Obliterating “She-who-must-be-obeyed”: Decoding the neutralization of female agency in H. Rider Haggard’s “She”

She, published in 1887, is one of the most widely consumed novels in history and evidently the best within H. Rider Haggard’s oeuvre. It is a story of the journey of two Englishmen to the lost kingdom of Kor in the recesses of Africa and their encounter with the mysterious and all powerful ruler of the primitive and savage tribe of Amahagger known as “She-who-must-be-obeyed”. It is an adventure tale accorded the title of “history” by the repeated and conscious efforts on part of both the editor and the first person narrator Horace Holly, who constantly justify the historicity and public value of the private encounter of the two male protagonists, Leo Vincey and Horace Holly with She. The claim to historicity and value is also made by the largely overlooked subtitle “A history of Adventure”.

She portrays a uniquely powerful and enigmatic female figure named Ayesha, who is constantly addressed as She or She-who-must-be-obeyed by the tribe she reigns over and even by the character Horace Holly who narrates the tale. The references to She begin at the very start of the narrative and build up to the moment of her first appearance in the middle of the novel. Until her appearance in Chapter 12, She appears to be an unreal, fantastic, even mythical figure whose existence is unverified and frequently dismissed as improbable. The quest for She, on which the two male figures embark is based on the inherited legacy of the young and beautiful Leo Vincey. It is revealed that for generations a quest has been passed down the family based on the word of a long dead Egyptian princess named Amenaratas who had married an ancestor of the family Kallikrates, an Egyptian priest of Greek origin. The “sherd of Amenaratas” passed down within the family told the story of the murder of Kallikrates by a beautiful, supernaturally powerful and immortal woman named She owing to his rejection of her proposal for marriage and an appeal by the widowed Amenaratas to take vengeance upon the immortal She. The letters and accounts of the attempts made by different generations of men of the Vincey family reveal either a failure to complete the quest or incredulity at the possibility of the existence of an all powerful and immortal figure like She. The tale engraved on the sherd is revealed to have been dismissed as the ravings of a mad woman by many Vincey men who had inherited it through the years. However, the two male characters, Leo Vincey and his surrogate father Horace Holly decide to embark on the quest for She and the narrative is hailed as a factual account of this journey.

A superficial reading of She beguiles the reader into considering the work a marvellous depiction of awesome female power and wisdom. Indeed the portrayal of She is such that one is struck by the sheer strength of her beauty, wisdom, power and experience much like the characters who encounter her. Even the narrator, who is quite evidently and admittedly a misogynist, falls down to his knees and professes his love for her after having looked upon her unveiled figure in spite of his determination to not “creep into the presence of some savage woman” because of his status as an “Englishman” and his proclamation that he was immune to “such vanity as a woman’s loveliness which passes like a flower”.  He even deploys excessively positive terms to describe her beauty and wisdom however, a close reading reveals that in almost every instance the positive, elevating and validating terms appear alongside contradictory, negative and undermining terms. Holly describes her beauty as being at par with the “beauty of celestial beings”, it is referred to as a “sublime” but in the same breath he says, “this beauty, with all its loveliness and purity, was evil” and “the sublimity was a dark one- the glory was not all of heaven- though none the less was it glorious.” She is associated with Satan, paganism, unholy rites throughout the narrative and is often shown to be snakelike. Traces of such contradictions in the portrayal of She can be found throughout the novel, especially in the statements made by the male, misogynist, English narrator Holly and it is the consistency of such contradictions that exposes the novel’s true politics- the systematic demonization of empowered women and the attempt to neutralize the threat posed by the female power and agency. Infact feminist readings of this text by critics such as Gubar and Gilbert suggest that She acts as a symbol for the figure of the “New Woman” that emerged during late Victorian period.

