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The Egyptian Museum in Fiction: The Mummy’s Eyes as the ‘Black Mirror’ of the Empire

Le musée égyptologique dans la fiction : les yeux de la momie, « sombre miroir » de l’Empire
Nolwenn Corriou

Résumés

Cet article examine la manière dont le genre de la mummy fiction, à la fin du xixe siècle, représente l’exposition des momies égyptiennes au sein de musées privés ou publics. Dans le contexte de la constitution de ce que Thomas Richards nomme « l’archive impériale », le musée joue un rôle majeur et les interactions entre l’archéologue ou le visiteur du musée et la momie dans la fiction peuvent ainsi être lues en termes impériaux, le travail d’excavation, de classification et d’exposition faisant écho aux dynamiques impériales. Le motif du regard, en particulier, nous offre un aperçu des conceptions victoriennes et édouardiennes de la connaissance et de ses liens avec la domination impériale au tournant du siècle. Dans des textes tels que The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), de Bram Stoker et Smith and the Pharaohs (1913) de Henry Rider Haggard, le regard scientifique et esthétisant de l’archéologue est remis en question par les yeux de la momie qui, à son tour, regarde le visiteur du musée, mettant ainsi en échec l’ordre impérial qui y règne. Cet article vise à démontrer que, dans les textes concernés, l’exposition des momies mène à une critique de l’impérialisme dans la mesure où le regard de la momie, en présentant un miroir au visiteur du musée, permet de mettre en scène certaines angoisses impériales et d’exposer le refoulé de la psyché impériale.

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  • 1 The Egyptian Court was not the replica of a particular monument but a collection of fragments from (...)
  • 2 Brian M. Fagan describes how the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette ‘devoted much of his life to (...)
  • 3 In fiction too, forged objects became a leitmotif, often meant to mock enthusiastic antiquarians wi (...)

1In the nineteenth century, the development of increasingly democratic touristic practices meant that the British Empire was more than an abstract idea for a great many Britons: it was a place one could walk, touch, see and even symbolically acquire through its objects. For those who could not afford to travel to the imperial territories, national institutions such as the British Museum and the international exhibitions brought the Empire close to home by displaying artefacts or even presenting entire structures, such as the Egyptian Court designed by Joseph Bonomi for the Great Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in 1851.1 In the middle and upper classes, ‘the dual craze for collecting and exhibiting’ (Black 68), inherited from the tradition of the cabinet of curiosities exemplified by the private museum of Sir John Soane (1753–1837), expanded throughout the nineteenth century, bringing the Empire into the domestic space. Even before its occupation by the British in 1882, Egypt had become a major centre for mass tourism, thanks to the tours organised by Thomas Cook (1808–1892). There, the tourists found themselves competing with archaeologists for access to antique sites and the acquisition of the rarest curios.2 Depending on their luck and their financial means, the tourists could acquire some scarabs, a few amulets and even a mummy’s hand or foot. The most prized acquisition was an entire mummy that could be displayed in one’s living room or study. The demand for these curios was such that a whole industry dedicated to the production of fake antiques developed in the United Kingdom to satisfy the tourists.3 In 1912, T. G. Wakeling warned the naïve tourists about these forgeries in his Forged Egyptian Antiquities, reporting on the case of a fake mummy which was sold for £200 to a gentleman who wished ‘to present to his native town a mummy in its case’ (Wakeling 114). Showcasing the Empire in one’s private space was a way to acquire social prestige while asserting imperial domination through the commodification of colonised cultures. Long commodified by their various uses (as a drug in the medical context, as material for artists in the case of ‘mummy brown’”, etc.), Egyptian mummies entered the process of commodification of the British Empire in the nineteenth century through ‘the visual consumption of the mummy as spectacle’ (Daly 25) within the space of the museum (public or private) as well as in the context of public unwrappings.

  • 4 In the early nineteenth century and up to the 1860s, ancient Egypt was appropriated as imperial loo (...)
  • 5 This is what Bradley Deane contends in ‘Mummy Fiction and the Occupation of Egypt: Imperial Stripte (...)
  • 6 Mummy fiction is linked to the genre described by Patrick Brantlinger as imperial Gothic insofar as (...)
  • 7 The now hackneyed motif of the curse of the mummy, as a consequence of the imperial context in whic (...)

2Visual contact with a colonised ancient Egypt4 in public and private spaces occupied—or even invaded—by imperial objects is at the core of the literary genre discussed in this article. Developing at the turn of the twentieth century in the context of the decline of the British imperial power, the genre of mummy fiction, by staging events surrounding Egyptological excavations and collections—and particularly the fate of mummies—uses the figure of the ancient Egyptian dead to represent colonial dynamics. The romantic vein of the genre allows the authors to metaphorically express the ambiguous situation of Egypt within the British Empire5 while the Gothic tales6 narrating the revenge of a revived mummy may be read as a representation of growing fears concerning the future of the Empire.7

3As an instance of imperial looting, the Egyptian artefacts of mummy fiction—and mummies in particular—occupy a paradoxical position within Victorian museums, in Britain but also in Egypt. They can be read, on the one hand, as signifiers of British domination insofar as they are subjected to a dominating scientific gaze which organises and classifies them following a Western scientific model. Ancient Egypt is tamed in the space of the museum through the processes of naming, description and display. The ’spectacle’ of the Empire in the form of various exhibits can be analysed as a performance of imperial domination. However, as a body still endowed with supernatural life, capable of acting on reality through the action of its Ka and its Ba, the parts of the soul which were believed to allow the dead to ‘live on’, the mummy also embodies the threat of an impending rebellion against British authority (the mummy’s curse).

  • 8 As defined by Todorov in his Introduction à la littérature fantastique to describe the hesitation (...)

