As another Mummy movie hits the big screen it is interesting to look back at the first iteration of the genre. The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century is an 1827 novel written by a 20 year old – Jane Webb. As with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which partly inspired Jane, It was unusual for such topics to be tackled by women. At that time in London there had also been a fashion for everything Egyptian as well as an exhibition of mummies in the capital after the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt.
Jane’s father had been a wealthy manufacturer, but when she was in her teens he lost his fortune and died when she was seventeen. There was a pressing need to earn money, so she turned to writing to support herself and her family.
While Frankenstein has a pessimistic outlook about society and human behaviour, The Mummy! has a more optimistic tone and some satirical digs at London society. Cheops, the Mummy that comes to life by means of galvanism, is more benign than Mary Shelley’s monster, and readily gives advice on politics and life. The twenty second century in which the novel is set is full of creative ideas such as women wearing trousers, automated surgeons, moon colonisation and a form of internet.
It also has an surprising invention, the steam mower, which was sufficiently revolutionary for The Gardener’s Magazine to positively review the book. John Louden, the most famous horticulturalist of the day then asked to meet the author. Louden was forty seven, crippled with arthritis and had lost an arm after a botched operation. As the book had been published anonymously, he was amazed and impressed to find that the author was a woman and he promptly married her.
Jane abandoned her science fiction career and worked with her husband on his gardening projects with spectacular success. She realised there were no gardening books for ordinary people who were not professionals in the field, so she wrote the hugely successful The Ladies’ Companion to the Flower Garden in 1821, which she illustrated herself and which sold over 20,000 copies.
Their marriage lasted sixteen years until Loudon’s death from lung cancer, and Jane went on to support herself and her ten year old daughter by writing and editing a woman’s magazine.
I’m not sure how Jane Louden Webb would have enjoyed the latest version of The Mummy, with a its villainous resurrected female princess, but then in the fourteen or so Mummy movies, none of the eponymous characters have ever been benign. Time for a rethink?
Suzanne Burdon is author of Almost Invincible, A Biographical Novel of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. She is currently working on a novel about Lord Byron.