Ayesha was created by H. Rider Haggard and appeared in She: A History of Adventure (in The Graphic, Oct. 1886 to January 1887, and then as a novel in 1887), Ayesha: The Return of She (1905), She and Allan (1921), and Wisdom’s Daughter(1923). Haggard (1856-1925) was a prolific, popular, and influential novelist whose works are still read for pleasure today.
She: A History of Adventure is about Ayesha, She Who Must Be Obeyed, the Queen of the Amahagger people of Africa. Centuries ago Ayesha (pronounced “ASH-sha”), then the “mighty Queen of a savage people,” met and fell in love with Kallikrates, an Egyptian priest who had fled Egypt with his love, the Princess Amenartas. Kallikrates would not leave Amenartas, however, and the enraged Ayesha kills Kallikrates. The pregnant Amenartas flees, but the heartbroken Ayesha remains, mourning Kallikrates and waiting for him to return. Amenartas meanwhile charges her descendants with avenging Kallikrates’ death. She takes place in the modern day as Cambridge Don L. Horace Holly and his adopted son Leo Vincey discover that Leo is the descendant of Amenartas. Holly does not initially believe it, but Leo does, and the pair travel to Africa, accompanied by their servant Job, to find the truth behind the story.
After some hardships—Haggard accurately portrays travel in Africa as difficult and dangerous—they discover the Amahagger, a cannibalistic group who try to kill and eat them, but Leo and Holly fight them off and are saved by Ayesha’s powers. They are brought to Ayesha, who lives in the ruins of the great city of Kôr. Ayesha treats Holly in a friendly fashion, but he makes the mistake of asking to see her unveiled. She is breathtakingly beautiful and he is instantly entranced by her.
She is not attracted to him (he is ugly and misogynistic), but remains friendly with him. But when she sees Leo, she is shocked, because he is the twin of Kallikrates, and is, she is sure, Kallikrates reincarnated. Leo, seeing the unveiled Ayesha, is smitten with her. Ayesha joins the trio and they venture to the Flame of Life, where Leo will be made immortal, like Ayesha. But Leo is afraid of the Flame, so Ayesha volunteers to bathe in it first, as she did once before (it is the source of her powers). The Flame kills her, and Leo and Holly, much shaken, return to civilization.
In Ayesha: The Return of She Holly and Leo go in search of Ayesha in central Asia, where Ayesha’s soul fled to after her body died. She possessed the body of the priestess of a sacred mountain. She and Leo marry, but he dies from her kiss and she follows him into the Land of Death. Wisdom’s Daughter is about Ayesha’s beginnings as a priestess of Isis and her first meeting with Kallikrates; the novel alters some aspects of Ayesha’s backstory, making her the destined lover of Kallikrates rather than the more tragic third wheel in the Kallikrates/Amenartas relationship. In She and Allan, which is set before She: A History of Adventure, Allan Quatermain and Umslopogaas visit Ayesha in Kôr, and Allan sees the ghosts of his dead loved ones, none of whom remember him except the Zulu woman Mameena and (in a touching reunion scene) Quatermain’s old hunting hound Smut.
She is one of the landmark fantasy novels of the 19th century, not so much because of how it is written—though always entertaining, the novel has certain stylistic infelicities—but because of its still potent symbolism and imagery. Ayesha’s centuries-spanning obsession with Kallikrates verges on necrophilia; as she demonstrates to Holly and Leo, she has preserved the body of Kallikrates and “night by night have I slept in his cold company.” The confrontation between the misogynists (Holly, Job, and to a lesser extent Leo) and the powerful, highly sexualized queen, and their willing submission to her, is a lightly veiled dominance/submission game. Ayesha herself is alternately coquettish and forbidding, kind and cruel, a dominatrix in down. Even more than that, however, she is a sexual fantasy of another kind, the powerful woman who becomes completely submissive and willing when she meets the right man. She is haughty and powerful, though friendly enough, to Holly, but for she is willing and almost eager to submit to Leo—and even Victorian readers understood that Ayesha is offering more than just emotional submission.
