Ancient Egypt in the aesthetic and decadent imaginary
This chapter turns to ancient Egypt in the literature of the aesthetic and decadent movements, exploring how this differs from the so-called classical ‘ideal’ of Greece and Rome. Beginning with Baudelaire’s influential use of ancient Egypt in the ‘Spleen’ poems of Les Fleurs du mal (1857), it locates three interrelated, but also competing and seemingly contradictory, discursive deployments of ancient Egypt in literature of the period: firstly, in an argument derived from Hegel’s Aesthetics (1818–29), Egypt as ‘Symbolic’ mystery, whose art is underdeveloped by comparison to the ‘Classical Ideal’, waiting for the day of the ‘Greek spirit … with its power of speech’; secondly, Egypt as a site of ennui, where the ‘symbolic’ dimensions are linked intrinsically to a melancholic decadence and to death; and thirdly, Egypt as exoticism, and Orientalist sensuality, linking also to the significance of contemporary fin-de-siècle Egypt in homosexual culture. This chapter examines Walter Pater’s essay on ‘Winckelmann’ from The Renaissance (1873), and Oscar Wilde’s poem The Sphinx (1894) amongst other materials to argue that ancient Egypt was a marginal but nevertheless significant subject for the aesthetes and decadents.
This chapter addresses the ancient Egyptian dimensions of George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859). Using Eliot’s opening lines likening authorship to Egyptian sorcery as a springboard, this chapter argues for the continued significance of this reference throughout Adam Bede, demonstrating an interconnectedness between established Christian motifs and ancient Egyptian religion and mythology. In addition to the Wesleyan Methodist aspects of the novel, this chapter demonstrates a discernible recreation of the biblical Genesis story running throughout the text, combined with tangible references to ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses. This analysis is contextualised through references to other works on ancient Egypt that likely influenced Eliot, including Edward William Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), his translations of The Thousand and One Nights (1838–40), and Charles Knight’s The Pictorial Bible (1836–38). Overall, this chapter places Eliot’s first novel within its contemporary Egyptological culture and, in doing so, proposes that Adam Bede retells the biblical story of Adam and Eve with a distinctly ancient Egyptian inflection.
This chapter focuses on a British illustration for Edgar Allan Poe’s satirical short story ‘Some Words with a Mummy’ (1845), which was published posthumously in an anthology of his works in 1852. This illustration is the earliest known visual depiction of a revived Egyptian mummy, a character that later became an archetypal figure in Victorian literature. This chapter situates the unknown artist’s vision of the fictional mummy Allamistakeo within the history of visual and literary depictions of mummies and the sociopolitical discourses they articulated, comparing the illustrator’s engagement within contemporary debates with those suggested by Poe’s text. While Poe does not assign a racial identity to Allamistakeo, the illustrator gives the mummy an African appearance, evoking scientific disputes about the racial origins of the ancient Egyptians. In bringing to light this illustration and analysing it as part of the wider corpus of mummy literature as well as the racial debates that this body of literature responded to and furthered, this chapter demonstrates that both Poe and his illustrator invited contemporary readers to question commonly held racial stereotypes and European imperialist ideology.
This chapter considers Bram Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903) within the broader context of archaeological fiction, a genre that is characterised by detailed description of artefacts and strategic citation of authorities. Stoker’s credibility as a novice Egyptologist is suggested through his setting of an ancient Egyptian tomb in the Valley of the Sorcerer, an obvious parallel to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens, and his apparent basing of his fictional Queen Tera on the real pharaoh Hatshepsut. Equally significant, this chapter demonstrates, is his synthesis of the Egyptological writings of E. A. Wallis Budge, Flinders Petrie and Amelia Edwards into his depiction of the journey to the ‘beyond’. Stoker, as this chapter shows, relies on a wealth of academic writing to weave his fiction; the role of the narrator is to peruse relevant archaeological studies and scrutinise symbolically charged artefacts, becoming the intermediary who functions not only as a conduit between the ancient past and the modern present, but also the fictional world that Stoker creates and the real world from which he gleans a substantial quantity of Egyptological detail.
The introduction to this volume teases out the nuances of the ways in which nineteenth-century notions of taste, gender, religion and empire were shifting across the century, via references to ancient Egypt. It ascertains how the chapters that make up this book provide new readings of canonical authors and texts, and introduce a wealth of new material into a burgeoning critical debate, relating pertinent arguments that emerge in individual chapters to each other to provide a critical framework with which the reader might understand the collection as a whole. It also emphasises how, as the first multi-authored study of ancient Egypt in literary culture, the chapters of the volume collectively suggest that nineteenth-century cultural fascination with ancient Egypt is far more widespread than previously realised.
