The Corpse of the Future: Jane C. Loudon's The Mummy! and Victorian Science Fiction
When we think of mummies, we don’t recall the desiccated corpses that rest behind museum glass, but the dehydrated reanimated corpse of lovelorn Imhotep played by Boris Karloff in the Universal Pictures flick The Mummy (1932), or the more recent reincarnation in the 1999 remake of the same name starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and Arnold Vosloo. In these films, Imhotep is a sinister and mystical Other who is searching for his lost love, and in doing so curses the Brits and Americans that revived him with mayhem. However, the cinematic mummies—like most Universal Pictures monsters (ahem, Frankenstein)—barely resemble their literary prototype, Cheops, who is revived by a galvanic machine rather than incantations to reinforce divine law and thwart political conspiracies.
Cheops does this wandering in The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century, a futuristic meditation on England in the year 2126. Published anonymously in three volumes in 1827, and again in 1828, it proffers a futuristic hope of what its 17-year old author, Jane C. Loudon, hoped technology and social progress would improve in her country, and in doing so hones in on the trends and occupations of Regency England, such as whether the monarch (and church) should be abolished and whether Positivism and technology would ultimately better society. It’s also a parable on the othering of non-Western countries, a trend that of course became manifested during the British Empire but began with Egyptomania thanks to the Napoleonic discoveries of pharaonic tombs in 1789.
While all of these political implications hinge on the current affairs of Loudon’s time—political unrest compounded by the American Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, as well as the beginnings of workers rights movements—each argument she makes is also towards an ultimate dismissal of the Romantic movement that advocated (mostly) socialism, atheism, metaphysical science rather than technological, and Orientalism. The main target of her parody was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
Born Jane Webb on August 19, 1807 in Birmingham, England, Loudon enjoyed a privileged and affluent life until she was orphaned in 1824. Her mother died when she was 12, and after living abroad with her father, Thomas Webb, for several years, they returned to England when his manufacturing business went bankrupt. Shortly thereafter, he passed away leaving his daughter penniless and dependent upon the kindness of her father’s London friends, including the Romantic painter John Martin, who encouraged her education and writing, and more than likely exposed her to Frankenstein.
Also known as The Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley’s archetypal novel was anonymously published in 1818, causing sensationalist scandal throughout the literary world. With an introduction by the anarchist poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary’s husband) and a dedication to the radical philosopher William Godwin (Mary’s father), the book was not only seen as an original spin on the Gothic and Grotesque tale, but a Romantic social tract reinforcing the Godwinian ideals of atheism and personal freedom that macrocosmically championed the French Revolution and the destruction of monarchy. According to scholar Lisa Hopkins in her article “Jane C. Loudon’s ‘The Mummy!’: Mary Shelley Meets George Orwell, and They Go in a Balloon to Egypt,” Frankenstein’s main concept of successful reanimation and life-creation outside of (God’s) laws of nature was received by contemporary critics as a reinforcement of Godwin’s impiety and “certainly seems to have been the message which Jane C. Loudon found in Frankenstein, and she did not like what she read.” Jane disagreed with the novel so much that she used Shelley’s ingenious and blasphemous concept to inspire her own creature who would refute the liberalism Jane thought would be the ruin of England and establish a relationship between scientific progress and divine intervention.
Hopkins and most other Loudon scholars find the novel fascinating “because of what it tells us about the contemporary reception of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.” But Loudon’s novel also illustrates the reactive nature of science fiction and how it would become an effective political vehicle in its near future explorations, setting the tone for near-future, dystopic SF to come like George Orwell’s 1984 and the work of Phillip K. Dick. Conversely, it also shows how futuristic thought experiments can become retro-futuristic time capsules of the author’s era, its inventions leaping solely from technology only as advanced as steam.
While we’ve already established the political nature of Frankenstein, the book implicitly weaves its philosophical discourse into the story’s action and narrative. However, it is set more contemporaneously, and while it does allegorize current events, the story is more atmospheric and cerebral. It is not concerned directly with political bodies, but of the ideas of individuality and nature. As a result, the book does not concern itself with technical details nor does it try to forecast the future of man beyond the idea of immortality.
The Mummy! on the other hand is explicit, and begins immediately outlining the political turbulent trajectory (one that follows Godwin’s wishes, not necessarily Frankenstein’s story) of England from the Regency period to 2126. It is almost impossible to quote, because the 200 years is relayed in an entire chapter describing the rise of democratic and socialist thinking—and at one point complete anarchy—only to see the free mob lost without a leader: “The people had tasted the sweets of power, they had learned their own strength, they were enlightened; and fancying they understood the art of ruling as well as their quondam directors, they saw no reason why, after shaking off the control of one master, they should afterwards submit to the domination of many . . . Thus they reasoned, and thus they acted, till government after government having been overturned, complete anarchy prevailed; and the people began to discover, though, alas! too late, that there was little pleasure in being masters when there were no subjects.” Eventually, counterrevolutionaries that included the lineal descendants of the former royal family were able to sway the people into submitting back into an absolute monarchy in which peace apparently prevailed. By anchoring the book immediately into this political discourse, we know that Loudon is not interested in individual experience and consequence, but of the fate of a nation preoccupied with what she’d considered utter nonsense.
