Once Frankenstein’s creature awakes, can the Mummy be far behind?
Come to a Literary Treasures presentation on Friday October 26 at 7 PM at the Toronto Reference Library in the Discussion Room (on the 3rd Floor) by Steven B. Shubert, The Monster Awakes: The Mummy in 19th century Fiction
It was two hundred years ago that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley) published her masterpiece of gothic horror entitled Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818). In describing the creature animated by Victor Frankenstein, Shelley noted that “a mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch.” This phrase is possibly the spark that ignited the flame of mummy fiction in the nineteenth century.
The first novel in English featuring a mummy is by Jane Webb (later Loudon), entitled The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827). In many ways this work served to counter the philosophical and social slant of Shelley’s work. Set in 2126, Webb’s tale is a work of science fiction where the mummy of the Pharaoh Cheops is reanimated and serves to sort out the political and romantic problems in a 22nd century England ruled by a virgin queen. Women have abandoned stays and corsets to dress in trousers instead! Moreover, the ancient king clearly acts according to modern moral and ethical standards.
A number of well-known 19th century authors contributed to the mummy fiction genre. Examples include Théophile Gautier, Edgar Allan Poe, and Louisa May Alcott.
Théophile Gautier wrote the archetypal mummy romance, translated into English as “The Mummy’s Foot” (1840). Once the titular foot is re-united with its owner, the Princess Hermonthis, the narrator is denied her hand in marriage due to the disparity in their ages: 27 years vs. 30 centuries (“if you were only even two thousand years old …”).
Edgar Allan Poe is credited with the first American short story about a mummy, “Some Words with a Mummy” (1845). The story revolves around a mummy unwrapping party; the unwrapped mummy, named “Allamistakeo,” is not only critical of the removal of his coffins and clothes, but also of the “mistakes” of western civilization, such as mesmerism, phrenology, patent medicines and the “great movement of progress.” In the end, the narrator declares he is tired of 19th century life and would like to “be embalmed for a couple of hundred years.”
One of the earliest mentions of the mummy’s curse is the story by Louisa May Alcott entitled “Lost in a Pyramid, or, The Mummy’s Curse” (1869). Two men go to Egypt “to explore the Cheops.” Lost in the pyramid, they burnt first a coffin, then their outer garments, and finally a mummy to attract the attention of a rescue party. They emerge with a gold box containing a parchment detailing the curse and some scarlet seeds. Although thrown in to the fire to destroy them, two seeds are found fallen on the floor. They are planted and the resulting white flowers bring forth madness and death.
Such Gothic mummy fiction, evoking the revenge of the ancients for the desecration of their tombs and burials as well as the horror of being buried alive, continued throughout the 19th century. Its impetus derived from a flourishing trade in mummies (and mummy parts) and in the popularity of mummy unwrapping events. There is no evidence to suggest that the ancient Egyptians had ever even considered the possibility of re-animating mummies in this lifetime.