [from the advances of] the young ones” (120). Holly gives him a ribbing elbow, and an agreeable ‘iknowright’, deadpanning “In short, thou hast found thy position one of greater freedom and less responsibility” (120). Zing, I guess.

And Ayesha herself is, to the men in this novel, not simply a potential wife, or any common object of desire: she is rather a new Eve, temptress and serpent-wound defiler. The snake-shaped band she wears as her only jewelry makes the resonance a little easy (and shows that it might be shared by some form of authorial intent). Dropping her veil and wrappings, She “came forth shining and splendid like some glittering snake when she has cast her slough” (181). Holly laments “how easily the best of us are lighted down to evil by the gleam of woman’s eyes!” (185), and Job exclaims that “She is the old gentleman himself, or perhaps his wife, if he has got one, which I suppose he has, for he couldn’t be so wicked all by himself” (223). He would, it seems, have to be driven to it, really just forced to attempt the overthrow of heaven, to bite into the apple, to slay good King Duncan.

But Ayesha will have none of it. When Holly ascribes greater worth to man’s quest for the delights of the spiritual over those of the flesh, she laughs at how “[high] thou lookest!”  She is never confused by that tired conflation of the heavenly, the spiritual, the male—nor, by extension, of its inverse–that of the Earthly, the fleshly, the female: “Fie upon thee, Holly, to think so ill of us poor women! Is it, then, marriage that marks the line between thy heaven and thy hell?” (191). She recognizes consciously what her mal(e)pals only unconsciously feel: that if one must join with Heaven or with woman, then woman can only lose in the comparison, and become, as Job so colorfully suggests, an agent of Hell, and probably the power behind its throne.

2.b   Pro-Tip! But don’t be afraid to emend or upend them when necessary…!

Of course, marriage has its own problems for the thoroughly ancient modern woman: for example, its historical elevation of the male, the head of a household in which the woman is, by extension, custom, and use, the body. Having won Leo Vincy’s love and his position as husband, Ayesha performs the customary role of wife, bending “herself slowly down till one knee for an instant touched the ground,” and then proclaiming “‘Behold! in token of submission do I bow me to my lord! Behold! …in token of my wifely love do I kiss my lord. Behold!’” (254). But even here, her acceptance of a position of inferiority is more theatrical than actual: her knee, unused to kneel, only grazes the ground, her rituals only ‘tokens,’ signs of a submission which will never manifest. For Behold! She has already informed Leo that he would love her; and, Behold! that he would become her husband; and that, Behold! they would return together to England; and that, Behold! together they would rule it and the rest of the world. And, of course, just a few pages earlier, Holly observes that (during their journey to the ancient flame which gave her immortality), “I found it necessary to go down on my hands and knees and crawl, and so did the other two. But She never condescended to this. On she went, leaning her body against the gusts of wind, and never seeming to lose her head or her balance” (244). Word.

All quotes from the excellent Broadview edition, ed. Stauffer 2006.

Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis.

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