After undergoing popular revolt, spiritual disillusionment, and a long and disastrous flirtation with republicanism, England returns to absolute monarchy and Catholicism. It is also a matriarchy. When the new conservative regime was reestablished, the male heir to the throne refused to wear the crown; his daughter donned it and ruled England with the sagacity and ruthlessness of Queen Elizabeth I.
Perhaps one of the more radical notions of this pre-Victorian novel is the Queen’s establishment of sole female secession. Like the Virgin Queen before her, she shuns marriage and motherhood to focus solely on her kingdom, and decrees that no longer will the secession go to a first born son, but to the unmarried women in her line who are between the ages of 20 and 25 years old.
Despite this one big step for women, feminism is mostly latent throughout The Mummy!, although Loudon scholarship avers it is a feminist piece. Women are well-educated and sensible, like all of the classes by the 22nd century, but they are still ensnared in the plans their menfolk have laid down for them. However, fashion is more forgiving and is a sartorial signal for more independence: “The ladies were all arrayed in loose trousers, over which hung drapery in graceful folds; and most of them carried on their heads, streams of lighted gas forced by capillary tubes, into plumes, fleurs-de-lis, or in short any form the wearer pleased; which jets de feu had an uncommonly chase and elegant effect.” Anticipating the controversial New Woman movement in the later century (and also rave-glow-stick/LED accessories of the 20th century), one can imagine that this was noticed more among Regency reviewers than the social question of women in power. Michelle Parslow argues in her thesis Women, Science and Technology: The Genealogy of Women Writing Utopian Science Fiction that the implicit feminism lies in that she does not portray the use of science and technology in the context of a sole male domain (even though it could be argued there is still a social male domain): “ . . .The Mummy! is neither a realization, nor a critique, of the patriarchal endeavor to create a ‘scientific utopia’ . . . Indeed, this is where the strength of her feminist criticism ultimately lies: The Mummy! depicts the misuse of technology and the colonial imperative as an issue for which everyone should take responsibility for.”
The equal blame as a feminist statement is not as blatant as Parslow alludes, but the misuse of technology and the colonial imperative is very much present. Before we delve into that, though, there is an actual plot behind all the politics. In fact, there is a lot of plot, and unfortunately it drags the novel’s pacing over three volumes that may make it tedious to modern audiences (Cheops isn’t even resuscitated until page 188!). Loudon plucks and repots plots from Shakespeare including King Lear, Othello, and Hamlet to tend a garden of melodrama. England mostly finds peace under this absolute rule, although they are constantly under the threat of invasion. At the book’s opening, Queen Claudia currently reigns, and seems like she would rule for twenty years more. The cast of characters include two aristocratic families who have their eyes on the crown and glory: the Montagues and the house of the Duke of Cornwall. The Montague family has two sons, Edmund, a national hero on the fast-track to knighthood, and Edric, a slacker intellectual. The Duke of Cornwall’s family features marriageable daughters Elvira and Rosabella who are also the next in line to the throne if anything happened to the Queen.
Overshadowed by his brother’s achievements, Edric yearns for his own glory within the intellectual domain, and captivated by the idea of reanimation hatches a plan with his friend, German scientist, Dr. Entwerfen, to resurrect a mummy. It is with Edric that Loudon takes her cheapest shots at Shelley; he is, of course, Victor Frankenstein’s counterpart. Edric is every bit as vain as his foil, but he represents a more thoughtful and conscientious vein of mad science. He is not interested in making a man, or recreating life, as though he were divine, but in uncovering the divine with scientific experimentation. Edric’s fascination with reanimation stems from answering an age-old philosophical question of what happens to the soul upon death. This is a debate he isn’t at all fearless about; he worries whether resurrecting a corpse might result in a soulless zombie than a real man. More alluring still are the implications that upon a successful reanimation with returned soul that there is some divine ligature connecting soul to body no matter how long the latter has been departed. Despite the theories and his curiosity, he claims the only thing holding him back is a fear of having to actually touch the dead body, and he immediately rejects the notion that subjects could be found at the charnel house, a source Victor Frankenstein had no problem utilizing as an observatory and depot for his parts. Ironically, it is a clergyman, Father Morris, that reasons with Edric that the only way to know is to conduct the experiment, and suggests an Egyptian mummy because its swathed body would protect squeamish Edric from touching the “mass of cold mortality.”
Edric still needs a kick in the pants, and it comes from his father who informs him he is to marry Rosabella. When Edric refuses, he is banished from his home. Ties cut, he and Dr. Entwerfen go to Egypt in a balloon and resurrect Cheops with the doctor’s “galvanic battery of fifty surgeon power”: “Worked up to desperation, he applied the wires of the battery and put the apparatus in motion, whilst a demonic laugh of derision appeared to ring in his ears, and the surrounding mummies seemed starting from their places and dancing in unearthly merriment. Thunder now roared in tremendous peals through the Pyramids, shaking their enormous masses to the foundation, and vivid flashes of light darted round in quick succession.” The resurrection scene ironically reads like how we envision Frankenstein’s creation—electrifyingly gothic —while in the text Frankenstein’s reanimation methods are vaguely alluded too, and not at all revealed in technological detail. The galvanic battery works, however, and before Edric can surmise about the body and soul, Cheops spazzes out from the shock of his resurrection, flees the pyramid, hijacks their balloon, and flies back to England landing on and killing Queen Claudia in the middle of a pageant.