4In this article, I will consider how the mummy’s propensity to cause fear and chaos within the space of the museum can be explained by its capacity to invert the dynamics between subject and object, spectacle and spectator and, thereby, its capacity to invert imperial dynamics of power and domination. The two texts chosen to consider the motif of the gaze in mummy fiction are both set in museums—one private, one public—where the act of looking is paramount to the experience of the encounter with antique artefacts and bodies. Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903) is focussed on the disturbing presence of the mummy of Queen Tera in the private museum of the archaeologist Abel Trelawny, whose daughter appears to be supernaturally similar to the mummy. In Henry Rider Haggard’s ‘Smith and the Pharaohs’ (1913), the eponymous character undergoes a fantastic8 experience when he finds himself locked inside the galleries of the Cairo Museum at night.

5In these texts, the eyes of the mummy, real, painted or even imagined in hollow sockets are a constant focus of the description and reflect the feelings of the mummy—or, more accurately, the feelings of the archaeologist or museum visitor who gazes at them. In this article, my contention is that the showcasing of mummies leads to a critique of imperialism as the mummy’s gaze is used to mediate imperial anxieties and put on display the repressed parts of the imperial psyche.

The Museum as an Imperial Microcosm

6First, to put mummy fiction in its imperial context, we need to consider to what extent the Victorian and Edwardian museum—whether it is a private or public collection, whether it is set in England or in Egypt—can be read as a microcosmic representation of imperial dynamics framed through the motif of vision.

7In The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, Thomas Richards underlines the role played by museums in the construction and symbolic presentation of imperial power inside and outside the space of the museum. The British Museum, for instance, ‘sponsored knowledge-gathering expeditions in the colonial world’ (Richards 15–16) where the artefacts would often be seized by force, making the museum a powerful instrument of imperial oppression. The logic of accumulation and display within the museum also pertained to imperial dynamics by contributing to the constitution of a ‘paper empire’ (Richards 4) whereby the Empire would be reduced to ‘manageable pieces of knowledge’ (Richards 4), conveying an impression of control that was for the most part illusory. Nevertheless, ‘the crystallized image of the comprehensive knowledge upon which English hegemony rests is the museum’ (Richards 29). This statement about the ‘Wonder House’ in Kipling’s Kim also applies to the museum of mummy fiction where the same craze for accumulating knowledge with a view to better dominating and controlling the imperial territories and their populations can also be seen at play. This appears in the description of collections marked by their excess, as in this passage from The Jewel of Seven Stars:

I then went to the broken cabinet. It was evidently a receptacle for valuable curios; for in it were some great scarabs of gold, agate, green jasper, amethyst, lapis lazuli, opal, granite, and blue-green china. … All the scarabs, rings, amulets, &c. were arranged in an uneven oval round and exquisitely-carved golden miniature figure of a hawk-headed God crowned with a disk and plumes. … It was evident that some of the strange Egyptian smell clung to these old curios; through the broken glass came an added whiff of spice and gum and bitumen, almost stronger than those I had already noticed as coming from others in the room. (Stoker 44–45)

8The excessive presence of the objects inside the cabinet—and more broadly, inside Abel Trelawny’s private museum—is reflected in the text by the lexical invasion that saturates the description as well as by the polysyndeton (‘whiff of spice and gum and bitumen’) which underlines the overwhelming presence of ancient Egypt for the visitor’s senses. Taking into account the ‘alliance between knowledge and power’ (Richards 5) that underpins the whole notion of the imperial archive, the accumulation of objects points to the aspiration to control Egypt through the classification of its objects.

  • 9 In the novel Iras: A Mystery (1896), by H. D. Everett, the archaeologist Ralph Lavenham goes as far (...)

9However, the imperial process of domination starts earlier since the appropriation of historical resources, combined with the exploitation of local workers by Western archaeologists on the excavation sites, already defines archaeological work as a form of colonisation of Egypt’s past. The museum of mummy fiction achieves the subjugation of Egyptian antiquity by putting it under lock and key in glass cases, submitting it to a Western scientific order that does not take the origin of the objects into account. The imperial custom of naming newly discovered places is mirrored in the naming of the objects acquired. In ‘Smith and the Pharaohs’, a curator of the British Museum mentions this process as he presents the bust of a queen: ‘Mariette found it, I believe at Karnac, and gave it a name after his fashion’ (Haggard 1920, 12, my emphasis).9

10Similarly, the classification of objects inside the fictional museum obeys an aesthetic rather than historical order. Walking around the galleries of the museum of Cairo, the protagonist of Haggard’s ‘Smith and the Pharaohs’ observes the rows of statues before entering the gallery dedicated to mummies: ‘on he went, mummies to his right, mummies to his left, of every style and period’ (Haggard 1920, 44). In the museum, the logic of accumulation prevails over the scientific or didactic content of the display which simply dispenses with chronological order.

11The knowledge constructed in the imperial museum only serves to reinforce imperial power by providing the archaeologist with a certain mastery of the colonial subject. In a novel such as The Jewel of Seven Stars, this mastery is solely considered in the light of the benefit it could bring to the archaeological coloniser. Discussing the Great Experiment meant to revive the mummy of Queen Tera, Trelawny declares: ‘if we are successful we shall be able to let in on the world of modern science such a flood of light from the Old World as will change every condition of thought and experiment and practice’ (Stoker 200).

  • 10 Such an example of the reconstructive view can be found in Smith and the Pharaohs’ as Smith observ (...)
  • 11 This representation relies as much on what was found on excavation sites as on narratives such as T (...)

12In this quote, the metaphor of light used to describe the knowledge that could be reawakened at the same time as Queen Tera is essential. In his book, Vision, Science and Literature, Martin Willis has established the paramount importance of sight in the development of nineteenth century sciences. He underlines how commonly sight came to be seen as synonymous with knowledge as is evinced by everyday phrases such as ‘it shines a light upon’ or ‘it brings into focus’ (Willis 1). In the work of archaeology in particular, sight is a central skill insofar as it enables the scientist to see and understand both what is before his or her eyes as well as to picture what is no longer there. The capacity to exercise a ‘fragmented view’ (Willis 121) on the one hand and a ‘reconstructive view’ (Willis 121) on the other hand, allowing the keen eye of the archaeologist to make sense of the remains of Antiquity and to use his or her imagination to represent what is missing, is what distinguishes the scientific from the touristic mode of observation.10 Analysing the representation of Egyptian antiquity built by Egyptologists, and W. M. Flinders Petrie in particular,11 Willis finds that ‘Petrie’s fictionalizing of the archaeological object can, in this structuring of the circulation of knowledge, be seen as an example of a colonial science’ (Willis 126–27). Sight is therefore an imperial instrument of knowledge and, by extension, an instrument of power over the colonised past.