Sexuality pervades She, from the homosocial setting of the novel’s early moments to the matrilineal and sexually permissive society of the Amahaggers, to the marriage between Leo and the native woman Ustane, to the almost lascivious description of Ayesha’s appearance, to the sexually frustrating interaction between Ayesha and Holly and then the union between Leo and Ayesha. But accompanying this haze of sexuality is an ambiance of cruelty, from the treatment of Holly (the constant insults he endures because of his looks and Ayesha’s teasing of him) to Ayesha’s vicious, jealousy-born actions toward Ustane to Haggard’s treatment of Ayesha. This combination of cruelty and sexuality, along with the overwhelming presence of death (Ayesha dresses in a shroud and reminds Holly and Job of a corpse) and the dead in Kôr (a city of mummified corpses) and Ayesha’s necrophilic obsession with Kallikrates, leaves She as, in the words of scholar E.F. Bleiler, “one of the clearest statements of death eroticism ever written.”
But the presence of sexually aggressive women in a book is no guarantee of that book’s respect for women, and unfortunately She is a statement of misogyny, and a worse one than either King Solomon’s Mines or Allan Quatermain. The good/evil dichotomy which is present in the latter two novels is worsened in She: the two main female roles are the devoted and good Ustane and the powerful and wicked Ayesha. But though devoted and faithful to Leo, Ustane is sexually aggressive, and the fate reserved for her by Haggard is death. Ayesha, too, is killed, even after voicing her desire to submit to Leo and let him be her master. Powerful independent women are wicked, in Haggard’s world; Nyleptha, in Allan Quatermain, submitted to Sir Henry Curtis as soon as they were married, while the independent Sorais turned evil. She is often seen as Haggard’s most pointed attack on the New Woman, and the cumulative message of the novel is of a deep distrust and even hatred for modern women, whose recent social and sexual independence was apparently threatening to Haggard.
But to describe Haggard as only a misogynist is to slight him. Haggard shared the fin-de-siècle pessimism of many of his contemporaries, a feeling that the Empire had passed its best days was in an irreversible decline. This feeling did not produce in Haggard a desire for a return to the days of the ever-expanding British Empire—Haggard, for all his faults, was never an advocate or propagandist for Empire—but rather, as can be seen in his best work, a hunger for a return to a simpler existence, a time in which exploration, not conquest, was the best work which men could do and modern ideas did not complicate traditional social structures and relationships.
Also, in She Haggard hints at an element which he explores in greater depth in Ayesha. In She Holly briefly describes Ayesha’s plans to go to England, and he muses that she would likely take control of “the British dominions and probably over the whole earth.” In Ayesha Ayesha describes in greater detail her plans to move to China and “flood the little Western nations” with the “unaccountable…multitudes” of Chinese. In these passages Haggard is invoking not only a version of the Yellow Peril threat but also the invasion novel.
Ayesha herself is powerful, using ambiguously described forces and abilities to farsee (via a water mirror), project her voice over great distances, scar and kill via curses, heal using the drugs her greatly advanced chemical and medical knowledge enables her to produce, and to entrance with her voice and looks. Whether Ayesha is evil or not is a matter of perspective. She can be cruel and even capricious. She is willing to kill Ustane to gain Leo. She thinks little of the Amahaggers. And she is obsessed beyond reason with her murder of Kallikrates, centuries ago.
But seen another way, she is more sad than evil. She killed the man she loved and spent over two thousand years regretting it, sleeping by his corpse and recriminating herself for what she did. She waited for over two thousand years for her love to return, a record of faithfulness no mere mortal could match. And once she has Kallikrates back, in the person of Leo, she bows before him, humbling herself. She vows to do only good, to please him. She is love-smitten, so completely that she is willing to swallow her immense pride just to be with the man she loves. That is no small thing for an immortal and powerful queen to do.