Narrating Ancient Egypt

The Representation of Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century and Early-Twentieth-Century Fantastic Fiction

by Maria Fleischhack (Author)
©2015 Thesis 290 Pages


Ancient and modern Egypt feature in numerous fantastic stories by Victorian and Edwardian writers. This book explores how works of popular Egyptianising fantastic literature can be read as critical texts which comment on the Oriental mind-set of Europe, and especially Britain. The analysis of the genre and the discussion of possible reasons for the frequent use of Egyptianising elements show that Egypt was simultaneously a real and an imagined place – a perfect ingredient to create gothic stories and magical events, and, at the same time, of specific interest to Great Britain for cultural and political reasons.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Abbreviations
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Creating Egypt in Victorian and Edwardian Fantastic Fiction
  • 2.1 First and Second-Hand Experience with Ancient Egypt
  • 2.1.1 The Role of the British Museum in Shaping the Perception of Ancient Egypt
  • 2.2 Egypt as the Other
  • 2.2.1 Qualities and Grades of Otherness
  • 2.2.2 Perceptual and Discursive Imperialism
  • 3. Representative Egyptianising Texts
  • 3.1 Jane Loudon Webb’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827)
  • 3.2 Edgar Allan Poe’s “Some Words With a Mummy” (1845)
  • 3.3 Louisa May Alcott’s “Lost in a Pyramid, or the Mummy’s Curse” (1869)
  • 3.4 Grant Allen’s “My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies” (1878)
  • 3.5 Rider Haggard’s She (1887)
  • 3.6 Two Fairy Tales by Oscar Wilde (1888 and 1891)
  • 3.6.1 “The Happy Prince” (1888)
  • 3.6.2 Oscar Wilde‘s “The Young King” (1891)
  • 3.7 Two Egyptianising Short Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle (1890 and 1892)
  • 3.7.1 “The Ring of Thoth” (1890)
  • 3.7.2 “Lot No. 249” (1892)
  • 3.8 Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1896)
  • 3.9 Richard Marsh’s The Beetle – Strange Currencies (1897)
  • 3.10 E. and H. Heron’s “The Story of Baelbrow” (1899)
  • 3.11 Guy Boothby’s “A Professor of Egyptology” (1904)
  • 3.12 Cutcliffe Wright Hyne’s “The Mummy of Thompson-Pratt” (1904)
  • 3.13 Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet (1906)
  • 3.14 Rider Haggard’s “Smith and the Pharaohs” (1912)
  • 3.15 Three Short Stories by Algernon Blackwood (1908, 1912 and 1914)
  • 3.15.1 Algernon Blackwood’s “The Nemesis of Fire” (1908)
  • 3.15.2 Algernon Blackwood’s “Sand” (1912)
  • 3.15.3 Algernon Blackwood’s “A Descent into Egypt” (1914)
  • 3.16 Closing Remarks
  • 4. Loudon’s The Mummy! – The Creation of a Genre
  • 4.1 Political and Social Commentary in The Mummy!
  • 4.2 Ancient and Modern Egypt in the Public Awareness in the 1820s and in The Mummy!
  • 4.2.1 Cheops and Loudon’s Egypt
  • 4.2.2 Stereotyping the Arab
  • 4.3 Secrets Unveiled
  • 4.4 Giovanni Belzoni’s Influence on The Mummy! and other Egyptianising Fantastic Fiction
  • 4.5 The Mummy as the Monstrous Other and the Civilised Self
  • 4.6 The Quest for Redemption
  • 4.7 Criticism From an Outside Perspective
  • 5. Major Themes in Nineteenth-Century and Early-Twentieth-Century Egyptianising Fantastic Fiction
  • 5.1 Language and Intercultural Communication
  • 5.2 Body Transformations in Egyptianising Texts
  • 5.3 Vampiric Qualities of Ancient Egyptian Characters
  • 5.4 Sleep and Dreams in Egyptianising Fantastic Fiction
  • 5.5 Magic, Magical Objects and Secret Knowledge
  • 6. The Appropriation of Ancient Egypt by the West
  • 6.1 Theosophy, Freemasons and Secret Orders
  • 6.2 Linking Ancient Egypt to Britain – Pyramidology
  • 7. Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • List of Illustrations


This book could not have been written without the support and inspiration of friends, family and colleagues to whom I am deeply indebted. I want to express my gratitude to Elmar Schenkel. His advice and his love for literature and research is infectious, and he has taught me to see the world from different perspectives and to find inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. He has opened so many doors for me. Second of all, I want to thank Richard Parkinson, who was not only incredibly supportive and helpful right from the beginning, but who has shown such enthusiasm for my project and helped me build a bridge between Egyptology and English Literary Studies.

