2014 Victorians Institute

“There’s Nothing Against My Character”: Humor, Culture, and She

Henry Rider Haggard’s She: A History of Adventure combines travel narrative, adventure genre, and anthropological discourse to create a strange sort of miscellany, a forerunner of the modern Indiana Jones. With long passages contemplating life, death, and the transitory nature of memory, the sudden shift in tone to the rough and tumble action sequences or the dry, objectifying gaze of the academic appears jarring. These shifts in tone are further complicated by the occasional interjection of humor, which often (but not always) centers on the lower class servant figure, Job. A contemporary review in the Pall Mall Gazette remarks on this aspect of the text: “A style alternatively flat and flamboyant, cheap philosophy, shallow sentiment, and a strain of humour which, though harmless enough in itself, is made by its surroundings to seem frivolous to the verge of vulgarity – these are the faults of Mr. Haggard’s work” (281). Yet can one simply dismiss these stylistic shifts as flaws? Moreover, how does the humor function in particular within this cacophony?

This presentation argues that the humor serves a vital role within She, particularly when it intersects with the scholarly discourse that emerges and comments upon the narrative throughout. The protagonist, Horace Holly, makes frequent allusions to the “fossilizing” nature of academia, which is far removed from the objects, cultures, and people it seeks to study. The humor therefore humanizes the experience that Holly later overlays with the leveling, academic analysis. While the experience may have been profound, the ridiculous is also present.

In this vein, this presentation further claims that the comedic elements turn the anthropological gaze back upon contemporary readers, in order to highlight the absurdity of certain behaviors within late Victorian British society. Naturalized attitudes are thrown into relief through the use of humorous figures such as Job, a servant offered as fodder for the patronizing amusement of the educated upper class, and the exotic African tribe, the Amahagger, whose seemingly bizarre practices are superficially easy to dismiss as silly, yet point to certain uncomfortable parallels in British culture.

John Meyer’s humor theory suggests, “Humor use unites communicators through mutual identification and clarification of positions and values, while dividing them through enforcement of norms and differentiation of acceptable versus unacceptable behaviors or people” (310). This presentation concludes that through the silly servant figure, whose reactions often reflect British values as they conflict with a new culture, and the contemplation of the outlandish Amahagger, Haggard is able to reflect on trends in British behavior in a humorous method, often cloaked by academic authority.

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