Victorian Cougar: H. Rider Haggard’s She“, Ageing and Sexual Selection in Marriage
H. Rider Haggard's late nineteenth-century novelÂ She“Â (1887) details the adventures of two British explorers who venture deep into the heart of Africa, where they encounter an ageless, white African queen. The novel has fascinated Victorian scholars with its depictions of race, gender and power, but I argue that what distinguishes this novel is the way that Darwinian arguments infuse the narrative with male anxieties about older women and female choice in marriage.
The ageless, white queen Ayesha promotes a narrative that is ripe for exploration about the nexus of age and power. While my book The“ January-May Marriage in Nineteenth Century British Literature“ (Palgrave Macmillan 2009) argues that age is an aspect of gender by focusing on the figure of the ageing male husband in nineteenth-century literature, I turn here to the less common figure of the older wife. Ayesha, also called ‘she who must be obeyed', challenges typical readings of Victorian power distribution in marriage. Using Darwin's theories of mate selection, Haggard engages this female character to pique Victorian anxieties about female choice in marriage. What is revealed is not a renewed sense of "natural" male selection, but overlapping anxieties about women's power, the ageing female body and degeneration.