  • 12 The encounter between the French director of the museum and Smith, a British archaeologist, demonst (...)

13In all the novels and short stories pertaining to mummy fiction, many pages are dedicated to describing the sights presented by excavation sites or Egyptological museum galleries. The all‑encompassing view afforded by museum galleries suggests this dominating power of the gaze as the characters apparently embrace the whole of a civilisation in one look. This is reflected in an 1847 engraving representing the British Museum’s Egyptian room as seen from one end of the gallery (Fig. 1): the viewer is able to embrace at once all the objects, geometrically organised in the cases that contain them. Smith’s nocturnal visit of the museum of Cairo, as he goes from the room dedicated to mummies, to the gallery displaying coffins before coming to the room showing ancient statues, similarly suggests the idea of an imperial Egypt12 that is perfectly controlled, organised and understood.

  • 13 This trope can be found, for instance, in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines as the characters observe (...)

14This mirrors the trope, common in imperial literature, which describes the characters standing in a high place and looking down at a landscape that seems to unfold like a map at their feet—a landscape that is already rationalised and circumscribed by western science.13 The all‑encompassing view of museums denotes the same imperial control over what the museum visitor is looking at. In Haggard’s text, we can find a parodic echo of this overlooking position when Smith decides to stand on a chair to get a better view of the mummy of Seti II. In the archaeological museum where Egyptian antiquities are subjected to the scientific gaze of the archaeologist, the correlation between looking and knowing, knowing and controlling, is posited as the epistemological framework.

  • 14 In those representations, a feminine and lascivious African continent is described as waiting to be (...)

15This archaeological gaze, however, also entails an aesthetising view that can turn the object of scientific study—and the mummy in particular—into an object of desire. Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather analyses how gendered representations of imperial dynamics allowed imperial literature to both glorify and justify colonisation as an amorous conquest as much as a military one.14 The same dynamics are at play within the archaeological museum where the scientific gaze of the male archaeologist can turn into an admiring look for the female mummy: the imperial domination of the object morphs into sexual possession. The shift from a scientific to a ‘romantic’ gaze can be seen in ‘Smith and the Pharaohs’ as the eponymous character is visiting the British Museum:

It must have been a great people, he thought to himself, that executed these works, and with the thought came a desire to know more about them. Yet he was going away when suddenly his eye fell on the sculptured head of a woman which hung upon the wall.
Smith looked at it once, twice, thrice, and at the third look he fell in love. (Haggard 1920, 11)

The British Museum the Egyptian Room with visitors. Wood engraving, 1847.

The British Museum the Egyptian Room with visitors. Wood engraving, 1847.

Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The British Museum: the Egyptian Room, with visitors. Wood engraving, 1847. 1847 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

  • 15 On the implications of the romantic or marriage trope in mummy fiction, see Nolwenn Corriou, ‘“A Wo (...)

16In this passage, the libido sciendi very soon gives way to the libido sentiendi as the desire for knowledge turns into sexual desire. This moment determines Smith’s career as an Egyptologist: shortly after, he becomes an expert on Ancient Egypt and travels to Cairo to try and discover the tomb of the woman he has fallen in love with at the British Museum. The love and desire of a male archaeologist for a female mummy is a common theme of mummy fiction15 and their ever-impossible marriage has been analysed by Bradley Deane as a metaphorical expression of the ambiguous position of Egypt within the British Empire. The desire of Britain to acquire Egypt through ‘marriage’ is, in mummy fiction, constantly thwarted by the resistance of the colonised mummy.

17In the microcosmic empire embodied by the museum, where scientific and sexual dynamics mirror imperial dynamics of domination, the scientific and objectifying gaze of the archaeologist contributes to the control of Egypt’s antique past—or attempt thereof. However, the dominating position of the scientist expressed through the trope of the gaze is often challenged when that gaze is returned by the object of study.

The Mummy’s Gaze

18The mummy’s gaze in fiction can be real, in the cases when the mummy actually comes back to life and is able to interact with the archaeologist who awakened her. Most of the time, however, the look returned by the Egyptian mummy remains imaginary as the characters project their own feelings onto the hollow sockets of the dead bodies. In either case, vision appears as a site of resistance, precisely because of the role played by vision in imperial domination.

19The first element that signals the artefacts’ resistance is the difficulty encountered by the fictional archaeologists to perceive them through sight. The failure to see something or to observe a scene properly is very common in the corpus considered. It is often accompanied by the difficulty to put into words what has been seen by the narrator. The description of Abel Trelawny’s bedroom in The Jewel of Seven Stars underlines this failure of vision:

The room and all in it gave grounds for strange thoughts. There were so many ancient relics that unconsciously one was taken back to strange lands and strange times. There were so many mummies or mummy objects, round which there seemed to cling for ever the penetrating odours of bitumen, and spices and gums—“Nard and Circassia’s balmy smells”—that one was unable to forget the past. Of course, there was but little light in the room, and that carefully shaded; so that there was no glare anywhere. None of that direct light which can manifest itself as a power or an entity, and so make for companionship. The room was a large one, and lofty in proportion to its size. In its vastness was place for a multitude of things not often found in a bedchamber. In far corners of the room were shadows of uncanny shape. More than once as I thought, the multitudinous presence of the dead and the past took such hold on me that I caught myself looking round fearfully as though some strange personality or influence was present. (Stoker 35, my emphasis)

  • 16 According to Macfarlane, in ʻHere Be Monsters: Imperialism, Knowledge and the Limits of Empireʼ, co (...)
  • 17 ʻThe Gothic imagination was therefore easily called upon to offer a set of defining principles when (...)

