Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ayesha - The Return of She

H. Rider Haggard’s She, published in 1887, is one of the bestselling novels of all time. It’s unquestionably one of the great adventure novels. Given its enormous success it’s hardly surprising that Haggard was tempted to produce a sequel in 1905. The result was Ayesha - The Return of She.

Since it’s a sequel and given that there may be those who have not read She, I’ll say as little as possible about that novel. Suffice to say that Ayesha begins with a prologue in which the author receives another manuscript from Horace Holly, a manuscript that describes the extraordinary adventures of himself and his one-time war and close friend Leo Vincey in central Asia.

Leo had seen a vision, and was convinced that it was sent from Ayesha, the beautiful and mysterious She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed who played such a central role in his earlier manuscript. Holly and Leo set off for Asia. After years of wandering they believe they are finally close to their objective, somewhere in the Himalayas. Before finding Ayesha, they find Atene (who also figures prominently in She). Atene has been watching and awaiting his arrival. She and her physician-sorcerer Simbri have the power of foretelling the future, at least in part. Atene knew that Leo would come and she believes that he is the man for whom she is destined. But Leo is interested only in Ayesha.

He will find her, but she is unrecognisable. Despite this, he knows that this is indeed Ayesha.

Ayesha will reveal herself to be possessed of powers even more extraordinary than those she wielded in the first novel. Is she an angel? A witch? A goddess? At the end of the story Holly has to admit that he still isn’t sure.

Ayesha is very much a larger-than-life character. She sees no reason why she should obey any of the rules that others must obey. She is throughout the story morally ambiguous. She’s not evil, although she is capable of cruelty and yes, even capable of evil acts. She is capricious and she never apologises for anything she has done. Except, perhaps, to Leo.

The love between Ayesha and Leo has a truly epic quality, spanning the centuries. Eastern beliefs in reincarnation play a major role in this story. Ayesha’s own religion remains a mystery - she expects to receive worship rather than to offer it. Again, except perhaps from Leo.

The novel offers plenty in the way of adventure, as Holly and Leo battle almost insurmountable odds in order to find Ayesha. Even nature seems to be against them, and yet nothing can stop them from going on.

The major fascination of the tale is Ayesha, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. The author’s own feelings towards his fabulous creation seem at times to be a mixture of awe and horror. Haggard’s work is more complex than is usually admitted, and this is more than just an adventure story. It is, if you like, a kind of philosophical and spiritual adventure story. Perhaps it’s not quite in the same league as She, but then She was a very difficult act to follow. Still worth a read for lovers of Victorian adventure.


  1. After many years delay, I am at long last just about to finish reading SHE. Needless to say I'm already eager to read the sequel.

    Why did I wait so long?

    Rip Off

  2. I liked 'Ayesha' very much and have read it at least twice. A sequel as good as the original is very, very hard to produce (has ANY author managed it?) but this, I think, comes close. The scene at the glacier sticks in my memory.