The Mummy!: A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century by Jane Webb
University of Michigan Press, 1994
Originally published anonymously by Henry Colburn, London, 1827
Price I paid: none (library)
Within a decade of the 1818 publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, another Englishwoman invented a foundational work of science fiction. Seventeen-year-old Jane Webb Loudon took up the theme of reanimation, moved it three hundred years into the future, and applied it to Cheops, an ancient Egyptian mummy. Unlike Shelley’s horrifying, death-dealing monster, this revivified creature bears the wisdom of the ages and is eager to share his insights with humanity. Cheops boards a hot-air balloon and travels to 22nd-century England, where he sets about remedying the ills of a corrupt government.
In recounting Cheops’ attempts to put the futuristic society to rights, the young author offers a fascinating portrait of the preoccupations of her own era as well as some remarkably prescient predictions of technological advances. The Mummy! envisions a world in which automatons perform surgery, undersea tunnels connect England and Ireland, weather-control devices provide crop irrigation, and messages are transmitted with the speed of cannonball fire. The first novel to feature the concept of a living mummy, this pioneering tale offers an engaging mix of comedy, politics, and science fiction.From the back of the 2017 Dover edition
Thank you to the University of Tennessee library system for loaning me this book.
It’s not often I dive outside of the realms of the 20th century. I know I’ve visited the 21st, but this is the first time I’ve ever gone back to the 19th. Perhaps it is a special occasion.
I was reading about mummies on Wikipedia—as is common—and I was reading about Khufu, or Cheops, and there was this little note about how there was a book about him where he gets revivified. So I did some more research and found out so many cool things about it.
It was the first book about a living mummy.
It was written by a 17-year-old woman.
It took place in the 22nd century.
It was feminist.
It made interesting predictions of the world of the future.
And so, yes, I decided to give it a look. How could I not? And because I know myself, I knew that if I didn’t decide to review it, I’d probably get a copy and never read it, so I declared that it would be the next review. And so here it is.
It’s my own fault, but I’d managed to work myself into a frenzy thinking that the book was going to be a long-lost classic of 19th century feminist science fiction. That’s a big burden to put on a book, so it’s not surprising that the reality didn’t measure up.
To be fair to myself—something my therapist suggests I do more often—the book was really overhyped. Even the jacket copy I posted up top is a bit too enthusiastic about the book’s supposed classic status.
A main thing to remember about this book is that the titular mummy is barely in it.
Even though I found the book to be difficult to read at best, it’s still remarkable for a book written by a seventeen-year-old. I could not have written a book this good at seventeen. It’s arguable that I could write one this good at twice that age. Maybe I’ll try.
Jane Webb later married a guy named John Loudon, who apparently reviewed this book and was particularly struck by its depiction of a steam-powered plow, so he sought her out. That’s why they call it the Romantic era. She later became renowned for her books of horticulture.
The book itself is a winding narrative of aristrocratic affairs with some futurism thrown in for flavor. Also there is occasionally a mummy. The mummy is on perhaps twenty-five of the three hundred pages of this edition. It’s probably worth noting that this edition is abridged by Alan Rauch and was the first major publication of the novel in the twentieth century. Perhaps the mummy was on more pages of the full edition. I don’t know, but I doubt it. There are fuller editions available now, including on Project Gutenberg.
We start off with a bit of future history, teeming with a sort of 19th-century conservatism that is both amusing and frustrating. Apparently, England fell into a bit of decline in the future. The main culprit is too much equality. The strict system of class-based hierarchy fell apart, which led to anarchy. Lordamercy.
Finally, some people had enough of that situation and tracked down the remaining royal family. They found a prince that they wanted to take over, but he declined. His sister decided to take over in his stead. She then made some interesting decisions.
First off, she converted the country back to Catholicism. I’m not sure why that had to happen. I mean, the re-establishment of a national religion was explained (it keeps people under control and is a sort of national unity, basically), but I’m not sure why she didn’t revive the Church of England. Maybe Miss Webb herself was Catholic? I can’t find any evidence of that, but I haven’t looked very hard.