This chapter considers ancient Egypt’s decadent associations at the fin de siècle, considering how the iconography of elite goods trickled down into mass consumer culture, taking Guy Boothby’s thriller Pharos the Egyptian (1898; 1899) as its starting point. The titular Pharos produces his own cigarettes and perfumes, which heighten sensations and lead to visions during states of semi-consciousness. Negotiating, on the one hand, decadent circles and the associated culture of recreational drug use at the fin de siècle, and on the other, advertising for mass-market products drawing upon ancient Egypt’s increasing attraction, this chapter identifies how Boothby uses cigarettes and perfume in Pharos the Egyptian to navigate the boundaries between the high- and middlebrow. It also incorporates discussion of the materiality of Boothby’s volume itself. Originally published in instalments in the Windsor Magazine in 1898, Boothby’s text was reissued as a novel in 1899. This chapter also argues that, as with cigarettes and perfume whose advertising displayed such imagery, Boothby’s novel becomes itself an object that is part of a broader material culture.
A typological reading of H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra
This chapter examines how the Victorians sought to understand and redefine Christianity by examining its relationship and connectedness to ancient Egyptian religion and vice versa. Specifically, it presents a typological reading of H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra (1889) informed by his posthumously published autobiography The Days of my Life (1926), arguing that the novel is both a microcosm of shifting Victorian attitudes towards Christianity and representative of Haggard’s personal struggle with traditional Protestantism. Haggard capitalised upon the sensationalist discourse that surrounded Egypt and used a loose, typological structure within Cleopatra to present a complex, imaginative dialogue on religion in the nineteenth century as well as explore his own personal doubts surrounding the Christian faith. In Cleopatra, this chapter demonstrates, Haggard establishes that what passed long ago in Egypt still resonates with, and could possibly alter, preconceived assumptions regarding faith and humanity in nineteenth-century England. The inherent tensions produced by Haggard’s own fluctuating faith are reflective of a society keen to define its faith in the face of advancing scientific and archaeological discoveries.
This chapter examines the ways in which nineteenth-century writers and artists remembered the biblical tale of the wife of Potiphar, who attempted to seduce her husband’s enslaved advisor, Joseph. Potiphar’s wife was recalled throughout Western history as a prototype for immoral, aggressive female sexuality. Her profuse reappearances in Victorian writing and art, though, encouraged by the development of Egyptology and the rise of archaeological fantasy, complicate her character and her narrative. This chapter details the resurgence of Potiphar’s wife across a range of early and mid-Victorian texts, including Charles Wells’s verse drama Joseph and his Brethren (1823), the discussions surrounding Wells’s work by Pre-Raphaelites and Algernon Charles Swinburne in the 1870s and an edited poetry collection by Louisa Stuart Costello (1845). These writers and artists move beyond the biblical temptress to discuss the idea of a complex, sexually aware female character and to theorise the connections between the sexualised body and experimental aesthetic form. Mrs Potiphar’s mid-Victorian revival, this chapter demonstrates, propels the move towards considering ancient Egyptian femininity for models of modern female subjectivity and experimental art that would become more fully realised at the end of the century.
Nineteenth-century stage Cleopatras and Victorian views of ancient Egypt
This chapter considers how theatrical productions of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra from the mid to late nineteenth century shaped Victorian views about ancient Egypt, suggesting that such productions were received by audiences as emblematic of Britain’s shaky imperial position. Turning to audience responses and charting the development of the stage Cleopatra from a ‘majestic Juno’ to a ‘demonic Venus’ via performances by Isabella Glyn (1849, 1855, 1867), Ellin Wallis (1873), Sarah Bernhardt (1890) and Lily Langtry (1890), this chapter examines how such imperial anxieties are expressed in relation to views about both English and Egyptian women. Re-examining passages from Shakespeare’s play in which Cleopatra is referred to as a ‘whore’ whose ‘lust’ for Antony can only mean destruction for Egypt and Rome in light of the cultural context surrounding nineteenth-century productions, further illuminates how reviewers saw the play as bound not only to Victorian assumptions about women’s sexuality but to deep-rooted anxieties about Britain’s relationship with Egypt itself.
This book considers ancient Egypt and its relics as depicted in literature across the Victorian era, addressing themes such as reanimated mummies and ancient Egyptian mythology, as well as contemporary consumer culture across a range of literary modes, from literary realism to Gothic fiction, from burlesque satire to historical novels, and from popular culture to the elite productions of the aesthetes and decadents. In doing so, it is the first multi-authored study to scrutinise ancient Egypt in nineteenth-century literature, bringing together a variety of literary methodologies to probe ancient Egypt’s complex connotations across this era. This collection scrutinises and illuminates the ways in which ancient Egypt was harnessed to question notions of race, imperialism, religion, gender, sexuality and the fluidity of literary genre. Collectively, the chapters demonstrate the pervasiveness of contemporary interest in ancient Egypt through the consideration of narratives and authors held as canonical in the nineteenth century, bringing these into conversation with new sources brought to light by the authors of these chapters. Discussing the works of major figures in nineteenth-century culture including Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, George Eliot, H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde, this collection extends beyond British writing, to European and American literature. It weaves discussions of understudied figures – such as Charles Wells, Louisa Stuart Costello and Guy Boothby – into this analysis. Overall, it establishes the richness of a literary culture developing across the century often held to have ‘birthed’ the discipline of Egyptology, the scholarly means by which we might comprehend ancient Egyptian culture.