She Who Must Be Obeyed

How does an ugly rag doll become an elderly barrister’s wife? Well it’s simple, really. First she is used by a nursemaid to frighten a young Englishman, who later writes an epic adventure novel about a mythical sorceress who ahieves immortality and rules over a primitive race of cannibals.

When he was a young boy in the 1850s, Henry Rider Haggard had a nursemaid who used a “particularly hideous” ragdoll to scare him into behaving himself. We learn this in an introduction by Donald A. Wollheim to the 1967 Airmont Library edition to his famous novel She.

This is one heck of a book. Two Englishmen sail off to uncharted lands in Africa to find the aforesaid sorceress and have one hair-raising adventure after another, dragging a boat through nearly impenetrable, unhealthy swamps and arriving at last in the land of “the people who put (red-hot) pots on the heads of strangers.”

They are almost eaten at one point, but are rescued just in time by the emissary of “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed” (who knew they were coming), a guy with a long white beard named Billali, who apologizes profusely.

“Thou seest, my son,” Billali says (curiously, the pot people all seem to speak the English of the King James Bible) “here there is a custom that if a stranger comes into this country, he may be slain by the pot and eaten.”

“That is hospitality turned upside down,” says the Englishman narrator Horace Holly. “In our country we entertain a stranger and give him food to eat. Here you eat him and are entertained.”

“It is a custom,” Billali replies with a shrug. “Myself I think it is an evil one; but then I do not like the taste of strangers, especially after they have wandered through the swamps and lived on wildfowl.”

The final step here is when the elderly barrister Horace Rumpole (created by the brilliant John Mortimer) uses the appellation “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed” to refer to his wife Hilda (though not in her hearing). Mortimer’s series Rumpole of the Bailey deserves a blog entry of its own. It’s really delightful. Thanks to Nancy Towne Bennett for introducing me to Rumpole.