The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty Second Century by Jane Webb, later Jane Loudon, was published in 1827. Loudon was twenty upon its publication but said she wrote it at seventeen. Written in typical three-volume format for the period, it is a remarkable book to have been written by one so young. Nor is it the kind of horror novel we would expect from watching Universal horror films or even the more recent Brendan Fraser and Tom Cruise mummy films.
The novel was clearly inspired by Frankenstein (1818), but its similarities to Mary Shelley’s later novel The Last Man (1826) cannot go unnoticed even though Loudon may not have read The Last Man since she said she had written it by 1824 (although The Last Man was published in 1826, the year before The Mummy!’s publication). In the novel, a young noble, Edric Montague, and his tutor, Dr. Entwerfen, debate whether a corpse can be brought back to life through galvanism (use of electricity). They come to the conclusion it is possible and decide to travel to Egypt to find a body that is not decayed to experiment upon; consequently, a mummy is the perfect specimen. I’ll get to what happens next in a minute, but clearly Loudon read Frankenstein and was inspired by it to come up with a new way to bring a body back to life. The similarities to Frankenstein end there.
While it is questionable that Loudon read The Last Man, The Mummy! has far more similarities to The Last Man than Frankenstein. Mary Shelley begins The Last Man in the Sibyl’s cave where the narrator collects leaves and combines them together to create the novel’s text. It is a strange history of the future set at the end of the twenty-first century. In The Mummy!, the narrator claims that when in a state of being half-asleep, a spirit appeared and gave her a scroll upon which was chronicled a future age. In both cases, a supernatural being provides a tale of the future. Loudon sets her novel a bit later than Shelley, opening in the year 2126. Shelley’s novel spans the 2070s-2100 when Lionel Verney, the last man alive after a plague has destroyed the human race, writes his history. Loudon doesn’t let a plague destroy mankind, although she does allow the Mummy to wreak havoc upon people as if he were a type of plague. Shelley was not too far-seeing in her use of technological innovations in her novels—her characters travel in hot air balloons, but that is hardly far-seeing. Characters already did so in an early French novel of the same name by Cousin de Grainville, published in 1804. (See my previous blog on Grainville’s The Last Man.)
Loudon is far more technologically advanced. Not only do her characters travel in hot air balloons, but they also have built an underwater tunnel between England and Ireland (think chunnel) and women wear hairpieces that have flames in them. Perhaps more importantly, political situations have evolved, although regressed might be a better word. In Shelley’s novel, the King of England has abdicated and the country become more democratic. In Loudon’s novel, revolutions of the masses overthrowing their masters led to anarchy and a return to absolute monarchy. However, now only women may rule. A queen is elected by the people and she is forbidden to marry. When she dies, another young woman, between the ages of 20-25 in the royal family, takes her place. Also of significance is that the country has returned to Catholicism—this last point is fascinating because while Loudon sets her novel 300 years into the future, she is recreating the England of the past in an absolute monarchy and Catholic nation. This is really backward rather than forward, and I believe Loudon does it to make her future as Gothic as her Gothic novel predecessors made their pasts, typically setting novels in the medieval or Renaissance period. Both Shelley’s The Last Man and Loudon’s novel are then largely concerned with political issues within England. In The Last Man, the plague causes Adrian, the rightful heir to the throne, to become the leader of the English people as they travel to warmer climates trying to survive. In The Mummy, the Mummy will manipulate events that will affect who rules England.
In one of the few scholarly articles written on the novel, “Jane C. Loudon’s The Mummy!: Mary Shelley Meets George Orwell, and They Go in a Balloon to Egypt,” scholar Lisa Hopkins notes several other similarities to The Last Man, including that both novels include a plague in Constantinople and a niece named Clara and seem to refer to the death of the Princess Charlotte in 1817. I did not initially catch these similarities, but they make me think that Loudon wrote the novel at seventeen in 1824 as she claimed, but then perhaps revised it after reading The Last Man since it was published the year prior to her novel. It is not unlikely she did read it since she was clearly influenced by Frankenstein, so she would have likely sought out Shelley’s later novel.
