Victorian Popular Fictions 6.1 10 Craske

 

Eleanor Dobson, Victorian Alchemy: Science, Magic and Ancient Egypt. London: UCL Press, 2022, 262 pp. Hb £45. ISBN 978-1-78735-850-8. Pb £25. ISBN 978-1-78735-849-2

Reviewed by Michael Craske

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Recommended citation: Craske, Michael. 2024. Review of Victorian Alchemy: Science, Magic and Ancient Egypt, Victorian Popular Fictions, 6.1 (Spring): 131-2. ISSN: 2632-4253 (online) DOI: https://doi.org/10.46911/NZHH1219

The very best academic books continually force the reader to stop reading them. References, quotations, and sharp interpretations interrupt the process. The reader puts down the book, scurries off to consult libraries and download yet more books, but the result is a dialogue that sets off chains of ideas and inspiration for further research. Eleanor Dobson’s Victorian Alchemy is such a book. Each page crackles with an extraordinary and eccentric energy, which is perfect for a work on the intersection of Victorian science, magic, and Egyptology. Following on from her previous research on Egyptology’s influence on Victorian literature (2020, 2021), this work also investigates those “ambiguous points where boundaries collapse” between science and magic, Egyptology and so-called mystical “Egyptosophy” (10), demonstrating how Ancient Egypt was consistently drawn upon to clarify “overlapping understandings of science and magic” (13). But the result is an expansive and all-encompassing investigation, demonstrating a formidable scholarship which effortlessly brings together a huge range of sources and critical views, even if the category of ‘Victorian’ is frequently strained. (Given the work’s interest in dissolving categorical boundaries, though, this could be interpreted as a virtue.)

            Arranged thematically, each chapter focusses on a particular intersection between science and magic. The first deals with illusion and theatrical technology and shows how Egyptian iconography was frequently used in Victorian performances to establish an aura of ancient authenticity. Starting at Piccadilly’s well-known Egyptian Hall (built in 1812), which housed Belzoni’s exhibition of Seti I’s sarcophagus in 1821, Dobson discusses the hall’s association with spiritualism and illusion throughout the nineteenth century and beyond. This includes descriptions of the performances of various magicians, including Joseph Stoddart (1831-66), whose hugely popular 1865 “sphinx” illusion involved his disembodied head, wearing an Egyptian nemes headdress, answering audience questions from the stage. The chapter then discusses magic lanterns and photographic trickery and how these effects were frequently alluded to in fiction depicting Egyptian magic and phantasmagoria, such as Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra (1889). Through this, a central concern of the nineteenth-century expression of modernity is addressed, that of ways in which the gulf between the ancient and modern could be bridged, with the former effectively revived to live again in the awe-struck senses.

            The second chapter expands on this discussion, looking at fictional representations of the re-discovery of ancient civilisations, particularly through explorations into Africa and other “distant” realms as well as through time travel. Using Haggard’s She (1886–7), Baroness Orczy’s By the Gods Beloved (1905) and the novels of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, Dobson shows how Egyptian antiquity is often paradoxically evoked to explore ideas about futurity and even to discuss the end of time and the ultimate death of humanity.

            The third chapter further expands on these ideas about modernity with a fascinating discussion of electricity, the effects of which must have seemed magical when the first light bulbs were turned on in public spaces, and not least when the British Museum lit up its Egyptian exhibits with electricity in the 1890s. Here, Dobson establishes the “myriad connections between ancient Egypt, electricity and the electro-magnetic spectrum across the nineteenth century” by exploring works that use Egypt as an “imaginative springboard” (121) and suggest antiquity as possessing a scientific wisdom that Victorians could learn from. Indeed, many electrical demonstrators, including the flamboyant “scientist-cum-showman” (17) Nickola Tesla (1856–1943), would claim electricity as the origin of Egyptian magic; he had, in effect, rediscovered it. Such claims found their way into fantastical fiction, and the many examples of this suggest, as Dobson explores, that “science and antiquity” were in “a dangerous embrace” (171), not least because of the concurrent discovery of the transformative, alchemical but potentially destructive powers of x-rays and radioactivity.

            A final chapter looks at dreams, trances, and telepathy, and starts with an illuminating discussion of a pageant play by Louis N. Parker (1852–1944) called Joseph and his Brethren (1913), which presumably owes something to the 1823 verse drama of the same name by Charles Wells that was much beloved by the Pre-Raphaelites. In Parker’s play, Potiphar’s wife is plucked from biblical obscurity to be given the name Zuleika and is a magician in a typically sexually confident fin-de-siècle style. However, her attempted seduction of Joseph, Dobson argues, is not so much femme fatale but rather mirrors the typical instructions of the stage mesmerist (“‘Look into mine eyes’” (180-1)), thus bestowing parapsychological abilities on the character. This discussion leads into further examples of extraordinary mind powers shown by literary characters of the late nineteenth century, such as in Marie Corelli’s fiction or that of Richard Marsh, and Haggard. In doing so, the chapter focuses on the eye as the bodily centre of “abnormal powers” (183) – the eye being one of the most common Egyptian symbols – and ends with a discussion that this abnormality suggests fears about degeneration and moral collapse.

Dobson’s work ends on a note concerning the twentieth-century afterlives of this nineteenth-century Egypt obsession, not least in speculative and science fiction, film and TV. While she admits that such a survey needs a book in its own right, Dobson examines particularly persistent tropes and legacies, and, not least, misunderstandings about ancient Egypt. Indeed, the act of imaginative misunderstanding about the past is at the heart of this book, and this is an intriguing critical perspective that may be highly fruitful for the literary study of other epochs and histories. Ultimately, this is one of those expansive books that goes well beyond the usual areas of literary studies by highlighting the importance of ephemera and popular entertainment in period research.

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