Impertinent Miracles at the British Museum: Egyptology and Edwardian Fantasies for Young People

Article excerpt

In THE STORY OF THE AMULET (1906), E. NESBIT INCLUDES A SCENE OF FOUR CHILDREN rushing from the British Museum with an ancient Babylonian queen who has traveled through time; a newspaper headline in the next day's paper carries the banner, "IMPERTINENT MIRACLE AT THE BRITISH MUSEUM" (512). Nesbit's headline might have summed up the feelings of many Edwardians, who marveled at but were at times disturbed by the discoveries and reckonings emanating from the British Museum, particularly those of Egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge, the keeper of the Museum's Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. Nesbit, well known for her fantasies and comic family stories dedicated The Story of the Amulet to Budge. H. Rider Haggard, best-known for adventure fantasies such as King Solomon's Mines (1885) and She (1886), both of which extolled the values of the British Empire and encouraged the exploration and exploitation of Africa by white Britons also dedicated a novel to Budge, the 1910 Morning Star. That these two authors would dedicate their books to Budge is a minor miracle in itself, and deserves investigation.

Nesbit and Haggard, both successful British writers for young people, had little else in common. Although both were products of the Victorian era, Haggard spent several years in Africa, while Nesbit never left Europe and spent most of her life in London. Haggard's books generally reflect the prevailing ideas about the external empire and imperial subjects, while Nesbit's children's literature concentrates more on domestic concerns, bringing in the idea of empire only indirectly if at all. Although Haggard, already famous for writing King Solomon's Mines, wrote to Nesbit in 1886 to compliment her on her work, the letter concerned Nesbit's poetry, not her children's literature. Haggard called himself "a humble admirer of your poetic power" (Moore 121), but this appears to be the only time the two authors ever corresponded. Nesbit soon gave up poetry; Raymond Jones notes that

   Early in their marriage, Hubert contracted smallpox, and during his
   illness his business partner ran away with all of their company's
   assets. Edith was thus forced to turn her hand to various means,
   from painting cards, to delivering speeches, to hack writing, to
   support her family. ("Introduction" xiii)

Haggard left for his first trip to Egypt soon after writing to Nesbit.

Despite their differences, these authors, seemingly from different worlds, both took on the task of creating fantasies about the ancient world. Their choice of subject was not particularly striking for the Edwardian period; many of the great discoveries of ancient artifacts had been or were being unearthed during this era. Haggard participated, in an amateur capacity, in some of these archaeological digs during the last decade of the nineteenth century. Nesbit had been familiar with ancient Egypt since childhood; when her family took a trip to France, and were invited to view some mummified remains, Nesbit recalls that she eagerly "sought to meet these mummies who had cousins at home, in the British Museum, in dear, dear England" (Long Ago When I Was Young 59). Egypt was early on subsumed by Nesbit into an extension of Great Britain, so it seems an obvious choice for her time travel adventures. But the example of Egypt also provided a keen opportunity for writers of fantasy during a period of imperial decline. James Romm points out that, "the most remote spaces of the earth shared with the most distant times in history an affinity for the fantastic" (121) because, as he puts it, "narratives that can no longer be believed about the known world must retreat into the unknown, thereby preserving ... their credibility" (131). The ancient Egyptian empire was distant in time and space, and thus allowed authors to extol the virtues of empire while ignoring its problems. Additionally, stories that look outward into the Empire (or into empires of the past) act as "modernist travel tales" (Colonial Odysseys 3), according to David Adams. …


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