‘Never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be – and yet, the sublimity was a dark one- the glory was not all of heaven- though none the less was it glorious.’
-H. Rider Haggard, She, p.143.
The representation of the femme fatale as monstrous is prolifically highlighted in H. Rider Haggard’s characterisation of Ayesha, as shown in his fin-de-siècle novel She. Referred to predominately as ‘She’, an abbreviation of her full title ‘she-who-must-be-obeyed’ (p.144), Ayesha immediately becomes a figure of abjection and horror who threatens ingrained notions of androcentric superiority. In her dictator-like control of the Amahaggar people, eternal beauty and superior intellect, Ayesha subverts Victorian teachings of the ‘ideal’ woman. These women were suggested to be ‘devoted, docile wives and mothers’, paragons of domesticity, virtue and humility.’ Ayesha defies this subordination, instead using her powerful sexuality to control and conquer both the land and men surrounding her. This is demonstrated in Ayesha’s respective unveiling to Holly and Leo. Before revealing herself to Holly, Ayesha declares that ‘never may the man to whom my beauty hath been unveiled put it from his mind, and therefore even with these savages do I go veiled’ (pp.142/143). This is proven true when Holly shrinks ‘back blinded and amazed’ (p.143). Leo, in turn, finds ‘the power of her dread beauty fasten on him and take possession of his senses, drugging them, and drawing the heart out of him’ (p.204). Both Leo and Holly are reduced and emasculated through Ayesha’s unveiling, finding themselves powerless to her sexual domination. However, it becomes apparent that it the veiling of her beauty in the first instance that provides Ayesha with such power over the men; essentially, her success at withholding herself from the male gaze supplies her with power over all those that surround her. In remaining shrouded, Ayesha takes hold of the male gaze and uses it as weapon against Holly and Leo to emasculate them both. Holly, upon witnessing Ayesha’s form, appears affected to the point of regression; he is reduced to a physically inferior position to Ayesha, ‘stumbl[ing] from her presence’ (p.158). Holly’s ‘stumble’, a term etymologically defined as ‘to trip or momentarily lose one’s balance’, becomes indicative of Ayesha’s monstrous power; Ayesha’s undressing entirely shifts the ‘balance’ of power from the androcentric male figure to herself.  This loss of balance results in Holly’s inability to perform even the most basic of bodily functions; he essentially becomes trapped in what he later refers to be Ayesha’s ‘dread beauty’ (p.204).
Rather than becoming instantly enamoured with Ayesha’s beauty, however, Holly declares that ‘never before had I guessed what beauty made sublime could be – and yet, the sublimity was a dark one- the glory was not all of heaven- though none the less was it glorious’ (p.143). In the collusion of her beauty with ‘dread’, defined as to ‘anticipate with great apprehension or fear’, Ayesha’s appearance is inextricably interwoven by Haggard with a discourse of horror. This, when coupled with Holly’s references to the Sublime nature of Ayesha’s power, invokes a combination of awe and terror in the reader that simultaneously accentuates her monstrosity. As the philosopher Edmund Burke theorised on the Sublime, ‘Sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smoothed and polished […] the great ought to be dark and gloomy.’ Thus, ‘they [Beauty and the Sublime] are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded in pain, the other pleasure.’ Despite her clear beauty, Ayesha’s ability in emasculating her victims through a reflection of the male gaze thus positions her as a figure of abject horror. Her ability to tip the balance of ordained societal codes results in her depiction as fatal to those she encounters; she becomes a character that is underpinned by a discourse of female monstrosity.
In Ayesha’s stripping of Leo and Holly’s notions of masculine authority the novel can clearly be seen as playing on fin-de-siècle fears of devolution, otherwise known as Degeneration theory. Max Nordau, writer of the indicative 1895 text Degeneration, diagnosed the cause of recidivism in Victorian society be to an increase in femininity. This increase led to what Nordau denounced as the emasculation of society; femininization thus resulted in increased decadence, a supposedly recidivist fault diagnosed in fin-de-siècle culture, art and literature. Ayesha internalises these fears, becoming the literary manifestation of male anxieties concerning devolving masculinity. Her desirability and independence appear to entirely consume and trap Holly and Leo, who are both described as never full the same after meeting her. However it is this same fear of Degeneration, as internalised by Ayesha, that feeds into and hampers her power. Haggard, a firm believer in the patriarchal notion of women’s domestic position, unconsciously attempts to claim and destroy his femme fatale’s power in an attempt to restore ‘true’ societal balance. This hampering is achieved through Ayesha’s depiction as eternally devoted to her lover Kallikrates. This passion firmly places her in the position of the patriarchally-devoted wife of nineteenth-century England. Ayesha’s love extends past her fatal desire for totalitarian rule; her love results in her becoming fatal to herself. This is demonstrated in her stepping into the Elixir or Life and consequently degenerating. As Holly witnesses, ‘she [Ayesha] was shrivelling up […] smaller and smaller she grew […] till she was no larger than a monkey. Now the skin was puckered into a million wrinkles, and on the shapeless face was a stamp of unutterable age’ (p.293/294). As Rebecca Stott argues, Ayesha falls foul to ‘retrogressive evolution, a savage devolution’,  regressing to the point of extinction. Rather than fatally enacting her monstrous desires for imperial power and rule, Ayesha’s love essentially results in her regression. In turn, this regression acts as brutal patriarchal punishment for her misappropriation of masculine power. She essentially risks it all for her lover, trapping herself in the male gaze that she herself attempted to subvert. In this way, Ayesha becomes a femme fatale constructed from male fantasy. She is the femme fatale that succumbs to her passion, risking it all for her lover; in doing so, she destroys any semblance of the monstrous threat she once possessed.
Featured Image: Image take from Purnell’s 1977 edition of the H. Rider Haggard’s She. See H. Rider Haggard, She (Bristol:Purnell, 1977).
 British Library, ‘Introduction’ to The Angel in the House. Available at http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/coventry-patmores-poem-the-angel-in-the-house [Accessed 26th March 2017].
 Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/stumbled [Accessed 10/12/2017].
 Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/dread [Accessed 4/11/2017].
 George Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (London: J. Dodsley Publishers, 1767), p.237-238.
 See Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York City: D. Appleton and Company, 1895).
 After Ayesha’s demise, Holly describes his and Leo’s own personal changes. Leo is described as his ‘golden curls’ of hair turning ‘to a snowy white’, whilst Holly states of himself that: ‘I know that two days afterwards when I inspected my ace in some water I scarcely recognised myself. I have never been famous for beauty, but there was something bedside ugliness stamped upon my features that I have never got rid of until this day, something resembling that wild look with which a startled person wakes from deep sleep more than anything else that I can think of’ (p.308).
 See H. Rider Haggard, ‘A Man’s View of Woman’ (1894), as reprinted in H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure, ed. Andrew A. Stauffer (Ontario: Broadview, 2006), pp.337-340.
 For further information on the position of the domestic woman in the Victorian era, see Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth-Century (New York: Greeley and McElrath, 1845).
 Rebecca Stott, The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale: The Kiss of Death (Macmillan Press LTD: London, 1992), p.114.
Written by Steph Reeves.
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