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Beautiful, marriageable and a little bit angry: literary mummies at the turn of the twentieth century, by Nolwenn Corriou

Beautiful, marriageable and a little bit angry: literary mummies at the turn of the twentieth century, by Nolwenn Corriou

When one thinks of Egyptian mummies, their representation in Western popular culture necessarily comes to mind. We can all remember Hollywood’s vengeful mummies shuffling in relentless pursuit behind their hapless victim in their decayed wrappings, their shrivelled bodies acting as a horrid, walking memento mori. In more recent representations, whether they are found in children’s books or animated movies, mummies can appear as extravagant and silly characters, with popping eyes, a grinning face and burdensome wrappings. In other words, an Egyptian mummy is either a grim and threatening representation of our inescapable fate or, on the contrary, a comedic and cathartic embodiment of mortality.

Rarely, however, do we think of Egyptian mummies as irresistible and lascivious femmes fatales waiting for millennia in their sarcophagi for an archaeologist to unwrap their luscious bodies. And perhaps that is hardly surprising considering that we are talking about a dead and embalmed ancient body. Yet, mummies can be appealing, seductive figures – at least in the literary genre of mummy fiction. Indeed, even though our representations of mummies as a character of fiction have been mostly shaped by Hollywood, from Imhotep, aka Ardeth Bey, in Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) to Kharis in the Mummy series produced by Universal in the 1940s (before reverting to Imhotep in the more recent Mummy series by Stephen Sommers), it is interesting to point out that before mummies became the terrifying monster we know today, they were actually mostly… sexy. Somewhat monstrous too – as the reanimated dead body usually is in Western cultures – but sexy nevertheless. This was the case in the – mostly British – literary genre of mummy fiction which emerged in the late-nineteenth century. If this genre has its share of ruthless decayed monsters, like the nameless mummy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “Lot No. 249” (1894), and of moronic corpses, like Menen-Ra in C.J. Cutcliffe Hyne’s “The Mummy of Thompson-Pratt” (1904), a number of the mummies represented in late-nineteenth century fiction are actually seductive figures that appear either as beautifully preserved bodies or are encountered miraculously still alive (or alive again) by the modern British protagonists of the stories. Alongside Tahoser, the beautifully preserved mummy imagined by Théophile Gautier in his novel Le roman de la momie (The Romance of a Mummy, 1857), the most famous seductive mummy of mummy fiction is probably Tera, a powerful queen inspired by real life Queen Hatshepsut, in Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). Although she is never seen alive or awake by the protagonists, her body is described as incredibly beautiful and uncannily lifelike – and the reader may assume she is the agent behind all the strange and supernatural happenings depicted in the novel. The same can be said of Iras, the mummy who turns out to have preserved the appearance of a beautiful young woman when her wrappings are removed in Iras: A Mystery, by H.D. Everett (1896). Hatasou in Grant Allen’s short story “My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies” (1879) and Ma-Mee in Smith and the Pharaohs (1913) by Henry Rider Haggard are also represented as extremely attractive figures when they appear in a sort of dream sequence or hallucination to their respective modern male admirers. Similarly, Hermonthis, the Egyptian princess who comes to claim her severed mummified foot in Théophile Gautier’s “The Mummy’s Foot” (“Le pied de momie”, 1840) is so attractive that upon meeting her, the narrator immediately decides to trade her foot for her hand and asks her to marry him. Hatasou, Ma-Mee and Iras inspire the same desire in the heart of the men who discover their mummy while Tera appears attired in a wedding gown when her wrappings are eventually removed.

Fig. 1: Cover of Smith and the Pharaohs, published by George Newnes Ltd, New York, 1913 (Strand Magazine)

The reasons why mummies are repeatedly depicted as irresistibly attractive as well as inescapably marriageable – but also potentially monstrous and therefore threatening to their modern suitors – can be explained in different ways. Indeed, the study of the genre of mummy fiction reveals that the depiction of female Egyptian mummies as both beautiful and dangerous creatures derives from a number of overlapping cultural, social and political factors that characterise the end of the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain.

First it has to be noted that the representation of ancient Egypt, in mummy fiction and in other popular media, emphasises first and foremost the otherness of a culture which, from a European point of view, is remote both in space and time. In the nineteenth century, in European imperial cultures, this otherness was constructed within the framework of Orientalism. This phenomenon identified and described by Edward Said in his trailblazing work, Orientalism, published in 1978, can be applied to the description of mummies which are on the one hand attractive and lascivious, like the odalisques represented by Orientalist painters and writers, and on the other hand threatening and destructive as Orientalist thinkers believed the “Orient” might be to Western values. As a dead Oriental female endowed with supernatural powers, the mummy of mummy fiction is completely at odds with the masculine and supposedly rational values of the West. Her otherness, as a consequence, is as compelling as it is fearsome.

The notion of an Oriental other perceived as threatening also has to be understood in the political context of nineteenth century Europe, and particularly Britain since most of the texts mentioned were written by British authors. If the nineteenth century seems to be the golden age of imperial power in Britain, the end of the Victorian period is also marked by a number of events that underline the fragility of an empire that was threatening to break apart as a consequence of the rise of nationalist movements in many parts of the world. The representation of the mummy can be understood in the imperial context which, in literature, inspired the genre of imperial Gothic, as defined by Patrick Brantlinger in Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (1988). In the imperial Gothic imagination, the British Empire was the source of ancient and supernatural creatures whose encounters with Western travellers or explorers threatened British hegemony, values and even lives. The mummy is one such creature which can be read more specifically as a metaphor of the Egyptian situation within the British empire. Described as a “veiled protectorate”, the period of British rule in Egypt forms the often untold backdrop of mummy fiction. Therefore the desire of the British archaeologist to seduce and marry the mummy he discovers can be read as an allegory of the desire of Britain to officially acquire Egypt, while the mummy’s reluctance to surrender represents the nationalist resistance again this acquisition / marriage. The tales of the mummy, therefore, can be interpreted as a metaphor of imperial dynamics and a refusal to comply on the part of Egypt.

Finally, on the domestic front too, imperial and patriarchal Britain felt a rising threat that also appears in the figure of the mummy. Many works of mummy fiction were indeed written in the context of increasing claims for female emancipation. In the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, the suffragists and the suffragettes were indeed becoming more and more vocal about the necessity for women to acquire equal rights and especially the right to vote. Over the same period, women started being admitted to British universities. These first steps towards emancipation were obviously not considered favourably by the most conservative parts of the population. This may explain why a queen, that is to say a female character endowed with political power – even dead – is perceived as a threat in a novel like The Jewel of Seven Stars. Indeed the ambitious Tera seems to have every intention of regaining her former power when she returns to life, thereby challenging male political hegemony, like her historical model Hatshepsut. Only through death or marriage can she be stopped and patriarchal and imperial order restored. Surprisingly, the imperial, patriarchal and Orientalist context that produced the literary figure of the mummy was brought back to life in The Mummy (2017), the failed attempt by Universal Studios to launch its Dark Universe recreating the Universal Monsters of the 1930-50s. Perhaps it is symbolic that Alex Kurtzman’s Mummy was relegated to the second place behind Wonder Woman at the box office: though “death is only the beginning”, as the spectator learns in Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy, the Victorian mummy may need to reinvent herself for the 21st century if she wants to stay alive.

Author: Nolwenn Corriou, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Featured Image: Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971) (Source: IMDb)

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