20While this passage appears at first sight to provide the reader with a descriptive list introduced by the anaphora ʻthere were/wasʼ, what prevails in fact is a sense of indistinctness dominated by the uncanny character of the place. The absence of light and the narrator’s limited knowledge of ancient Egypt, emphasised by the somewhat vague classification of the artefacts as ʻmummy objectsʼ, entails the dominance of other senses and olfaction in particular. In this case, the extreme precision of the narrator (ʻodours of bitumen, and spices and gumsʼ) contrasts with the hazy perception offered by sight (ʻshadows of uncanny shapeʼ). As vision fails to provide the knowledge expected,16 the characters yield to supernatural fears, focussing on what cannot be seen and is imagined to be lurking in the dark (ʻsome strange personality or influenceʼ). Similarly, in the final scene of the novel, the ʻGreat Experimentʼ meant to bring ʻsuch a flood of light from the Old Worldʼ (Stoker 200) is paradoxically defeated by the overwhelming darkness that invades the room as ʻa black smoke began to pour outʼ (Stoker 242). Blinded by the smoke, unable to turn on the electric light, the narrator Malcolm Ross, who labels himself ʻthe guardian of the lightʼ (Stoker 243), describes the movements he can dimly perceive while his olfactive sense is again saturated by the powerful scent of the smoke. This ʻocular resistance that interaction with the Egyptian artefact illuminatesʼ (Willis 147) echoes the experience of real-life archaeologists unable to grasp Egyptian artefacts through sight or language. Comparing Stoker’s novel to the writings of Flinders Petrie, Willis analyses how the visual and epistemological resistance of Egyptian antiquity paves the way to a Gothic representation, common in fiction as well as in travelogues.17 In mummy fiction, the resistance of artefacts—and particularly of the mummy—to vision defeats the belief in the scientific power of the human eye. By resisting visual appropriation, the Egyptological collections also resist imperial domination—a domination which is also questioned by the mummy’s own visual power as she opens her eyes.

21The fear awakened by mummy’s eyes is not limited to fiction. In The Mummy’s Curse, Roger Luckhurst relates different anecdotes which convey the uncanny effect of the eyes of seemingly living mummies. These examples demonstrate that the mummy’s curse is often mediated through its eyes. Thomas Douglas Murray, one of the owners of the mummy case nicknamed the Unlucky Mummy, describes the blood-curdling effect of the painted eyes:

As I looked into the carved face of the Priestess on the outside of the mummy case, her eyes seemed to come to life, and I saw such a look of hate in them that my very blood seemed to turn to ice. (quoted by Luckhurst 35)

  • 18 In The Days of My Life, Haggard relates an anecdote reported to him by Wallis Budge, about Arthur W (...)

22As the mummy case is passed on from terrified owner to terrified owner, all report the dreadful effects these eyes have on them, and sometimes the very concrete consequences they bring about.18

23The hatred that can be perceived in the mummy’s eyes can be read as a reaction to the guilt of those staring at the exhibit—a guilt explained by the transgression represented by archaeological research in the imperial context. The emergence of guilt appears most clearly in Haggard’s ʻSmith and the Pharaohsʼ as Smith wanders at night in the museum of Cairo and spends some time looking at the mummies:

He turned round and gazed at Meneptah, whose hollow eyes stared at him from between the wrappings carelessly thrown across the parchment-like and ashen face. There, probably, lay the countenance that had frowned on Moses. [. . .]
Smith stood upon a chair and peeped at Seti II above. His weaker countenance was very peaceful, but it seemed to wear an air of reproach. (Haggard 1920, 44)

  • 19 The use of the word ʻviolatedʼ is meaningful insofar as it brings to mind an analogy between the tr (...)
  • 20 Since this scene appears in a dream-like sequence whose reality is quite uncertain, it can be read (...)

24As his visit progresses, Smith becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the imagined eyes of the mummies as he starts picturing their responses to his presence and his actions. The anger he projects onto the mummies’ eyes reflects the guilt he feels at having ʻviolatedʼ (Haggard 1920, 31) the tomb of Queen Ma-Mee.19 The reason for this discontent is confirmed later on in the text as all the mummies awake and hold a meeting20 to discuss the situation of their tombs and bodies:

The matter that I wish to lay before you is that of the violation of our sepulchres by those men who now live upon the earth. The mortal bodies of many who are gathered here to-night lie in this place to be stared at and mocked by the curious. [. . .] Others have been burnt with fire, others are scattered in small dust. The ornaments that were ours are stole away and sold to the greedy; our sacred writings and our symbols are their jest. (Haggard 1920, 58–59)

  • 21 Although he was himself a staunch imperialist, Haggard expressed the same concerns in his autobiogr (...)

25What King Metesuphis takes issue with is the subjection of ancient bodies to the gaze of the curious as well as the quality of this gaze (ʻmockedʼ, ʻjestʼ). In the same tirade, he denounces the displacement of Egyptian bodies to foreign museums. By allowing the reader to see the treatment of ancient bodies through the eyes of the mummies themselves, Haggard gives a voice to an anti-imperialist stance that condemns the attitude of the British in Egypt and the appropriation of antique artefacts.21

  • 22 Freud quotes the reflection suggested by Ernst Jentsch who ʻsingles out, as an excellent case, “dou (...)

