Mansfield Park and Mummies by Jane Austen and Vera Nazarian
Published by Norilana Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Earlier in 2009 we were asked to imagine an alternate world in which the early nineteenth century was marked by the sudden rising of England's dead from its graves to shamble through the countryside half-rotting and mindlessly hungry for brains. As a result, the redoubtable Bennett family was compelled to seek training in ancient and secret Japanese martial arts as a way of battling this hideous menace. This intrusion of the zombiepocalypse cultural meme into a classic of English literature, entitled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, took off like wildfire and has enjoyed astonishing success.
Seeing the wild popular acclaim it was receiving, writer and independent publisher Vera Nazarian decided she could do it one better, and set forth to write her own Jane Austen mashup in which poor put-upon Fanny Price must deal with not only the social traps to which a proper young lady may fall victim, but reanimated Egyptian mummies. And quite honestly, I think that she has succeeded far beyond merely telling a more entertaining story. For while in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies the zombiepocalypse simply thrusts itself on Regency England as an alien cultural element, Mansfield Park and Mummies actually draws upon the period's role in the development of Egyptology from merely the collection of curiosities to a science that would be foundational to modern archeology.
To understand this statement, it is necessary first to examine the liminal place of Ancient Egypt in the minds of educated Regency Englishmen and -women as the beginnings of the Mysterious Orient. Unlike Ancient Greece and Rome, it was not a familiar part of the education of a gentleman -- this was, of course, a period in which an educated person was expected to have a solid foundation in Greek and Latin, and books of the period often included lengthy passages of the Classics presented without translation. But neither was Ancient Egypt so alien as China or Japan, or even India -- after all, it was mentioned in the Bible, and thus in the awareness of even their staid Puritan ancestors two centuries earlier. The patriarchs had traded with Egypt and had even taken refuge there at various points in their nomadic wanderings. Moses had gone head-to-head with Pharaoh, their emperor, to liberate the Children of Israel and return them to their home in the Levant, and in a curious reversal the Christ child was taken there by Mary and Joseph to protect him from mad, bad King Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents. And Classical sources had their fair share of references to Egypt as well, from Plato's story of Atlantis having been originally told to his father by a wise Egyptian scribe to the role of Cleopatra in the civil war that led to the end of the Republic and the establishment of the Principate by Octavian, who renamed himself Augustus.
Although Ancient Egypt was clearly present in the histories of both the Bible and Classical Antiquity which were important cultural touchstones for English culture, Egyptian culture itself had exerted little influence upon England's cultural roots, instead standing eerily aloof. While the Levant had given England her religion and moral code, and Greece and Rome the wellsprings of her art, architecture and literature, Egypt remained alien. Even its gods with their animal heads seemed to have little or nothing to say to modern Western culture, unlike the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome who in their various debaucheries could be read as satires upon human foibles and follies. And while the Egyptians clearly had a written language, it stubbornly resisted decipherment for all that generations of historians had tried various techniques bordering on pseudoscience in an effort to wrest meaning from those puzzling yet delicately complex symbols with which the Egyptians loved to cover not only papyrii, but walls, ritual objects and even their embalmed ancestors, those mummies that have so powerfully captured the imaginations of horror writers.
In the closing years of the eighteenth century, Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and the subsequent Battle of the Nile and British occupation of the region helped to draw English awareness to the surviving artifacts of that ancient civilization. Although little removed from grave-robbers, since they heedlessly removed artifacts and transported them home without any thought to provenance or context and they focused primarily upon the showy artifacts of the elite, the British aristocrats who collected them did not regard them merely as items of value by which to show off their wealth and taste, but were actually interested in studying them as evidence of an ancient civilization now departed from this mortal coil.
Given that fascination with Egyptian artifacts, and suspending our disbelief of the possibility of the intrusion of the supernatural into the merely natural world of science and reason, it is not entirely implausible that Lady Bertram, her mind clouded by an ancestral curse that lay over her husband's family seat of Mansfield Park, could become so terribly obsessed with the collection and study of Egyptian artifacts that she would fill the entire house with them. And given that it is the home of a gentleman of quality, it is quite a capacious house indeed.
Of course Ms. Nazarian takes a few historical liberties. As she states in her after-note, the famous Egyptologist Georg Ebers was not even born in Jane Austen's time, and the opera Aida would not be staged until 1871. In addition, critical elements of the storyline presuppose the full decipherment of the heiroglyphic writing system, which did not occur until Champillion's breakthrough in 1820 which revealed that it was neither purely alphabetic (like Hebrew, Greek, Latin or English), nor purely ideographic (like Chinese), but a mixture of alphabetic and ideographic systems that had developed over generations as Egyptian scribes struggled to make what was originally an ideographic/rebus system deal with increasingly abstract theological material about the afterlife and how one could assure one's good standing within it.