The similarities with Shelley’s novels end there. Loudon is, in many ways, very original in her work. The Mummy (most of the characters call him this, as if it’s his proper name, though his real name is Cheops) is a former pharaoh of Egypt. When he is brought to life by Edric, he is shocked and does not know what he is doing. He runs out of the pyramid and jumps into Edric and Dr. Entwerfen’s hot air balloon, and before he knows it—the balloon apparently has some sort of GPS system to return it home—he finds himself back in England. I can’t help seeing Cheops as somehow symbolic here of some sort of Eastern plague invading the country, not too far removed from how Dracula has been interpreted by some critics as a symbol of Eastern European immigrants who were flooding into England in the late nineteenth century. Dracula is set on destruction, and so is the Mummy, apparently. Like Dracula, the Mummy also has his roots in the attributes of the Wandering Jew. We are told that when he first wakes, Edric cannot tear himself away from the mummy’s “withering glance” and his eyes have a “ghastly brightness.” Similarly, the Wandering Jew, and later Dracula, has hypnotic eyes that make others succumb to his will. Once the Mummy arrives in England, we find numerous characters fearful of him and agreeing to be his slaves. The only one who seems strong-willed enough not to agree to his demands is Edric’s brother, Edmund, a great general and the hero of his country who is in love with Elvira, the recently crowned queen, although he knows he can’t marry her. (Edmund seems like one of the good guys but later his ambition will get the best of him, and the Mummy will tell him his pride and refusal to submit to him has caused his downfall.)
The political plot of the novel is a bit too complicated to try to summarize in full. Basically, the queen, Claudia, has died and Elvira has been elected queen, although her cousin, Rosabella, also campaigns for the position. Once the Mummy arrives in England, he constantly seems to play the two contending parties against each other. The chief villain in the novel is actually Father Morris, a monk, who wants to place Rosabella on the throne. The Mummy seems to be aiding Father Morris throughout the novel, yet he forbids Father Morris to poison or harm Elvira. Through a turn of events, Elvira is overthrown and Rosabella becomes queen, but the people come to detest Rosabella, and eventually, Elvira again retains the throne, largely with the help of Roderick, King of Ireland, who ends up marrying her once the law against queens marrying is overturned.
In the end, Father Morris’ crimes are revealed. Throughout the novel, Rosabella has been an orphan, raised by her uncle, the Duke of Cornwall, who is cousin to Queen Claudia and the father of Elvira. A mystery has existed about Rosabella’s father, the duke’s brother, who apparently committed some evil deed and is believed deceased. Rosabella never suspects that Father Morris is actually her father, or that he is working for her preferment to become queen. He is actually living as confessor in his brother’s household and so Rosabella has been with her father since childhood, never knowing it. In the end, it’s revealed that Father Morris had previously been married, but he cheated on his wife with a woman named Marianne. Later, in revenge when he wouldn’t marry her, Marianne took their child and sold it to a Swiss nobleman, claiming it was orphaned—then she switched the child’s place with her own child by a servant and let Father Morris think it was his child. Consequently, the evil Rosabella is really not Father Morris’s child, although he believes she is, and more importantly, she is not royal at all.
What makes Father Morris’s crimes significant in terms of the novel’s Gothic elements is that he is a monk, although he committed his sexual sin not while a man of the cloth but while married. Here, one can’t help thinking of Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, who is tempted by Satan in the form of a woman. Father Morris also makes a compact with Cheops, which is rather like the Faustian pact made by so many other Gothic characters, including Lewis’ Monk and characters in later novels like those by George W. M. Reynolds.
But what of the Mummy? In the end, Father Morris accuses him of causing all the problems that led to Rosabella’s overthrow, but the Mummy reveals that he did not cause the problems; he may have put ideas into their heads to commit crimes, but they are the ones who carried them out, spurred on by their ambition and passions. In truth, the Mummy does not seem to have any real supernatural powers other than to be alive when he should be dead. He also appears human, dressed normally and not wearing mummy bandages, once he gets settled in England. He does seem to have a knack for appearing wherever he wants whenever he wants, though how he can do this is never explained. But beyond that, he does not have magic powers of any sort.
