Triangular Erotics: The Politics of Masculinity, Imperialism and Big-Game Hunting in Rider Haggard's She

By Sinha, Madhudaya | Critical Survey, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Triangular Erotics: The Politics of Masculinity, Imperialism and Big-Game Hunting in Rider Haggard's She


Sinha, Madhudaya, Critical Survey


Animal imagery and anthropomorphic parallels abound in Rider Haggard's fantastic African adventure, She (1887). (1) Africa itself is presented to the reader as a landscape inhabited by 'beastly' natives and wild animals galore. Even the novel's overpowering female presence, that of 'She-who-must-be-obeyed' (as Ayesha is known by those natives over whom she rules), is eventually reduced to a simian status. Such a textual focus, fitting comfortably into a more extensive dream of Victorian empire, lent the novel cultural, as well as fictive, power. The animal imagery helped to produce durable models of African identity and otherness which were compatible with current ideas of geography, race and human evolution. As such, the Africa of She may be seen not just as complementary to, but as an integral component of, the cultural apparatus of British imperialism and its mechanisms of propaganda, subordination and control at the fin de siecle. At the same time, the subtext of the novel is fraught with many inconsistencies and what Joseph Bristow calls 'fatalistic overtones'. (2) In the vast hunting grounds of Africa, Leo and Holly live a life which is the stuff of contemporary boys' fiction. They overcome a tempestuous squall, narrowly escape a 'hot-potted' fate at the hands of native cannibals and eventually defeat the novel's central evil power before returning home intact. Yet these actions seem to arise from the trepidations of masculinity at the turn of the century. In fact, as Michael Roper and John Tosh recognise regarding contemporary ideas of masculinity, the masculinity that underpins this novel is able to define itself only 'in relation to "the other"'. (3) That 'other' takes various forms, including nature, the body of the African native and, last but by no means least, that of Ayesha. The novel, as this article aims to prove, is a fertile ground for all these various discourses. Using Edwin Landseer's art, this article will draw parallels between nineteenth-century treatments of nature in general and Haggard's novel in particular.

Descriptions of the natural world and the physical landscape of Africa appear repeatedly in this novel. As John Mackenzie demonstrates in his exhaustive work, The Empire of Nature (1988), this is not at all surprising. (4) The earlier Romantics placed the natural world on a pedestal, and killing animals was largely frowned upon. Reading Keith Thomas's work on man's relationship to the natural world during the eighteenth century (1983), Mackenzie points out that meat-eating became suspect and animal welfare a matter of prime concern. It was in this atmosphere that the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824. (5) But the movement from these more peaceful ideas to those of hunting and violence was not as abrupt as it might appear. Critiquing Thomas, Mackenzie reminds us that Gothic horror, which was 'one of the manifestations of Romanticism', had a thread of violence, cruelty and 'raw nature' woven into its fabric. (6) As the nineteenth century progressed, both these cultural manifestations (nature as an idolised entity and nature as a wild, cruel body needing to be tamed) combined with the already well-established scientific discourses of the natural world and the need to establish dominance over unexplored, hostile colonial terrain. In the years following the Romantic era, the natural historian's efforts to order and classify the world of nature became an integral part of the imperial project. Hunting in the comers of the vast empire 'became a ritualised ... display of white dominance' and a subject of scholarly examination. (7)

As mentioned earlier, these spectacular and often violent exploits found their way into a number of popular juvenile fictional accounts of the day. Holly, the protagonist who relates the story, constantly offers descriptions of the landscape (including extensive details of the flora and fauna) and inhabitants of his imagined/real Africa.

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