Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Sleeping Beauties: Mummies and the Fairy-Tale Genre at the Fin De Siecle

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Sleeping Beauties: Mummies and the Fairy-Tale Genre at the Fin De Siecle

Article excerpt


If this be sleep, how soft! if death, how fair!

(Wordsworth, 1835: 56)

Largely held to be macabre and unattractive objects in the contemporary cultural consciousness, mummies--specifically female mummies--were, in fact, decidedly beautiful in the fiction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Depicted thus by male authors who were predominantly male, the mummified female body functions as a site of both sexual and imperialistic desire. (2) Indeed, a number of critics including Ailise Bulfin, Nicholas Daly and Bradley Deane have identified that the body of the mummy in this period is caught up in a web of concerns: the sense of male entitlement to the female body (particularly pertinent at the moment that saw the emergence of New Woman), (3) as well as British entitlement to the East (specifically to Egypt), which was often, as Edward Said notes in Orientalism (1978), depicted as the feminine foil to the masculine West. (4) This essay seeks to contribute to this critical conversation by demonstrating how these narratives conform to, and indeed defy, the conventions of the fairy-tale genre, a form intimately entwined with feminist debate. These narratives rely upon the objectification of "Sleeping Beauties" to present these denizens of Egypt as collectible commodities, but, ultimately, the denial of a "happy ending" suggests the foolhardiness of imperialistic attempts to appropriate Egypt and her antiquities. (5)

To begin, I wish to turn briefly to two works by the artist John Collier that illustrate the parallels that this essay perceives in mummy fiction and the fairy tale. The first of these, The Sleeping Beauty (Fig. 1) was completed in 1921, though its subject matter and execution is distinctly Victorian. A medieval-era Sleeping Beauty reclines on an ornately carved bed in a castle interior; her two unconscious attendants frame her body with their own. Comparing this image with Collier's earlier 1890 painting, The Death of Cleopatra (Fig. 2) reveals a number of telling commonalities. Again, the royal woman lies upon a decorative couch inside a palace; two female attendants flank her. Of course, Cleopatra is not sleeping at all: having succumbed to the poison of the asp, she has yielded to the grasp of death and cannot be awakened. Her attendants, presumably Charmion and Iras, adopt similar poses, one dead or dying on the ground, while the other supports herself languidly on one arm, about to fall to the floor. (6) Considering these paintings concurrently emphasises the desire that drives most mummy fiction: like Sleeping Beauty, Cleopatra lies, luminous and desirable, seemingly awaiting a prince's kiss to revive her. As Nina Auerbach has identified, there is an "alluring conjunction of women and corpses" present in literature of the fin de siecle, mirroring late Victorian and early Edwardian society's increasing interest in the supernatural (1982: 15). I would add, however, that fiction concerning the ancient Egyptian female relies on this trope in a particularly significant way. This longing for the ancient Egyptian woman, the hope that she is not dead as she first appears but rather, like Sleeping Beauty, in a dormant state, is not unusual. Indeed, as I will demonstrate, much of mummy fiction conforms--initially--to the outline of this fairy tale, in the rendering of the (frequently) royal female as physically desirable and fundamentally passive.

Sparked by the publication of a number of translations and anthologies, such as the works of Hans Christian Andersen, a popular cultural interest in fairy tales developed in Britain in the early nineteenth century (Keene, 2015). This fervour cast its shadow over a variety of discourses, including archaeology. Virginia Zimmerman, for example, records that the excavations of Pompeii begun in the eighteenth century were spoken of in fairy-tale terms in the nineteenth:

   Many writers allude to Sleeping Beauty to describe their magical
   powers to reverse the volcano's eruption and the passage of time. … 
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