Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown
Here Boothby gets in his first overt digs at the colonial mindset. When Forrester gets on his high horse about property rights and the theft of the mummy, Pharos claims that he had as much right to take it as Forrester’s old man had to take it from Egypt originally. Knowing what was going on in Egypt for real at this time, i.e., wholesale rape and pillage of its cultural and historical treasures to enrich the British Museum, not to mention the military occupation of the country, makes one understand how Forrester has a hard time coming up with a decent riposte.
Partly because he’s under the spell of Pharos (disappointingly, the word ‘mesmerism’ isn’t used) and partly because he’s (cough) in love with Valerie, Forrester follows the two on a cruise to Egypt. Like Dracula, Pharos commands fear and respect among the rabble who surround him, and so has no problem in acquiring a bunch of poor souls to crew his private yacht. Indeed, Boothby has a Dennis Wheatley-esque tendency to shuttle his characters around the world at a moment’s notice, which does keep the narrative moving along at a fair clip.
Forrester has always dreamt of visiting Egypt, though admittedly not in the company of a living mummy and its attractive ward. Thrillingly, he finds it to be just as mysterious and exotic as many other Victorian heroes have done before him. The local Arabs aren’t portrayed in a particularly offensive way (which is more than I can say for the Jews, for the book is littered with occasional moments of casual anti-Semitism), though the level of orientalism here would definitely be enough to make Edward Said brandish his scimitar in anger. As in many other Victorian works of fiction, the ‘East’, and Egypt in particular, is an alien, otherworldly place. A few throwaway lines mentioning the occupying British army are included, perhaps unconsciously referencing the true theme of the novel.
Our hero follows Pharos to the pyramids of Giza, and it is here that strange things occur that set up the plot for the rest of the novel. I don’t want to spoil much more, but rest assured that Pharos is planning a revenge on the Western world that is nothing short of horrific, and has more wide-ranging repercussions than is usual for novels of this type. And while he never directly cites colonialism as the reason for his anger, it is but a small extension of his stated grievances, i.e. that the English plunder remains and artefacts from Egypt without a care for the country’s culture or religion- his own remains in particular. It’s worth mentioning that while Pharos carries out his terrible revenge all across Europe, he doesn’t consider the job done until he has destroyed England in particular.
Pharos the Egyptian is far, far more enjoyable than many other books of its type, in particular Dracula and The Jewel of Seven Stars, which is another vengeful-mummy novel also written by Bram Stoker. As mentioned earlier, the narrative of Pharos the Egyptian moves quickly and seldom drags, and its locations are fascinating, from fin-de-siecle London to the Egyptian cities and deserts and all across Europe.
Forrester is kind of a typical stodgy Victorian hero, but he’s such a privileged upper-class twit that I kind of found him to be a likeable asshole rather than a goody two-shoes. Valerie, on the other hand, is a dead loss, with Boothby neglecting to provide her with even a modicum of character. As for Pharos, he’s probably more interesting for what he represents than what he does, but he’s certainly not without his moments. His best scene is undoubtedly the one in which he reminisces at Pompeii, when we get a feel for the true horrors of being an immortal who has outlived all his contemporaries.
Unlike Stoker, Boothby has a light touch with the actual Egyptology and research. I didn’t really learn much about Ancient Egypt from this book, and to be honest I thought the story was better for it. One of the few precise historical touches involves Pharos’ backstory, in which we learn he was the chief magician for a particular Pharoah who is assumed to be the Pharoah from the Exodus story. I can’t find any evidence that Victorian historians actually believed this, but I still quite like the idea that Pharos once squared up to old Moses (he came a cropper, of course).
Aside from the colonial interpretation, Pharos the Egyptian also plays an important role in the evolution of the classic ‘vengeful mummy’ narrative. Previous works had already linked Ancient Egypt with mystical powers and characters of spectacular longevity, but the figure of the resurrected mummy had yet to be linked directly with the curse or revenge narrative. In Pharos the Egyptian
The Mummy, a film which knowingly draws on every classic or cliché trope associated with the genre since the start of the 20th century.
With the continued rise of political correctness, the kind of xenophobic scaremongering that was commonplace in Victorian literature has taken something of a backseat in recent decades. It still exists in popular movies and books, but it’s rarely as overt as it used to be. The exceptions are probably the American Reagan-era ‘80s action movies such as Red Dawn (1984) and Invasion USA (1985) in which the US is invaded by Soviet troops. But while the Russians are handy villains for a scriptwriter to use, they’re more like cartoon villains without depth, and don’t explore any anxieties that Americans may have with their current ‘empire.’
Disappointingly, there are thus far very few examples of texts that portray the fruits of American foreign policy coming back home to gain revenge. A movie about undead Afghan prisoners, ghostly Panamanian canal-builders or Cuban voodoo priestesses attacking New York would be a treat.
Illustration by John H. Bacon found on Forgotten Futures.co.uk
And what about England today, the land that once bred the Invasion Literature genre? In 1980 John Gardner warned us of the possibility of a surreptitious Soviet takeover of Britain in the thriller Golgotha. And wouldn’t you know it, they got in the back door, using (sigh) the trade unions and the Labour party to infiltrate parliament. Those lefties—one minute you think you’re voting for a welfare state, the next you’ve got Soviet tanks in Piccadilly. And with increasing Euro-skepticism among the British public as economies are crumbling and Germany once again displays its might by attempting to bind the European powers more tightly together, British movies about ‘infection’ and ‘invasion’ such as 28 Days Later can be interpreted in a different light too.
Britain’s colonial past, too, comes back to invade it when British nationals of Pakistani origin—a country ‘created’ by the British in 1947 in what could charitably be described as their ‘bungled’ exit from India—plot equally bungled anti-western terrorist attacks on the London marathon in the hilarious and sad Four Lions (2010). Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and it seems that whatever nation currently calls the tunes in international affairs will experience guilt through literary ‘invasions’ for years to come.
Pharos the Egyptian has long been out of copyright, and can easily be found as an etext online. I recommend tracking down a version with the original magazine illustrations by the fantastically-named John H. Bacon (see: Forgotten Futures.co.uk). It provides a rattlingly good story, as well as a fascination window into the Victorian fascination with Egyptology, and their unease with their colonial ‘superiority’.