Just like there are deathly consequences from Victor Frankenstein making and rejecting his creation, Edric’s tampering with life and death sets in action the rest of the novel’s plot—including political intrigue, mysterious clergy parentage, and of course, love triangles, all with a little help from Cheops who, despite his hideous appearance is, much like Frankenstein’s Creature, a soulful good guy and in fact comes to represent those very virtues of rationality and spiritualism that Loudon saw as being rejected by romantic works such as Frankenstein. While we follow the melodrama of Cheops and these conspiracies, woven throughout is humor and delightful technological vignettes that easily makes this a textbook requirement for proto-Steampunk studies. In addition to use of the galvanic battery, Loudon imagines many ameliorating inventions based on steam technology like automatons that perform surgery and litigate, an instantaneous form of communication where messages are delivered by cannonball caught by expansive nets established in every town, a weather-control device that brings rain clouds down to water your fields, a steam-powered lawnmower, a mechanical milking machine, and, of course, daily travel accomplished by “balloon-carriages.”
As one of the first mentions of a mummy in literature, Loudon’s book is immediately unusual from the rest of 19th-century depictions because he is male and not purely evil—and, in fact, is a complex archetype used to subvert the Orientalism of Egyptomania begun when Napoleon’s troops discovered their first pharaonic tomb. While Britain was crazy for Ancient Egypt, it was in an not-so-surprisingly abject fashion. Britain excavated and imported mummies solely to unwrap them in public as a form of entertainment, and they rewrapped them in a sensational veil of mystery that made them what Jasmine Day calls “retro-racist” ideals of decadence, but also of foreign evil to be reminded of to avoid. “Europeans contrasted their own perceived virtues,” Day writes in her seminal text The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English-Speaking World, “such as Christianity and rationality, with the primitivism and pagenness that they attributed to peoples whose cultures seemed alien.” This is very much present at the beginning of the novel, as Dr. Entwerfen describes the scientific mysticism Cheops must possess, and Edric has no fear of a wrapped foreign object opposed to an exposed countryman cadaver for his experiment. However, Cheops rejects abjection, and espouses the opinions of his authoress, making him more native than readers would have expected.
Another exception to Cheops is the absence of what would later become known as “the mummy’s curse,” or “curse of the Pharaohs,” even though Loudon is often credited with inventing it in her novel. However, there is a curse of sorts present throughout: progress. As Day explains: “The curse myth originally condemned sacrilegious people and self-styled experts by claiming that a supernatural realm of arcane powers existed, in which the sanctity of the dead was vindicated.” In Frankenstein, Victor’s curse is his Creature’s wrath, but also his clouded-judgment from romantic notions of future immortality; as a result, he is unable to take responsibility for his actions. All of this got Loudon’s goat, but especially Frankenstein’s impiety: his rejection and usurpation of divine creation with science. What Shelley saw as progress Loudon saw as a potential curse. Despite the Positivist presence in her future England, there is one universal truth Loudon wants acknowledged, and it becomes downright explicit with Cheops’ big revelation at the end: “The power that gave me life,” he explains to a befuddled Edric in the story’s conclusion, “could alone restore it.” The entire time, Loudon stresses, Cheops was revived because the divine willed it. One has to posit, does this mean that the soul was then attached by those ligatures discussed earlier? That original question, as well as all of the little ones, is overshadowed by Loudon’s ultimate answer.
Loudon would never write another SF work after The Mummy! She ceased all her fictional literary endeavors by 1830 when she married the prominent horticulture journalist John C. Loudon and focused on writing instructive, at-home gardening articles. When he died in 1843, she continued to use writing as her income, capitalizing on her Martha Stewart-like reputation and publishing several gardening manuals for ladies, but never anything as prescient or imaginative as her futuristic utopia. Perhaps this was because, by the time of her death in 1858, she felt like she had won. While The Mummy!’s conservatism seems stodgy and dated, the truth is she came closer than Shelley to predicting the next 100 years. While the spirit of Romanticism continued to stir several social, republican, and anarchist movements, the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838 launched a powerful empire built on prudery and imperialism. In fact, the effects of imperialism would lead to the next installment of Loudon’s unlikely legacy with reactive, science-fictional texts by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Phillip K. Dick, which illustrates her real legacy: developing SF from a thought experiment like Frankenstein into a reactive and conversational medium for progress, whatever we might believe progress to be.
S. J. Chambers is co-author of the Hugo and World Fantasy nominated The Steampunk Bible (Abrams Image). Her fiction has appeared in the World Fantasy nominated Thackery T. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins) and in the forthcoming Starry Wisdom Library (PS Publishing).