More importantly, that unnamed Queen set up how the succession would work. See, like Elizabeth I, this queen remained unmarried throughout her reign so that she could devote her full attention to the Welfare of the Realm. She declared her niece, Claudia, as her successor, and created laws that said that the monarch would henceforth always be a Virgin Queen. More notably, this Virgin Queen would, after Claudia, be elected.
Now, I think this whole elected Virgin Queen monarch thing is where a lot of people start to say that this book is feminist. And maybe for 1827 it was. But it’s still not great. Don’t go into this book thinking you’re gonna get another Vindication On the Rights of Woman here.
See, even though all future monarchs are women, it’s still only men that can vote. And this is largely a book about this system falling apart and being repealed after it’s barely gotten off the ground.
The book largely centers around the wheelings and dealings surrounding the first election, which has come down to a pair of women named Rosabella and Elvira, who themselves do not have much in the way of agency. They’re generally pawns being cast about by men. We’ve got some men who want either of them to be queen for one reason or another, but we’ve also got other men who don’t want one or the other to be queen, mainly because of the whole “virgin” thing. There are so many romantic triangles. It’s maddening to try to keep up with. The book probably has more in common with Jane Austen than Mary Shelley, except Miss Austen tended to feature more cutting wit.
There are some elements of this future that are pretty cool, but I’ll be honest, they’re also few far and far between. While at least one person I saw hyping this book suggested that it’s one of the earliest works of science fiction to depict a real future world instead of a tarted up present one with the year changed, I think that person did not know what they were talking about. 95% of this book could have taken place in 1827 with no bearing on the plot.
But there are some neat things, and someone could probably cite this as an early example of steampunk. Steam gets a lot of use in the world of 2127. There are the aforementioned steam plows, but there are also steam-powered automatons that work as guards and lawyers. There are houses that can be lifted from the ground and placed on tracks to ride away for vacations. Mail is delivered mainly through cannonball. Air travel by balloon is common. Women wear pants. It’s madness, I tell you.
And while it’s not fair to mock our predecessors for what they didn’t predict, it’s worth mentioning that at one point in the story a telegraph can’t be read indoors because the sun went down. Also, wars are still fought on horseback. I don’t hold these things against the author. They’re an interesting look into what people generally were thinking, as well as where the tech and societal advances were happening that this author in particular was interested in.
And, of course, there’s a mummy. Two characters, unconnected to most of the aristocratic blatherskite, decide that they can use a galvanic generator to raise the dead. You know, the usual. They decide to revive a mummy for the interesting reason that they can be sure it’s dead, but it’s not rotted. A recent corpse, they reason, might not be all the way dead, so it’s not a fair test of this galvanic resurrection machine.
In a stunning display of the privileges of British Imperialism, they take a balloon to Giza, walk straight into the Great Pyramid, find the mummy of Cheops, hook him up, and turn on the power.
Now it’s probably worth noting that in reality, we’ve never found Cheops’s, or Khufu’s, mummy. It’s just not in there. The book acknowledges this and claims that a new chamber has been discovered in the pyramid, and for some reason that’s where they put the Pharoah.
The flash of galvanic force stuns our mad scientist duo, who later wake up in a daze and flee the pyramid. In the meantime, Cheops gets up, steals their balloon, and flies to England. He shows up amongst all our other characters and starts dispensing advice occasionally. They can understand him because in the future, all English people are “universal linguists.”
While I was led to believe that this would be “the wisdom of the ancients,” it’s more like the occasional bit of advice as regards the Comedy of Aristocracy at the forefront of the plot. Usually it’s along the lines of
- “I’m the mummy, and I say you ought to do X”
- Person does that
- Things don’t go the way the person thinks they should at first
- “Thou curséd mummy, fiend from hell, thou has tricked me!”
- “Just wait like four frikkin’ minutes, dude”
- Things work out
And even then, that’s rare.