Ayesha is portrayed as an incredibly wise and experienced woman who knows Nature’s secrets and has therefore been able to attain an extended, almost immortal yet youthful life. She has seen and bathed in the Spirit of Life and has wisdom that surpasses that attained by any man who ever lived. She even has the ability to read people’s thoughts, look into a bowl of water and witness the past and present happenings in far off places, cure living beings of every fatal injury or illness and the ability to kill people by simply exercising her power of will. Even the misogynistic but wise and intellectual character Holly acknowledges her unmatched wisdom and absolute power. Yet, the real exercise of her power and wisdom is restricted by the male narrative and despite all her wisdom, intellect, strength and beauty She is restricted to the passive role of a woman who chooses to spend two thousand years in a cave, isolated from humanity, history, civilization and progress in order to wait for Kallikrates to be reincarnated and come in search for her.  Her sole guiding force is love and her sole action is the passive one of waiting which does not allow the reader to witness the full extent and implication of an all powerful, wise and immortal female presence in a phallocentric and patriarchal world. The potential to change the course of humanity such power entails speculated by Holly is never allowed to materialize in the text.

Haggard uses the figure of She to suggest that female autonomy, agency and power has, instead of, progressive or evolutionary, a decentering, devolutionary and catastrophic potential. This undermining of female agency is done by exaggerating and demonizing the figure of She and portraying her as a tyrant. It is depicted that the Amahagger creep and rub their noses on the ground while in her presence and that She is attended on by mutes. She herself reveals how she had cultivated two separate species of servants that had then been eliminated before the present generation of mutes serving her were trained. Her abuse of power and lack of kindness or morality are highlighted time and again and her killing of Ustane serves as a depiction of her unjust and immoral use of her extraordinary power. She is depicted as being overly and irrationally passionate and the governing factor in her life is revealed to be her love for Kallikrates.

The contradictory portrayal of She makes a feminist reading of the the text complex and problematic. She rules over a matrilineal tribe and herself shows agency. It is Ayesha who, much like Ustane, chooses Kallikrates and later Leo, the reincarnation of Kallikrates, as her mate. This reversal of gender roles and appropriation of power of selection or choice in mating or sexual union by the inferior sex challenges patriarchy and in particular the Victorian gender roles that Leo and Horace have internalized. In fact that is precisely why both Holly and Job are surprised, offended and even appalled by Ustane’s bold and public display of autonomy in taking Leo as a husband. Holly is perplexed by the matriarchal setup of the Amahagger tribe and views their unbound and open sexual unions as primitive and immoral. What appalls Holly more is Leo’s ready acceptance and reciprocation of Ustane’s kiss and infact the manner in which Holly rationalizes it is to turn a blind eye to the implications of a woman having the upper hand in the choice of a mate and the emasculation of Leo. He reconciles his patriarchal Western and European values with this event by hiding behind the garb of the binary of Self and the Other and proclaims that when in Africa, it is better to act like Africans. She too emasculates both Holly and Leo however, the emasculation of Leo is more apparent and extensive. Not only does she choose him as a mate without extending him a choice in the matter, she also renames him and strips away his identity so that he is no longer Leo but Kallikrates. She weds him and herself acts as the authority that sanctifies their marriage. Both Leo and Holly become impotent and helpless after coming into contact with She. Leo resists her after she kills Ustane, who was his wife by the Amahagger code but fails miserably. He is drawn to her and falls in love with her inspite of himself and his frustration at not being able to resist her is quite poignantly expressed. Both Holly and Leo express a desire to leave her presence yet acknowledge that their feet will never carry them away as they were completely in her power. These instances prove as a threat to both masculinity and the patriarchal structures of the Western world. However, the ultimate resolution of the narrative nullifies these moments of female autonomy.