But we can forgive such minor anachronisms, for Ms. Nazarian's skilled and witty interpolations make us really believe that the Bertram household regards the study of the heiroglyphic writings as essential as the mastery of Greek and Latin, and that Lady Bertram can read it with sufficient skill to not only decipher the Book of the Dead, but actually perform the ritual of the Opening of the Mouth found within it sufficiently skillfully that she could raise the mummy of an ancient Pharaoh to a semblance of life.
Only a semblance, for the true Resurrection can only be effected by One far higher than herself, and that Resurrection is for a time yet to come. And thus we have the element that has provided the driving force for so many horror stories: the undead, the being suspended in a liminal existence somewhere between life and death, ever longing for full restoration of life but never able to attain it, and able to maintain its semblance of life only by the continual preying upon the truly living.
However, this is most emphatically not a horror story -- that is, a story of gruesome death and destruction intended primarily to quicken our senses of fear and revulsion, in which the protagonists can only hold out against the malevolent supernatural. No, what horrific elements there may be are primarily by suggestion, for this is first and foremost a humorous story, a parody rather than a butchery. Thus the resurrection of the Mummy into pseudo-life by Lady Bertram is not one of terror, but of prim English manners colliding with the confusion of a corpse that has just been infused with a semblance of life and is struggling to regain full functionality. As a result, the revivified Pharaoh East Wind and his various minions are constrained to consume only a portion of the life-force of any one victim, spreading their depredations throughout the staff as a renewable resource to be managed -- and creating the absurd images of servants going off on various tasks only to show up hours later with no memory of how or why they wandered off those errands, and feeling most definitely odd.
And that's the situation poor relation Fanny Price has to deal with. Edmund, that upright stick of a man for whom Christian duty is first and foremost and who hopes to enter holy orders in the Church of England, has long known that some dreadful Curse lies upon his family's home, and even told Fanny as much when she first came to be fostered under their roof. But as time has gone by, he's become increasingly reluctant to discuss that Curse, the more the evidence mounts that something Very Strange Indeed is afoot and the mysterious, handsome Lord Eastwind is something far more than an aristo who recently spent some time in the tropics, for all that he wears suits of the most fashionable cut money can buy from London's finest tailors. Particularly when he begins to show an increasing interest in Fanny, alluding mysteriously to long-deserted cities upon the Nile and a time-sundered love.
For unlike the traditional horror story of the undead, in which the revivified mummy is Evil Through and Through, incapable of free will and a Menace because it's a Menace, Lord Eastwind is still capable of that redeeming grace known as love. And that sympatico of caritas provides the key by which Fanny, that good and pure soul who cheerfully bears all the burdens placed upon her shoulders, may be able to offer him a portion of hope in the process of laying him to rest once and for all and thus banishing all his various minions that had risen along with him to wreak havoc first upon Mansfield Park and then in various diverse parts of England.
And that's what makes this novel work so much better than the earlier monster-mashups of Jane Austen's classics -- because the horrific elements are so splendidly understated, handled in the fashion of a comedy of manners, and deftly woven so deftly into the text that it seems perfectly natural that they should be there. Even that mysterious creature known as the Brighton Duck, the nature of which is never fully established but which is suggested to have slipped through some interstitial gap in the fabric of space and time created by the spells by which the Pharaoh is returned to life, is in equal measures frightening and absurd to the point of laughter.
And then there are the "scholarly" footnotes peppered throughout the text, dealing largely with the ways in which the English language has changed in the two centuries since Miss Austen penned her original tale. In a tone at first politely admonishing but growing increasingly shrill, the annotator reminds us that these words did not yet have the sense in which they commonly are used today, and that no improper or impure intent should be imputed upon the text. It would appear that someone has had at least one unpleasant experience with a certain kind of adolescent who has nothing better to do than to seek out any possible risque secondary meaning in the most innocent expression and snicker over it, to the distraction of all who wish to carry on a serious conversation. (The reviewer once had to drop a course because of just such individuals, since the instructor could not regain control of the classroom).
There's only one warning to be offered: under no circumstances read this book while eating or drinking. Neither the author, nor the publisher, nor the reviewer can be held responsible for any bodily harm or property damage which may result from failure to heed this caution.
Review posted December 14, 2009.