I want to thank my teachers and colleagues, who have believed in me and taught me so much. Jürgen Ronthaler, for his never-ending support in all my endeavours; Peter Tosic, who taught me much more than just how to write; Alexandra Lembert, who has had my back from the beginning; and Stefanie Jung, for everything.

I am extremely grateful to those who gave me constructive feedback on my project throughout the process of writing – especially Ricarda Schultchen, Julia Pfeifer, Christine Sperle, Martin Montague and Richard Heck. Special thanks to Lucy Oldfield, who inspired me to write.

I would also like to express my gratitude to the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes, the University of Leipzig, The Bibliotheca Albertina, The British Museum and The British Library for their financial and academic support.

I want to thank my family and friends for their eternal patience. I am sorry I have been absent so often. I am entirely grateful for everything you have done for me and for letting me live my dream. To my friends, near and far, who took my mind off work, who travelled with me, who were creative with me, who made me coffee. All of you are part of this.

Last but not least I want to thank The Baker Street Babes, who are my sisters in crime. ← 11 | 12 →

← 12 | 13 →


Primary Texts

“ADiE”“A Descent into Egypt”
BNWBrave New World
JoSSThe Jewel of Seven Stars
KSMKing Solomon’s Mines
“LiaP”“Lost in a Pyramid – A Mummy’s Curse”
“MNYE”“My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies”
“RoT”“The Ring of Thoth”
“SatP”“Smith and the Pharaohs”
SoAThe Story of the Amulet
“SWWaM”“Some Words With a Mummy”
“THP”“The Happy Prince”
“TMoTP”“The Mummy of Thompson-Pratt”
TMWwTThe Man Who was Thursday
“TNoF”“The Nemesis of Fire”
“TSoB”“The Story of Baelbrow”
“TYK”“The Young King”

Secondary Texts

OEoAEThe Oxford Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt
RoDRule of Darkness
TRLThe Reading Lesson
VLVictorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies ← 13 | 14 →

← 14 | 15 →

1. Introduction

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ (Shelley “Ozymandias”)

When Hosni Mubarak stepped down from his presidency on February 11, 2011, his defeat became known as ‘the fall of modern pharaoh’.1 The pharaoh as a symbol of power in connection with Egypt is obvious and universally understood. However, while the term “pharaoh” signifies great power, and the “fall” represents the loss of this power, the reference to the ancient tradition of pharaohs ruthlessly ruling Egypt simultaneously criticizes the regime and characterises it as antiquated. The notion of comparing a modern leader with a historical institution reflects nostalgia – a longing for the past and the need to connect and contextualise topical with historical events.

Today, ancient Egypt is viewed as a former great empire with a highly developed culture, which has long ceased to exist and whose concepts are outdated and yet intriguing. This concept of ancient Egypt was of special concern for Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. While ancient Rome and Greece had shown great interest in ancient Egypt and incorporated numerous of Egypt’s deities and cultural concepts into their own culture, this fascination lessened throughout the following centuries. The crusades rekindled European interest in Egypt – an interest which was of a political nature (cf. Asbridge 265; Hornung Das Geheime Wissen 89). A renewed European fascination with ancient Egypt developed after the Napoleonic Campaign of 1798, Nelson’s victory over the French army, and the subsequent influx of Egyptian art and architecture to Europe. Egypt was one of the most important strategic locations, granting access to the Dark Continent. Both the military aspect of controlling Egypt and the scholarly interest in the art and architecture of the ancient Egyptians were important catalysts for the increasing European fascination with Egypt.