In the closing chapters of the narrative She guides Leo, Holly and their manservant Job to the Pillar of Fire that is the Spirit of Life so that Leo could stand in it, attain immortality and be united with her forever. However, She herself steps into the Fire to assuage Leo’s inhibitions about entering the fire. This second experience of bathing in the Pillar of Fire undoes the immortality she had attained and in a horrific turn of events She steps out and ages two thousand years within a few moments, grows smaller and dies. This decision on her part seems out of place to the reader and the nullifying effect of stepping into the Fire a second time also seems dubious. However, it is easy to understand the necessity of such a denouement for the gender politics of the text to be fulfilled. Earlier in the narrative She decides to visit England after Leo too attains immortality. She intends for both her and Leo to rule the land and states “I am above the law” when Holly informs her that if she blasts anyone with her power in England she will be subjected to the law of the land. This idea shocks and horrifies both Holly and Leo.  The significance of such an act on her part is revealed through Holly’s reflection upon it. He concludes, “this wonderful creature, whose passion had kept her for so many centuries chained; as it were, and comparatively harmless, was now about to be used by Providence as a means to change the order of the world, and possibly, by the building up of a power that could no more be rebelled against or questioned than the decrees of Fate, to change it materially for the better.” It is this potential of female supremacy and the establishment of a matriarchal and matrilineal world order in place of a patriarchal one that terrifies both men. She had successfully emasculated both Holly and Leo and they were hopelessly in her power but this threat to masculinity had to be neutralized and Haggard therefore uses the Pillar of Fire to nullify the threat of female supremacy and the reversal of power in gender roles. She-who-must-be-obeyed, who was immune to accidents of life and death itself is ironically given a horrifying and miserable death. She is reduced to a withering, wrinkled old woman who grows “smaller and smaller” until her degeneration and devolution is so profound that she begins to resemble a small baboon. She who was not allowed to be looked directly and a glance of whom enchanted all men is reduced to being a profoundly and unimaginably ugly heap on the floor that Holly and Leo despite their love for her do not look at a second time.    

Haggard argued that the final destruction of She was divine justice for her attempt to appropriate for herself semi-divine power and privilege however, that appears to be a dubious argument. The denouement is therefore the destruction of the threat to male order that an empowered, learned woman poses and the restoration of both patriarchy and masculinity. She had to be destroyed in order to free both Holly and Leo and allow them to return to male dominated sphere of Cambridge. She represents both the threat posed by an empowered, autonomous female as well as the enchanting appeal of such a woman as is evident by the fact that both the wise, misogynistic, intelligent, learned English man Holly and the young and beautiful Leo, the symbol of physical vigour, beauty and perfection both are enchanted by and fall in love with Ayesha. Ayesha’s knowledge and autonomy have allowed critics to view her as the New Woman. Patricia Murphy said, “She is also a thinly disguised allegorical admonition to recognize and dispel the threat that the New-Woman posed to Victorian Society.” She argued, “the novel…ultimately strives to contain the New Woman threat by annihilating the unruly She at closure.” The systematic demonization and annihilation of the threat posed by an empowered figure like She and Haggard’s attempt to restore order and gender roles is made clearer if one takes into account his later book Ayesha: The Return of “She”, a narrative he considered the “conclusion” to She and not the “sequel”. As Patricia Murphy has pointed out, “In her latter incarnation, however, She progresses from the demon of the temple to the angel in the house. The potent She of the 1887 version becomes, in Ayesha, a chastened and submissive handmaiden. She’s metamorphosis from castrating virago to upholder of feminine virtues is “the most… thrilling of her many changes,” which will usher in a newfound passivity, delicacy, and superficiality. In repudiating masculine ambitions and accepting her “natural” role, Ayesha’s conversion suggests the desired and destined fate for the New Woman… the solution to the New Woman problem becomes two- fold: the goal is not simply to conquer her but to enlighten her. As She demonstrates, the New Woman must first be disempowered to neutralize her threat to society. Once patriarchal authority has been restored, she can be convinced of the error of her ways and recognize that the route to happiness rests not in being a “Valkyrie of the battleplain” but a comely bride. Only by internalizing and validating Victorian ideology can the New Woman truly be tamed, Ayesha suggests, and the gender binarism buttressing the doctrine of separate spheres reinforced”. If Ayesha is viewed as a New woman then one can understand how Haggard alienated the threat of the New Woman that Victorian society was grappling with by making an “Other”, a white Arabian woman (the figure of the Oriental Other) ruling over a primitive and savage African tribe (another recurring symbol of the Other in imperial and European literature) the embodiment of the unruly and digressive traits displayed the New Woman in England and portraying those traits and the figure of a learned, wise woman as immoral, Satanic, devolutionary, pagan, degenerate, unnatural  and ultimately deserving obliteration.



  1. Murphy, Patricia: The Gendering of History in She
  2. Haggard, Henry: She. Wilco Classics 2011


By- Shweta Teotia



One thought on “Obliterating “She-who-must-be-obeyed”: Decoding the neutralization of female agency in H. Rider Haggard’s “She””

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s