26Moreover, in the imperial context, the power imparted by the mere act of looking is reappropriated by the mummies as a way to invert power dynamics so that the Empire may be said to be striking back by looking back. The experience whereby the spectator becomes the spectacle and the subject becomes the object is one of the sources of the fantastic. It also contributes to the Gothic atmosphere of the tales insofar as the animation of supposedly inanimate objects is one of the elements, according to Freud, that can give rise to the Unheimlich (the uncanny).22

27In ʻSmith and the Pharaohsʼ, the museum visitor, locked at night inside the galleries, becomes the unwilling focus of the mummies’ attention in a reversal of their respective positions. This shift first appears as Smith is examining the various mummies: the panoramic vision typical of imperial literature vanishes as the Egyptologist considers each mummy in turn, spinning around to observe Meneptah and then Seti II. An ominous feeling emerges as Smith finds himself surrounded by the dead bodies ʻwho somehow looked quite different now from what they had ever done before—more real and imminent, so to speakʼ (Haggard 1920, 44). As the night progresses and Smith is only able to make out shadows, he appears deprived of the imperial power of sight. The complete reversal of the position of spectator and spectacle is achieved later in the novella as Smith wakes up in the museum to find dozens of royal mummies conversing and discussing their plight. Smith is first placed in the position of an object of scientific study as the eyes of the mummy of Khaemuas find him in his hiding place:

He became aware that the eyes of that dreadful magician were fixed upon him, and that a bone had a better chance of escaping the search of a Röntgen ray than he of hiding himself from their baleful glare. (Haggard 1920, 60)

28The mummy is here endowed with a modern scientific gaze, suggested by the comparison with the X-ray, which allows him to discover Smith in an inversion of the archaeological process whereby the Egyptologist discovers his objects of study. Immediately summoned by King Menes to explain his looting of the tomb of Queen Ma-Mee, Smith has to walk through the crowd, under the eye of the mummies:

[He] drew himself to his full height and walked on quietly. Here it may be stated that Smith was a tall man, still comparatively young, and very good-looking, straight and spare in frame, with dark, pleasant eyes and a little black beard.
‘At least he is a well-favoured thief’, said one of the queens to another. (Haggard 1920, 62)

29This flirtatious compliment marks the inversion of the dynamics which prevail inside the museum as Smith, not only becomes a subject of study for the ancient Egyptian monarchs but also an object of desire for the living dead queens. Following the condemnation of British archaeological practices by King Metesuphis, and considering the symbolic power of the gaze, the reproachful eyes the mummies set on Smith may be read as a first step towards empowerment from colonised mummies escaping the fetters of the imperial museum. By looking back, the mummies start fighting back against imperial rule—mostly by exposing what their opened eyes are given to see.

The Imperial Psyche on Display

  • 23 In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud uses a description of Rome to delineate his conception o (...)
  • 24 The works of Stoker and Haggard, for instance, are contemporary with Freud’s studies. However, noth (...)
  • 25 In Algernon Blackwood’s short story, ʻA Descent into Egyptʼ (1914), the return of ancient Egypt int (...)

30In the texts considered, the mummy’s eyes allow the British characters to see themselves as they are perceived by the object of their imperial desire. As such, the open eyes of the mummy serve to reveal to the characters concerned what was so far invisible to them: their own thoughts and feelings. The use of archaeology as a metaphor for the process of psychoanalysis is a well-known trope, proposed by Freud as he was developing his methods to bring to light the repressed thoughts or memories of his patients. In Freud’s theory, the mind is made up of various historical strata, corresponding to the psychical development of the individual.23 His work, as an archaeologist of the mind, is to excavate what is hidden under layers of consciousness to reveal what has been repressed throughout the history of the mind. In mummy fiction, archaeological processes can be similarly read as akin to psychoanalytical work.24 Thus, the difficult discovery of ancient artefacts and the eventful descent into hidden caves mirror the arduous access to repressed memories as well as the mind’s resistance to their revelation. In this perspective, the figure of the mummy that comes back to life may be read as a figure of the excavated subconscious, while the motif of the mummy’s curse suggests the devastating consequences of the return of a repressed that should have remained forever hidden.25 The acquisition of knowledge symbolised in the opening of the mummy’s eyes appears as the revelation of a hidden psyche which finds itself put on display alongside the ancient body within the space of the museum.

  • 26 On the instability of the British body in imperial Gothic fiction, see Karen Macfarlane, ʻHere Be M (...)

31The mummy’s eyes offer a threefold vision to the archaeologist. First, they act as a mirror revealing to the British characters that they may not be so different from the objects they have conquered and aim to master. This is suggested by the motif of reincarnation, which is extremely common in mummy fiction, allowing the modern characters to recognise themselves in the bodies they excavate or observe at the museum. In ʻSmith and the Pharaohsʼ, the instinctive attraction of Smith to the dead queen Ma-Mee is explained by the revelation that the British archaeologist is the reincarnation of Horu, a sculptor who wooed the Egyptian queen in bygone days. His encounter with revived mummies in the museum of Cairo appears therefore as a reunion with his forgotten contemporaries and fellow ancient Egyptians. In a darker declination of the mirror effect, The Jewel of Seven Stars presents the gradual conversion of the archaeologist into a mummy. The narrator, Malcolm Ross, first presents Abel Trelawny, lying unconscious after he has presumably been attacked by the mummy of queen Tera, by describing ʻthe stern, cold, set face, now as white as a marble monument in the pale grey lightʼ (Stoker 47). This simile is continued in a second description when Ross states that ʻthis purposeful, masterful man, lying before us wrapped in impenetrable sleep, had all the pathos of a great ruinʼ (Stoker 82). Moreover, Trelawny’s injured and bandaged wrist reinforces his resemblance to the monumental mummy who lies next to him in his bedroom. According to Willis, ʻby describing the Egyptologist as monument, ruin, and finally mummy, Stoker directs attention to the temporal history of Egyptological things, first living, then falling into ruin and finally deadʼ (Willis 150–51). The mirror effect observed by Ross emphasises the common identity of the ancient and the modern, the dead and the living, the exhibit and the archaeologist. Through this phenomenon of contamination, the archaeologist becomes part of his own collection and an object of visual fascination for the other characters who describe and analyse him in the same way as they describe and analyse the mummy lying next to him. This reveals the fragility of the British body and its position of power within the imperial museum.26

  • 27 This phrase is used by the narrator to describe the eyes of Margaret Trelawny, the daughter of the (...)

