Friday, December 4, 2009

The Regency Egyptologist

You may have heard about the recent Jane Austen mashups bringing sea monsters and zombies into the dear old classics Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Now Vera Nazarian, who as publisher of Norilana Books has already brought us James Fairfax, an alternate Jane Austen in which a royal decree permits same-sex marriage, now brings out her own hilarious parody, Mansfield Park and Mummies: Monster Mayhem, Matrimony, Ancient Curses, True Love, and Other Dire Delights.

As a historian (MA, Illinois State University, 1996) with a background in languages (BA in Russian Language and Literature, 1989), I find it of particular interest because, unlike the sea monster and zombie mashups, the introduction of mummies into Regency society is not merely an aventitious intrusion by the author's whim. Far from it, the period in which Jane Austen was writing was also the period in which modern Egyptology was developing as a science, casting off its roots as glorified grave-robbers to actually study the artifacts as evidence of a culture now departed from this mortal coil. Most critically, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone by Napoleon's forces made possible the decipherment of the Egyptian sacred writings, the heiroglyphics, and opened the books of Egyptian religious and secular writing. Henceforth historians would be able to examine Egyptian temple and palace records much as they had long been able to read ancient Greek and Roman documents.

But Egyptology wasn't that far removed from its grave-robbing cousins yet. Artifacts were regularly removed from their original locations with little or no concern for preserving provenance or context, and certainly no concern whatsoever about respect for the cultures that had originally created them. Mummies were regularly brought to Britain and unwrapped in exhibitions little better than circus sideshows in a process that destroyed incalculable amounts of information about them which later generations could have learned through non-destructive means. Never mind the question of disrespect for the people whose mortal remains these were.

Now imagine that by supernatural means the ancient Egyptians forcibly expatrated from their beloved Nile Valley are able to express their objections to this mistreatment. Thus that nagging feeling of violation and guilt manifests itself in the form of the horror novel in which the mummy rises and objects in the most forceful manner possible to his victimization. Frightening as the traditional mummy movie may be, might there be just a little sense that the anonymous Ancient Egyptian beneath those wrappings has a reason to be wandering about and mugging presumptuous moderns?

But Vera Nazarian is not a writer of the gruesome variety of horror. No, her weapon is the subtle rapier wit that Jane Austen wielded against her own contemporaries, drawing instead upon the liminal unease of a world in which the boundaries between dead and living have drawn dangerously thin. The darkly handsome young gentleman with the raptor beak of a nose and the guttural accent isn't a Jewish banker from the Continent or even an Arab sheik, but an Ancient Egyptian prince returned from the grave to woo our beautiful young heroine Fanny Price -- leaving us to wonder what might befall her should she yield to his blandishments. And if he has been able to break the Law of Death and return to the land of the living, might it be possible that other boundaries could grow weak and even dissolve away, allowing the supernatural to run wild in the staid society of the English upper crust? Vampires and werewolves cast a dark shadow across the ancient writing that mysteriously appears upon a whitewashed English wall, and just what is that creature known only as the Brighton Duck?