This collection includes nine brief essays devoted to H. Rider Haggard’s imperial adventure story She (1887). Such singular focus is rare in contemporary literary studies, where most volumes are devoted to an oeuvre, genre, theme, methodology, or historical context. As a group, the essays are drawn to Haggard’s archeological drive in She—the interplay in the imperial imagination between an inaccessible buried past and the contemporary moment of discovery. In fact, this is how She begins, with a series of artifacts and translations reproduced in the text that connect an ancient African mystery through Greek and Latin scholarship to the English narrative present. As Patrick Brantlinger notes in his essay, the emergence of archaeology as a modern science in the mid-nineteenth century buttressed a teleological understanding of imperial time in which antiquities are held frozen in time in the metropolitan museum while discoveries are made in primitive colonial space. In other words, space becomes a signifier of uneven historical time, or as Anne McClintock succinctly writes in her 1995 book Imperial Leather, “[g]eographical difference across space is figured as a historical difference across time” (40). Archaeologists were discovering the remnants of ancient mankind, and the British public, including Haggard, were enthralled by such historical exploration, particularly Egyptology. Nevertheless, despite the racialism inherent in Victorian archaeology, the complex space-time of Empire did not always follow a simple evolutionary arc with a metropolitan apex. Romance and its spawn of emergent genres, including horror and science fiction, were quick to find depravity at the imperial center and new life on the spatiotemporal fringes. The fascination with the anachronistic construction of colonial space was an attempt at ideological consolidation, but it also opened up space for voicing dissatisfaction with the metropolitan present.
This search for vitality and subsequent fear and fascination are, of course, at the heart of She, and their complex interplay occupies most of the essays in this collection. Like Haggard, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and many other writers from quasi-imperial backgrounds approached the metropole from positions slightly askew, and thus, it is no surprise that late-nineteenth-century fiction continues to captivate readers and scholars. In grappling with their own positions in relation to metropolitan subjectivity and inevitably representing the ideological contradictions of their time, these writers produced complex romances that cannot easily be read as unambiguous exercises in imperial panopticism. In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said astutely notes how Conrad resisted incorporating imperial metropolitan discourse neatly into his fiction; instead, from a dislocated subjectivity, he created formalistic devices that “draw attention to themselves as artificial constructions, encouraging us to sense the potential of a reality that seemed inaccessible to imperialism, just beyond its control” (29). Although Conrad was more willing than Haggard to push the narrative form to its limits, the essays in this volume bring out the complex and often contradictory constructions of identity, narrative, and history in She. Gerald Monsman draws on scholarship relating to Victorian spiritualism and argues that “African spirituality” for Haggard became “an antidote to the Empire’s materialism” (17). By African spirituality, Monsman means (somewhat problematically) the late Victorian passion for spiritualism that often looked to other world traditions—a cultural phenomenon that he and other scholars have linked to dissatisfaction with rampant materialism and waning religious and imperial authority. Tania Zulli, in her essay, explores the epistemic and concomitantly formal tension in Haggard’s novel between scientific investigation and the mystery of the fantastic and spiritual. Likewise, Norman Etherington looks closely at the juxtaposition of antiquity and modernity in Haggard’s representation of the city of Kôr, and he links Haggard’s portrayal of the city with turn-of-the-century interest in classical architecture, including Camillo Sitte’s attempt to apply the lessons of classical cities to modern urban planning and the later City Beautiful Movement. Finally and perhaps most fascinatingly, Andrew Stauffer locates the novel’s historical impulse in the material production of paper itself. She, he argues, is “an exemplary record of the Victorian author’s mournful relationship to a lost world of paper” (107), a publishing landscape in which three-decker novels were becoming extinct and inexpensive pulp editions were beginning to proliferate. One response to a world of cheap paper that is both fragile and ubiquitous “involves an embrace of the inscribed relic, an imaginative return to a lost world of the precious physical text,” and this archival nostalgia is only strengthened by late Victorian archaeology, in which the discovery of ancient texts conveyed “the frightening probability of loss, even as the artifacts told a triumphal tale of endurance” (97-98).
The latter half of the book mostly provides historical overviews of the publication of She. Stephen Coan looks closely at the writing of the book, and Lindy Stiebel and Patricia Murphy briefly discuss its reception in their respective essays. Stiebel outlines the various historical discussions surrounding the popular novel’s reception, including parodies of She and accusations of plagiarism, whereas Murphy deftly zooms in on the host of parodic sequels to She within the wider context of the New Woman controversy.
With She, as with imperial fiction in general, it remains tempting to interpret the enduring complexity of the text and our own fascination with the genre through the lens of poststructuralist jouissance or the overturning of ideological structures. For instance, although Tim Wheelhouse offers the welcome contribution of slowing down and examining the text, specifically She’s narrative structure, his essay leads to a familiar deconstructionist conclusion, with a fractured narrative and attempted recontainment: “Aysesha [. . .] destablises the metanarrational pillars of [Holly’s] existence [. . .] and cannot be allowed to exist in his world” (201). With the interplay of fear and fascination throughout the slim volume of essays, it is thus refreshing that Brantlinger offers an important perspective early in the collection that clarifies the complex yet deeply abiding imperialism of She. He argues that Haggard’s reliance on archaeology and his representations of ancient civilizations offer “a reactionary utopianism that buttresses his version of imperialism” (39). For Haggard, modernity “involves a degeneration from past values, standards, authority, and religious belief,” and thus, archaeology becomes a way of tracing this sense of modern loss, as contemporary museum-goers and tomb robbers carelessly disregard the ancient relics they should revere (44). As Brantlinger elaborates in his recent book Taming Cannibals: Race and the Victorians (2011), the idea of necrophilia is central. “The desire for and fear of a love that is everlasting” (52), which became so popular in the Gothic figure of the female mummy, becomes a porno-tropic desire that can only persist within the confines of the modern world as a kind of living death.
In examining She and its links to spiritualism, archeology, the material and generic production of fiction, and so on, the authors in this collection offer fascinating kernels; however, the collection is a slim volume indeed, and they have very little space to flesh out their arguments. The limitation places stress on some of the essays. Stiebel’s overview of the reception of She moves through publications related to the novel at a feverish pace, and Etherington only goes as far as to speculate on similarities between Haggard’s representation of Kôr and the goals of city planners who are mostly historically and geographically remote from Haggard. Likewise, Monsman, in an otherwise interesting essay, glosses over the slippage between “African spirituality” and European spiritualism in one brief paragraph. The problem is compounded by the fact that despite the exciting prospect of a collection devoted to one novel, such an approach requires strenuous editorial direction, including perhaps conceptual apparatus such as thematic sections and strong synthesis in the introduction that we often take for granted as readers. Ultimately, the collection, like its introduction, offers a litany of themes, most of which will be familiar to late Victorian scholars and many of which are repeated throughout the essays in individual attempts to provide a wider context for She. These independent overviews of Haggard’s work, his important friendship with Lang, the poplar interest in Egyptology, and other common themes of new imperialism become repetitive and steal valuable space from the otherwise interesting constellation of ideas in this collection. Nevertheless, even if hurried, the wide-ranging essays along with the book’s bibliography offer a helpful access point to both scholarly research and contemporaneous publications on H. Rider Haggard and She.
Brandon Jernigan received his PhD in English literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2010. His dissertation examined how imperialism and increasing globalization shaped the British novel at the turn of the 20th century. Currently, he works at Research Square, a for-benefit company dedicated to improving the ongoing cycle of research, publishing, and discovery, and serves on the editorial committee of the Open Library of Humanities.