Queen Claudia dies. It’s later revealed that she was murdered. Elvira gets elected queen, but Edmund, a war hero belovéd by the nation who becomes her prime minister, loves her so much that he gets her to change the laws so that she can marry him. But it turns out she doesn’t love Edmund and intends to marry someone else. Edmund mistakes who that someone else is and attacks yet someone else. This gets him arrested, but the automaton judge lets him off the hook for it. Edmund then throws his weight behind Rosabella, the other queen-candidate, and gets the public to rescind their previous vote and make her the queen. They do. He marries her. Turns out she sucks as a queen and everybody hates her. So then Elvira gets to be the queen again.
There’s also some deal with a priest being Rosabella’s real father, but nobody knows that, but then it also turns out that he’s not her real father, so she’s not really a princess anyway and therefore can’t get elected, and the fact that he thought she was his daughter was all an elaborate plot from some spurned lover of his, who got herself pregnant by some other dude and then claimed it was his. But it also turned out that there was a real daughter somewhere, although I don’t think anything much became of her in the end? She married one of the guys who resurrected the mummy, I think.
Also there’s this guy named Roderick, who is the king of Ireland. He ends up marrying Elvira in the end, so now there’s a new United Kingdom of England and Ireland, and also, again I want to point out that I was told that this book was feminist?
In the end, the mummy declares that he’s done what he’s supposed to do and goes back to his tomb and dies again, but before he does he tells one of the guys who resurrected him that the galvanic battery had nothing to do with the resurrection and that it was probably, I dunno, God that did it.
And that’s the end until the sequel where he meets Dracula. (joke)
So much of the plot just flew past me because I didn’t care much for any of these characters, and aristocratic wheelings and dealings are not exactly my favorite thing to read about. To my modern eyes, this would have been a much more interesting novel if it had been from the point of view of some commoner, probably. Or maybe if it had just been a mummy lounging on a chair dispensing clever bon mots and suggesting that it would be an interesting idea if we invented something called “social justice.”
Then again, I guess I did read all those George R. R. Martin books, so maybe that argument is rendered invalid?
I come down pretty hard on this book, but I gotta emphasize that the author was seventeen, and for that, it’s pretty remarkable. And it had some bits that made me chuckle. For instance, because universal education is a thing in this future, it is now fashionable for the lower classes, mainly represented by servants, to talk with crazy highfalutin’ language like
“Besides,” continued Abelard, “a saline secretion distils from every pore of my skin, in a serous transudation, from the excessive exertions I have made use of.”pg 23
(He was sweating because he had to run.)
I thought that was kind of a cute little detail but I’m also wondering if, in the spirit of English classism, it wasn’t also mean-spirited.
On the whole, I think this is probably a book more worth reading for the sake of scholarship than enjoyment, but there are plenty of people who will find plenty to enjoy about it. I’m not one of them. I did find the whole thing quite interesting from an English-major perspective, and of course reading old-timey future predictions is always a blast, but I was bored to tears and had a devil of a time remembering who was who and who loved whom.
The book was more a victim of hype than anything, which might seem weird to say considering that there probably aren’t a huge number of people who know about it. People trying to make it out to be a forgotten Frankenstein or The Last Man are doing it a disservice. It’s something else entirely.
It’s possible, likely even, that scholars of early feminism will be able to find a lot more to talk about than I do on that front. But from my admittedly unenlightened point of view, I think that those aspects were overblown as well. It seemed to start that way, what with a world where the monarch of England would forever be a woman, but the book never once suggested why that needed to happen, also insisted that that woman always remain a virgin, furthermore made it so that only men could vote for the queen, and then took the whole premise back as the book went on and never once lamented it.
Still, I’m glad I read it. There’s an essay in this edition that has a plenty of scholarly interest, and I wish it had been placed after the text instead of before it, because not only did little of it make sense before reading the book itself, I also found myself a bit biased and looking for the kinds of things the editor pointed out. He was right, generally, but I wish I had been able to discover some things for myself. I probably would have missed them, but I would have done it honestly.
In the end, what I’ll say is that I won’t talk anybody out of reading this book, but I hope nobody gets as hype about it as I did. Mary Shelley this ain’t, Jane Austen this ain’t, but it’s its own thing worth knowing about. I’m glad I know about it, even if reading it felt like so much homework.
UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that I reviewed a book about a mummy on Mother’s Day. This was unintentional, but is hilarious.