32Secondly, the eyes of the mummy can act as a ʻblack mirrorʼ (Stoker 28)27 reflecting the darkness of the British characters and their actions. As the plot of The Jewel of Seven Stars unfolds, the budding romance between the narrator Malcolm Ross and the archaeologist’s daughter, Margaret, is affected by the vision Margaret has of the behaviour of her male companions. As the mummy’s double, Margaret is able to convey the anger and disgust the silent queen is only able to express through her nocturnal bursts of violence. Considered from the point of view of Queen Tera, the exploitation and objectification of her body is akin to sexual violence. The final Great Experiment that is meant to bring her back to life and reveal all the mysteries of Egyptian science is seen, through the eyes of Margaret, as sexually loaded and she points out the indecency of the mummy unwrapping:

‘Father, you are not going to unswathe her! All you men. . .! And in the glare of light!’
‘But why not, my dear?’
‘Just think, Father, a woman! All alone! In such a way! In such a place! Oh! it’s cruel, cruel!’
She was manifestly much overcome. Her cheeks were flaming red, and her eyes were full of indignant tears. (Stoker 230)

  • 28 This scene is reminiscent of the symbolic collective rape of Lucy Westenra in Dracula when the powe (...)
  • 29 The necrophiliac desire of the characters is one more element that points to the criminal nature of (...)

33In this scene, the ʻindignantʼ mirror of Margaret’s eyes presents the other characters with a dark picture of what is originally presented as a scientific operation. The sexualisation of Tera’s body is made evident in the descriptions provided by the narrator and the collective excitement of the men involved in the experiment indicate that the unwrapping of a scientific object has become the undressing of an object of desire.28 In the case of Trelawny, this sexual violence is aggravated by the incestuous desire felt towards a mummy who is the exact look-alike of his daughter.29 The mirror of Margaret’s eyes offers a very black picture of a criminal enterprise led by perverted men.

34To a lesser extent, Smith in Haggard’s novella is also confronted to his own transgressions by looking at his actions through the eyes of the mummies. The ambiguous compliment that describes him as a ʻwell-favoured thiefʼ (Haggard 1920, 62) is immediately followed by a straightforward attack of his work as mere desecration:

‘I wonder that a man with such a noble air should find pleasure in disturbing graves and stealing the offerings of the dead’, words that gave Smith much cause for thought. He had never considered the matter in this light. (Haggard 1920, 62–63)

35The new ʻlightʼ shed on the situation by the mummies reveals that the grand imperial adventure of archaeology, when seen in the black mirror of the mummy’s eyes, is no more than looting and disrespectful treatment of an ancient culture—in short, a criminal endeavour that cannot be justified as science.

36Thirdly, what can also be read in the eyes of the mummy is a dark projection of the British archaeologist’s future—and perhaps of Britain as a whole. The mirror image that is delineated in the resemblance between the museum visitor or the archaeologist and the exhibited mummy, just like the leitmotif of reincarnation, suggests an identity between the two parties that supersedes their apparently radical otherness. As a consequence, the collapse and disappearance of ancient Egypt under the sands of time appears as a proleptic representation of the degeneration that awaits the imperial metropolis. Theorised by Max Nordau in Degeneration (1892), the idea of a pathological decadence affecting western society as a whole was gaining ground at the turn of the century, reinforced by the imperial discourse on the inferiority of non-white races that acted as a foil. The derogatory vision of modern Egyptians as dishonest, superstitious and cowardly which appears in both Stoker’s and Haggard’s texts points to the degeneration of Egyptian culture since Antiquity. The criminal behaviours of their protagonists can be read as clues that the British culture, considered by its proponents as the epitome of civilisation, may also be declining. The identical fate of the ancient Egyptian and the British civilisations is imagined by Haggard in his autobiographical writings as he laments the treatment of the remains of Egyptian monarchs:

Perhaps a day will come when Westminster Abbey and our other sacred burying-places will be ransacked in like manner, and the relics of our kings and great ones exposed in the museum of some race unknown of a different faith to ours. (Haggard 1926, vol. 1, 258)

37Haggard’s pessimistic prediction underlines the fragility of British supremacy. If the opening of the mummy’s eyes in Stoker’s and Haggard’s texts can appear as a sign of hope in the return of a long-dead civilisation, this motif serves for the most part the construction of a Gothic narrative presenting the return of an imperial repressed. What is put on display there is the fantasy of the decline and end of the British Empire through a reversal of power dynamics that haunts the collective psyche.

  • 30 See Stephen Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Stoker and Reverse Colonization’. Fictions of Loss in t (...)

38In mummy fiction, showcasing imperial bodies implies an exchange of looks from which the texts derive their Gothic character. The dominating, imperial, scientific gaze of the museum visitor that aims to subjugate the colonial body finds itself constantly challenged by an object turned subject and therefore capable of looking back. Through the mummy’s eyes are expressed many of the fears that haunted the British psyche at the turn of the century, from the degeneration of British civilisation to the decline of its Empire. The opening of the eyes of the mummy can be read as a sign of colonial empowerment considering the symbolic power of the gaze as a source of knowledge in nineteenth-century culture. As a consequence, as part of the imperial archive, the museum appears as a paradoxical space, meant to stage imperial domination by showcasing its objects, tamed and classified, while it also acts as a gateway for a reversal of power dynamics by blurring the distinction between subject and object, spectator and spectacle. This echoes the process Stephen Arata has described as ‘reverse colonization’ in his study of Dracula.30 Considering the way the vampire penetrates the British territory and body, he demonstrates how the monster takes his revenge by, in turn, colonising the metropolis. This analysis can also apply to The Jewel of Seven Stars and ‘Smith and the Pharaohs’ since, in both texts, ‘if fantasies of reverse colonization are products of the geopolitical fears of a troubled imperial society, they are also responses to cultural guilt. In the marauding, invasive Other, British culture sees its own imperial practices mirrored back in monstrous forms’ (Arata 108).

39The corpus of mummy fiction stages a significant shift from the purported showcasing of imperial looting to what is actually the display of collective Victorian and Edwardian anxieties. In the Gothic tales of Stoker, Haggard and others, British hegemony vanishes in the dark hollows of the mummy’s eyes, leaving only madness and death in its wake.