With the publication of Dominique-Vivant Baron Denon’s Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt (1803), the Description de l’Égypte2 (1809–1829) and the ← 15 | 16 → numerous Egyptian objects which were shipped to England as war booty and which found their way into private collections and museums offered Europeans immediate contact with the ancient culture. The deciphering of the hieroglyphs by Jean François Champollion in 1822 finally gave way to a century of European and American Egyptomania.3 The term ‘Egyptomania’ can be roughly defined as the recurring interest in ancient Egypt, its art, architecture, culture and religion. It is reflected in the increasing number of Egyptian objects in collections and exhibitions, in the development of Egyptology as a field of study, in “Egyptianising”4 architecture of both buildings and graveyards, the creation of diverse Egyptianising commodities such as tableware, furniture, and jewellery. The prominence of Egypt in Western and particularly in British culture is also reflected in literature. Egypt, both ancient and modern, features in numerous fantastic5 stories of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The frequency of Egyptianising elements is striking enough to justify a closer look and analysis of the genre and to discuss the possible reasons for the extensive use and purpose of ancient Egypt in the writings of the time. This book explores why Egypt features so prominently in fantastic literature during that period and in how far works of Egyptianising fantastic literature can be read as critical texts which comment on the Orientalist mind-set of Europe, and especially Britain. Furthermore, this work will discuss the essential aspects of imperial self-esteem and politics as well as the historical developments which led to great changes during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This book aims to show how the image of an ancient culture was shaped not only by science, archaeology and historical research, but also by contemporary media, subjective travel reports, and imagination in a ← 16 | 17 → society with a general Orientalist mind-set. English nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century fiction was chiefly concerned with the Empire, and especially the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign and the early twentieth century saw an increase in the publication of imperial literature. Archaeological discoveries and the first translations of Egyptian texts offered the world a glimpse into a past which had been considered lost or had been entirely unknown. While ancient Egypt had occasionally appeared in literature throughout the centuries preceding the nineteenth, the number of fictional and nonfictional texts and treatises featuring Egypt was rather small. William Shakespeare’s Egyptian tragedy Anthony and Cleopatra was most certainly inspired by Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s οἱ βίοι παράλληλο (English: “Parallel Lives”, commonly referred to as Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans).6 Plutarch (approximately 45–125 CE), together with Herodotus (fifth century BCE) and Diodorus Siculus (first century BCE), was considered to be one of the most reliable sources concerning ancient Egypt until the translation of Egyptian texts and the development of Egyptology finally offered new insights into ancient Egypt.7 Due to these often embellished and awe-inspiring narratives on ancient Egypt by the classical authors Egypt was commonly regarded as a mystical and strange place (cf. Moser 193). This mysticism and ambiguous image of ancient Egypt was aided by the sparse factual knowledge about the ancient culture and the vivid imagination of travellers and those who read these travel reports, in addition to the often ambiguous representation of Egypt in the Bible.8 At the same time, ancient Egypt served as a fantastical idea and ideal of a formerly great empire, which simultaneously conveyed a vision of loss and frailty, and a sense of doom, and served as a reminder that no matter how great an empire is, history has shown that it will eventually decline. Egypt was simultaneously a real and an imagined place; a perfect ingredient to create Gothic stories and magical events in connection with it. ← 17 | 18 →

Not only the recovered language and subsequent translations of ancient texts fascinated the British9, but the sudden heightened interest in exploration and travel10 fed scientific facts as well as fantasies and rumours to an eager Europe. ‘Facts’ need to be understood herein as convention, because many of the ‘facts’ which were stated about ancient Egypt were informed guesses, subjective opinions and experiences, generated by the lack of a systematic study of archaeology and Egyptology before the late nineteenth century. As Edward Said argues, facts are subject to interpretation:

All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation […] for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place. (Said Covering Islam 162)

The image of the Orient, and in this special case, Egypt, was subsequently expanded and adjusted. The interest in ancient Egypt and the Orient was encouraged further by Edward Lane’s translation of Arabian Nights in 1841, offering a glimpse into the supposedly genuine world of the exotic east. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an Italian traveller and excavator who worked for the British, published his immensely popular Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia and of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; and Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon in London in 1820. Edward Lane’s Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836) and Sir John Gardner Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians (1837) were certainly the most widely read and influential modern texts concerning the creation of a general idea of modern and ancient Egypt.

Eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century travel reports and treatises on modern Egypt generally avoid mysticism and any connection to the supernatural, merely commenting on certain practices of modern Egyptians which seemed strange, exotic or underdeveloped to the Orientalist. Despite the factual narrative of the works on modern Egypt and its ancient culture, ancient Egypt ← 18 | 19 → has always been considered a somewhat magical place and the source of secret knowledge. Since the Rosicrucians11 located their origin in Egyptian mysticism, the concept of an esoteric and mystical Egypt remained until the twenty-first century. Especially the late nineteenth century saw numerous attempts at attesting a magical quality to ancient Egypt. However, this concept did not only shape the representation of ancient Egypt in Victorian times, but it is still reflected in our contemporary perception of this ancient world. This can be seen in the large number of fictional and nonfictional texts published during the twentieth and twenty-first century in which Egypt almost always has magical or supernatural qualities.12

Egypt’s importance in the nineteenth century lay in its political and cultural significance to Britain and France. Egypt’s occupation by the French, and later by the English, not only detracted Mamluk power. As Napoleon’s troops triumphed over the Mamluk army in the Battle of the Pyramids on July 21, 1798, they helped to secure Egypt for the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the British occupation destabilised the Ottoman rule, shifting the power over the Arabic world towards Europe. Presenting both a point of interest for military strategy allowing access to Africa, and, with the construction of the Suez Canal (1859–1869) a much faster route to India, ensuring Britain’s status as the greatest sea power in the world, Egypt was a decidedly important country. Egypt furthermore became accessible beyond the scope of the Anglo-French conflict, and numerous British wealthy citizens spent their winters in Egypt to avoid the unhealthy London air and climate.13 Modern Egypt simply became an extension of Britain, in which the citizens of Egypt were seen more as a nuisance than the rightful owners of ← 19 | 20 → the land. This attitude is strongly reflected in most travel literature of the time and also reappears in several of the fantastic texts. The role and representation of these ‘natives’ will be a recurring topic in this book, providing grounds of comparison between the Western view of ancient and modern Egypt.

Modern Egypt was seen as part of the ‘Orient’, and looking at contemporary sources it becomes clear that the major European colonisers, namely France and Britain, saw a chance in returning some of Egypt’s former glory by bestowing their own culture and knowledge on the country.14 At the same time, European travellers viewed modern Egyptians with distaste and distrust. In 1829, Champollion received a letter from the French physician Étienne Pariset:

The more I think about it the more I am astonished by the antiquity of Egypt, its wisdom, genius, knowledge, power. And the more I see, the more I am convinced that modern-day Egypt should be placed at the centre of the type of nations that one should mistrust and flee from. (Pariset qtd. in Colla 100)

Apart from the need of the coloniser to restore ‘order’ to Egypt – an opinion which is in fact reflected in several of the Egyptianising texts – another aspect that is presented is criticism of British practices and ideas by the authors.15 In this book the term ‘Egyptianising literature’ is used to describe and define fiction which features aspects of ancient Egypt, which describes it and makes use of it. In order to avoid misunderstandings and complications, the term ‘Egyptian literature’ is used for literature that was in fact produced in Egypt.

Voltaire (1694–1778) already used the Orient as a geographically and culturally distant place to reflect on and criticise European conditions and ideas in his 1747 work Zadig, ou La destinée, Histoire orientale16 (cf. Europa und der Orient 327). While it is important to note that all Victorian texts reflect the general ← 20 | 21 → world view and ideology of the West, several of the Egyptianising texts are very self-aware of this practice. Egyptianising fantastic fiction therefore can, with few exceptions, be read as self-critical and self-aware. It is a subversive literature which on the one hand reflects the Victorian weltanschauung, and on the other hand criticises it. Egyptianising fantastic fiction presents a special case within nineteenth century literature, in whose context the notion of representation has to be addressed. What roles does representation play in the genre of Egyptianising fantastic fiction? What is represented and by whom? Does the representation of the Other by the Self annihilate the Other? Power relations and the practice of interpretation and erroneous or subjective attribution of qualities all need to be analysed and discussed with a focus on the interaction between the Self and the Other.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Victorian Age Oriental Gothic Orientalism Eurocentrism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 290 pp., 19 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Maria Fleischhack (Author)

Maria Fleischhack lectures at Leipzig University with a special research focus on Victorian and postmodern fantasy literature, the literary reception of ancient Egypt, Scottish identity and devolution, adaptation studies, English theatre and Sherlock Holmes.


Title: Narrating Ancient Egypt
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292 pages