Everything ultimately comes to a happy end for all the good characters while the evil characters are punished. When everything is over and done with, the Mummy seems to disappear. Edric is left wondering where Cheops has gone until he hears a voice tell him to return to the pyramid, which he does. When Edric enters the pyramid, he finds Cheops standing there, once again in his mummy wrappings. Cheops tells Edric that if he wants forbidden knowledge, he will give it to him, but it will only bring him misery, so it would be better if he did not pry into forbidden knowledge again. Here is the primary lesson in all Gothic fiction—people must not seek forbidden knowledge or seek power that should only belong to God. It is the same transgression Adam and Eve committed in eating the forbidden fruit. Edric says he has learned his lesson now, but he asks Cheops to tell him his own story. Cheops then reveals that during his lifetime, he committed sin by loving his own sister, and when his father opposed their love, he murdered his father. Of course, murder is a terrible sin, but the Gothic typically also frowns on incest, so I assume that is also why Cheops is cursed, although Egyptian royalty frequently allowed marriages between siblings. (I’m not sure whether Loudon was aware of that since studies of ancient Egypt and the pyramids were in their infancy when Loudon wrote her novel.) Cheops then says that he has used his power to assist the good and punish the malevolent, even though at times it seemed like he was just being evil and causing trouble.
It is now time for Cheops to return to death. As his body begins to stiffen, Edric asks him one last question: Was it really he who brought Cheops to life? Cheops replies that only he who first gave him life could bring him back to life. In other words, God brought him to life and God used him as his instrument throughout the novel. We are then to assume perhaps that Cheops has in some way worked out his redemption through being allowed to return to life—and we can’t help but think of the Christ parallel here—that Christ rose from the tomb through the power of God.
In the end, The Mummy! is a remarkable novel in many ways for how it allows us to assume its primary Gothic horror, Cheops, is a villain, when he turns out to be the instrument of God. Cheops is also a quintessential Gothic wanderer—he is supernatural, he has sinned, he seeks redemption, he has a powerful gaze, he has a story to tell. The novel is innovative for using Gothic themes but placing its horrors in the future rather than the past. It also notably is lacking in Gothic atmosphere other than the tomb scenes and the occasional moments of horror when Cheops appears. (And frankly, Cheops only makes cameo appearances throughout. The edition I read was 386 pages. Cheops is not brought to life until about page 100. He then disappears from about pages 200-286 before he reenters the scene so he really is only focused upon in less than half the novel.) One can’t help feel The Mummy! is an anti-Catholic novel like so many Gothic novels since Father Morris turns out to be the true villain, but there is also a Father Murphy who is a good character. We have an Irish King who is the greatest hero in the novel, whereas most Irish were treated in a derogatory way in English novels to this point, especially because they were predominantly Catholic.
The novel has received almost no critical attention. I have spent twenty years reading and studying Gothic fiction and yet I only learned of the novel’s existence in the last year. It is time for it to be studied more. One wishes to know more about Loudon’s life and inspiration in writing it, including whether she might have revised the novel after reading The Last Man before it was published even though she claimed to have written it previously, and what, if any, political and religious commentary she was offering upon her own 1820s England. (Did she foresee a Catholic England eventually resulting if Catholic Emancipation occurred, which did happen in 1829?) Certainly, Mary Shelley is remarkable for having written Frankenstein at eighteen, but then how much more remarkable, in my opinion, is Loudon for having written The Mummy! at seventeen, which is also stylistically superior to either of Shelley’s novels. Today, Loudon and her husband (she married Loudon after the Mummy was published and he wrote a favorable review of it) are known as preeminent horticulturalists of Victorian England, and they were even part of Charles Dickens’ circle, but certainly, Jane Webb Loudon and The Mummy! deserves far more critical attention.
Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, a study of nineteenth-century British Gothic literature from 1794 (The Mysteries of Udolpho) to 1897 (Dracula) with a look at twenty and twenty-first century texts like Tarzan of the Apes, Anne Rice’s vampire novels, and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Tyler has also written Haunted Marquette, a history of hauntings in his native city of Marquette, Michigan, Spirit of the North: A Paranormal Romance, and the historical fantasy series The Children of Arthur, which details the story of King Arthur and his descendants, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. You can learn more about Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.