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Bibliographie

Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Black, Barbara J. On Exhibit: Victorians and their Museums. Charlottesville: Virginia UP, 2000.

Blackwood, Algernon. The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath. 1916. Maryland: Wildside Press, 2012.

Blackwood, Algernon. ‘A Descent into Egypt’. Incredible Adventures. New York: Hippocampus Press, 2004.

Brantlinger, Patrick. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1988.

Corriou, Nolwenn.‘“A Woman is a Woman, if She had been Dead Five Thousand Centuries!”: Mummy Fiction, Imperialism and the Politics of Gender’. Miranda 11 (2015). DOI : <10.4000/miranda.6899>

Corriou, Nolwenn. ‘“Birmingham Ware”: Ancient Egypt as an Orientalist Construct’. Journal of History and Cultures 10 (2019), 45–66.

Daly, Nicholas. ‘That Obscure Object of Desire: Victorian Commodity Culture and Fictions of the Mummy’. Novel: A Forum on Fiction 28.1 (1994): 24–51.

Deane, Bradley. ‘Mummy Fiction and the Occupation of Egypt: Imperial Striptease’. English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, 51.4 (2008): 381–410.

Everett, H. D. (Theo. Douglas). Iras: A Mystery. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1896.

Fagan, Brian M. The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1975.

Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. London: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Haggard, Henry Rider. King Solomon’s Mines. 1885. London: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Haggard, Henry Rider. ‘Smith and the Pharaohs’. 1913. Smith and the Pharaohs and Other Stories. London: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1920.

Haggard, Henry Rider. The Days of my Life. Vol. 1 & 2. London: Longmans, 1926.

Luckhurst, Roger. The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy. Oxford: OUP, 2012.

Macfarlane, Karen. ʻHere Be Monsters: Imperialism, Knowledge and the Limits of Empireʼ. Text Matters, A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture 6.6 (2016): 74–95.

Nordau, Max. Degeneration. New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1895.

Ossian, Clair. ‘The Egyptian Court of London’s Crystal Palace’. KMT, A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 18.3 (2007): 64–73.

Richards, Thomas. The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire. London: Verso, 1993.

Schiebinger, Londa. ‘Forum Introduction: The European Colonial Science Complex’. Isis 96.1 (2005): 52–55.

Stoker, Bram. The Jewel of Seven Stars. 1903 (1912). London: Penguin Classics, 2008.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Introduction à la littérature fantastique. Paris: Seuil, 1970.

Wakeling, T. G. Forged Egyptian Antiquities. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1912.

Willis, Martin. Vision, Science and Literature, 1870–1920: Ocular Horizons. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011.

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Notes

1 The Egyptian Court was not the replica of a particular monument but a collection of fragments from landmark places such as the façades of the temple in Abu Simbel or the Hall of Karnac. See Ossian, Clair. ‘The Egyptian Court of London’s Crystal Palace’. KMT, A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt 18.3 (2007).

2 Brian M. Fagan describes how the French archaeologist Auguste Mariette ‘devoted much of his life to watching over the increasing numbers of scholars and tourists who flocked to the Nile’ (Fagan 324).

3 In fiction too, forged objects became a leitmotif, often meant to mock enthusiastic antiquarians with a limited knowledge of their subject. See Corriou, Nolwenn. ‘“Birmingham Ware”: Ancient Egypt as an Orientalist Construct’. Journal of History and Cultures 10 (2019): 45–66.

4 In the early nineteenth century and up to the 1860s, ancient Egypt was appropriated as imperial loot and became part of what Londa Schiebinger describes as the European Colonial Science Complex. Londa Schiebinger, ‘Forum Introduction: The European Colonial Science Complex’. Isis 96.1 (2005): 52–55.

5 This is what Bradley Deane contends in ‘Mummy Fiction and the Occupation of Egypt: Imperial Striptease’ by analysing the (failed) love stories between a female mummy and a male archaeologist common to mummy fiction as an expression of the constantly frustrated desire of Britain to ‘marry’ Egypt and make it a part of its Empire.

6 Mummy fiction is linked to the genre described by Patrick Brantlinger as imperial Gothic insofar as it focusses on the same central motifs identified by Brantlinger: ‘the three principal themes of imperial Gothic are individual regression or going native; an invasion of civilization by the forces of barbarism or demonism; and the diminution of opportunities for adventure and heroism in the modern world’ (Brantlinger 230).

7 The now hackneyed motif of the curse of the mummy, as a consequence of the imperial context in which mummy fiction appeared, relates to the fear of a reversal of power structures whereby the Empire would take revenge on the archaeologist or coloniser to punish his transgression against Egypt and its antique past.

8 As defined by Todorov in his Introduction à la littérature fantastique to describe the hesitation felt by the reader between a rational explanation to an apparently supernatural event and the recognition that the fictional universe obeys supernatural rules.

9 In the novel Iras: A Mystery (1896), by H. D. Everett, the archaeologist Ralph Lavenham goes as far as giving his own name to his mummy when he marries her, having first chosen a maiden name for her—Iras Charmian, the names of Cleopatra’s two maids—in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

10 Such an example of the reconstructive view can be found in Smith and the Pharaohs’ as Smith observes the site of Queen Ma-Mee’s tomb and is able to picture her funeral procession: ‘Once, thousands of years ago, a procession had wound up along the roadway which was doubtless buried beneath the sand whereon he stood towards the dark door of this sepulchre. He could see it as it passed in and out between the rocks’ (Haggard 1920, 21, my emphasis).

11 This representation relies as much on what was found on excavation sites as on narratives such as The Arabian Nights appropriated and colonised’ by British culture much before the ‘Orient’ is actually seen by the traveller. As such, what is discovered in Egypt can come to be seen as an illustration of a preconceived representation, ‘a material example of an already-known “phantasy” of Egypt’s past’ (Willis 127).

12 The encounter between the French director of the museum and Smith, a British archaeologist, demonstrates that Egypt’s past is entirely under European rule.

