Helen Grant was born in London. She read Classics at St.Hugh's College, Oxford, and then worked in Marketing for 10 years. In 2001 she and her family moved to Bad Münstereifel in Germany, and it was exploring the legends of this beautiful town that inspired her to write her first novel. She then moved to Brussels for three years, and now lives in Scotland with her husband, two children and two cats. Helen's first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, was shortlisted for the Booktrust Teenage Prize and the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2010. It has also won an ALA Alex Award in the United States. Her second book, The Glass Demon, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2011 and shortlisted for the Leeds Book Awards and the International Thriller Writers Awards. Her third novel, Wish Me Dead, was nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2012 and shortlisted for the Worcestershire Teen Book Award. Helen is currently working on Silent Saturday, the first book of a trilogy set in Flanders. It will be published in 2013 by Random House. Below she discusses H. Rider Haggard's She.
Helen Grant on She by H. Rider Haggard
She, by Sir Henry Rider Haggard, is a Victorian adventure story. The narrator, the ugly and middle-aged but highly sympathetic Horace Holly, and his ward, the unfeasibly good-looking Leo Vincey, travel to a remote part of Africa. There they encounter the beautiful but cruel Ayesha - 'She-who-must-be-obeyed' - who has attained eternal youth by bathing in a supernatural flame. Ayesha recognizes in Leo the reincarnation of her lost love Kallikrates, whom she herself killed in a fit of rage some two thousand years before. She determines to persuade him to bathe in the eternal flame with her. This cannot end well, and those who have seen the 1965 Hammer film version will no doubt remember the grisly scene in which Ursula Andress in the title role ages two thousand years in about 60 seconds...
She is a very entertaining book, well-written, lively and exciting. It is not the greatest book ever, nor is it the most profound, but it has a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. When I was a child, my father was in the throes of starting up his own business; probably for that reason, the bookshelf in my bedroom contained a high proportion of books inherited from his and my mother's childhoods. I suppose the Buffalo Bill annual belonged to my father. My mother's contributions included four slim volumes of H. Rider Haggard's, in Hodder and Stoughton's Sevenpenny Library editions. I can remember which they were: She, Cleopatra, Nada the Lily and Montezuma's Daughter. I loved all of them, but especially She. Ironically, of the four, She was the one that a university friend borrowed and never gave back, in spite of my pleading for its return. Its absence always irked me, so a few years ago I hunted down an identical copy from an online bookseller. It is on the desk next to me now as I write, open at the Maurice Greiffenhagen frontispiece of Ayesha standing in the eternal flame, with her dark hair swirling about her. I love that book; I even love the smell of it, the scent of dust and pages printed almost a century ago. To me, it smells of my childhood, and adventures I planned to have.
One of the things I adored about She is that the early chapters include a series of mysterious documents in Ancient Greek, Latin and Old English, which Leo has inherited from his father, and which lead him and Holly to go to Africa. Can you imagine a modern editor allowing an author to include anything so esoteric in a popular novel? I was thrilled with these. I was learning Latin (and Greek too, though unofficially, since the school didn't offer it) and I spent ages poring over the documents, doing my best to read them for myself. I felt as though I were discovering their significance, along with Holly and Leo. It was tremendously exciting.
I think that aspect of She, the fact that I, the reader, could experience the thrill of discovery alongside the heroes, has influenced me quite a lot. I relish the intermingling of fiction and reality. When I include history and folklore in my own books I like to use real history and genuine folk legends. Unshockable Hans in The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, and the demon Bonschariant in The Glass Demon are both genuine Eifel legends; the Allerheiligen stained glass in the latter book is inspired by the real-life Steinfeld glass. I like to think that a reader might Google 'Bonschariant', for example, and get a pleasurable frisson seeing that the legend really 'exists'.
Above all, She is a wonderful adventure, packed with drama and horror and excitement, and with as dashing a hero as any young reader could wish for. I particularly commend to you the scene in which Leo and Holly are surrounded by the murderous Amahagger, who kill people horribly by putting red hot pots on their heads. Vastly outnumbered by these ferocious cannibals, the two of them prepare to fight to the death. There is no weedy hand-wringing. 'There was a curious gleam in Leo's eyes, and his handsome face was set like a stone.' Dear me, how my heart beat faster over that! I cannot say I ever identified with the female characters, such as Ustane. In my imagination, I was up there on that rocky outcrop with Leo and Holly, fighting off hundreds of marauding Amahagger with a single pistol.
Having spent my childhood devouring this kind of thing, it was never on the cards that I would write kitchen-sink dramas or tender romances myself. I love atmospheric locations, bizarre legends, moments of heart-stopping fear. I still hope for a really exciting adventure or two myself - this naive hope probably helped sustain me through the 10 years we spent living abroad with two very young children. Better drama and the occasional disaster than boredom. I like to think that reading all those adventures stories helped me face it all with a curious gleam in my eyes!
She, I love you.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]