13 This trope can be found, for instance, in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines as the characters observe the landscape they are about to explore from the top of a hill: The landscape lay before us like a map, in which rivers flashed like silver snakes, and Alp-like peaks crowned with wildly twisted snow wreaths rose in solemn grandeur, whilst over all was the glad sunlight and the breath of Nature’s happy life’ (Haggard 2007, 80, my emphasis).

14 In those representations, a feminine and lascivious African continent is described as waiting to be conquered by a manly Western coloniser.

15 On the implications of the romantic or marriage trope in mummy fiction, see Nolwenn Corriou, ‘“A Woman is a Woman, if She had been Dead Five Thousand Centuries!”: Mummy Fiction, Imperialism and the Politics of Gender’. Miranda 11 (2015).

16 According to Macfarlane, in ʻHere Be Monsters: Imperialism, Knowledge and the Limits of Empireʼ, complete and accurate knowledge is also challenged by the ʻrepresentations of fractured, incomplete or dismembered collectionsʼ (Macfarlane 82). The mummy of Queen Tera in Stoker’s novel, with its amputated hand, is one example of an incomplete body that resists knowledge by presenting a fragmented view.

17 ʻThe Gothic imagination was therefore easily called upon to offer a set of defining principles whenever the viewer was unsettled by a scene or object that was unfamiliar or unknowableʼ (Willis 158).

18 In The Days of My Life, Haggard relates an anecdote reported to him by Wallis Budge, about Arthur Wheeler, the first owner of the case: ʻThere is an evil spirit in it which appears in its eyes. It was brought home by a friend of mine who was travelling with Douglas Murray, and he lost all his money when a bank in China broke, and his daughter died. I took the board into my house. The eyes frightened my daughter into a sickness. I moved it to another room, and it threw down a china cabinet and smashed a lot of Sèvres china in itʼ (Haggard 1926, vol. 2, 32). The Unlucky Mummy reportedly went on to sink the Titanic so that its first misdeeds do not seem so dramatic in retrospect!

19 The use of the word ʻviolatedʼ is meaningful insofar as it brings to mind an analogy between the transgression represented by the opening and looting of the tomb and a sexual violence that can be read in the forceful appropriation of ancient bodies.

20 Since this scene appears in a dream-like sequence whose reality is quite uncertain, it can be read as a projection of Smith’s unspoken feelings of guilt, this time within the space of the dream.

21 Although he was himself a staunch imperialist, Haggard expressed the same concerns in his autobiography, The Days of My Life, when he ponders pitifully on the fate of those ʻpoor kings! who dreamed not of the glass cases of the Cairo Museum, and the gibes of tourists who find the awful majesty of their withered brows a matter for jest and smilesʼ (Haggard 1926, vol. 1, 257).

22 Freud quotes the reflection suggested by Ernst Jentsch who ʻsingles out, as an excellent case, “doubt as to whether an apparently inanimate object really is alive and, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not perhaps be animate”. In this connection he refers to the impressions made on use by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automataʼ (Freud 135).

23 In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud uses a description of Rome to delineate his conception of the mind, showing how the ruins of the old city coexist with the new buildings which have partly covered them. The ruins of ancient buildings discovered by archaeologists stand for the traces left in the mind by repressed contents that never disappear entirely and can be reconstructed through the work of psychoanalysis.

24 The works of Stoker and Haggard, for instance, are contemporary with Freud’s studies. However, nothing indicates a deliberate use of archaeology as a metaphor for psychical processes in their fiction. On the contrary, Algernon Blackwood explicitly frames his Egyptian novel, The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath (1916), as a narrativisation of Freud’s theory of the layered mind.

25 In Algernon Blackwood’s short story, ʻA Descent into Egyptʼ (1914), the return of ancient Egypt into the present of the character of George Isley eventually leads to his annihilation.

26 On the instability of the British body in imperial Gothic fiction, see Karen Macfarlane, ʻHere Be Monsters: Imperialism, Knowledge and the Limits of Empireʼ. She analyses how ʻthe transformation of the English body challenges narratives of racial purity and the “natural” right of English ruleʼ (Macfarlane 90).

27 This phrase is used by the narrator to describe the eyes of Margaret Trelawny, the daughter of the archaeologist who also happens to be the double of the Egyptian queen whose mummy adorns her father’s bedroom. As the novel progresses, Margaret also turns out to be a receptacle for the mummy’s soul so that her eyes and what they express can express Queen Tera’s feelings as Margaret gradually loses her own voice to convey Tera’s thoughts and desires.

28 This scene is reminiscent of the symbolic collective rape of Lucy Westenra in Dracula when the powerless female vampire is pierced by a phallic stake in an explicitly sexual scene.

29 The necrophiliac desire of the characters is one more element that points to the criminal nature of the men who examine Tera.

30 See Stephen Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Stoker and Reverse Colonization’. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

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Table des illustrations

Titre The British Museum the Egyptian Room with visitors. Wood engraving, 1847.
Crédits Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The British Museum: the Egyptian Room, with visitors. Wood engraving, 1847. 1847 Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
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Référence électronique

Nolwenn Corriou, « The Egyptian Museum in Fiction: The Mummy’s Eyes as the ‘Black Mirror’ of the Empire »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 93 Printemps | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2021, consulté le 24 juillet 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/8779 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cve.8779

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Auteur

Nolwenn Corriou

Nolwenn Corriou works at University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Her doctoral thesis entitled The Return of the Mummy: from Imperial Gothic to Archaeological Fiction in British Literature (1885–1937) explores the representation of archaeology and the reception of Egyptian antiquity at the turn of the nineteenth century, focussing particular on the figure of the mummy. She has published several articles dealing with mummy fiction and the representation of the mummy in films.
Nolwenn Corriou est PRAG à l’université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Sa thèse de doctorat intitulée Le retour de la momie : du gothique impérial au roman archéologique britannique (1885-1937) examine la représentation de l’archéologie et la réception de l’antiquité égyptienne au tournant du xixe siècle, en se penchant plus particulièrement sur la figure de la momie. Elle a publié plusieurs articles portant sur la mummy fiction et la représentation de la momie au cinéma.

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