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  • The Fiction of Gothic Egypt and British Imperial Paranoia:The Curse of the Suez Canal
  • Ailise Bulfin

"Ah, my nineteenth-century friend, your father stole me from the land of my birth, and from the resting place the gods decreed for me; but beware, for retribution is pursuing you, and is even now close upon your heels."

—Guy Boothby, Pharos the Egyptian, 1899

What of this piercing of the sands?
What of this union of the seas?...
What good or ill from LESSEPS' cut
Eastward and Westward shall proceed?

—"Latest—From the Sphinx," Punch, 57 (27 November 1869), 210

In 1859 Ferdinand De Lesseps began his great endeavour to sunder the isthmus of Suez and connect the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, the Occident with the Orient, simultaneously altering the geography of the earth and irrevocably upsetting the precarious global balance of power. Ten years later the eyes of the world were upon Egypt as the Suez Canal was inaugurated amidst extravagant Franco-Egyptian celebrations in which a glittering cast of international dignitaries participated. That the opening of the canal would be momentous was acknowledged at the time, though the nature of its impact was a matter for speculation, as the question posed above by Punch implies. While its codevelopers France and Egypt pinned great hopes on the canal, Britain was understandably suspicious of an endeavor that could potentially undermine its global imperial dominance—it would bring India nearer, but also make it more vulnerable to rival powers. The inauguration celebrations were thus followed closely in Britain, the journalistic coverage characterised by speculation about the canal's effect on empire, with Punch's verse exemplifying the pessimistic view. 1 This nineteenth-century version of the riddle of the Sphinx ponders the likelihood of ensuing profit or loss, war or peace, ominously concluding: [End Page 411]

"We know what seas the work unites, who knows what sovereigns it divides." 2 As political and economic speculation proliferated, popular authors, ever attuned to the chords of societal unease and their pecuniary potential, turned in large numbers to the gothic as a suitable medium for the treatment of fears concerning the consequences of the canal for Britain. And if an answer to Punch's riddle was sought in the libraries of contemporary British popular fiction, the inescapable conclusion would be that grievous ill alone would proceed westward through Lesseps's cut from the land of the Pharaohs to the lands of those who interfered in the affairs of modern Egypt.

Despite Britain's initial wariness, the canal quickly became the lifeline of the British Empire, and the Egyptian territory adjacent to Suez became pivotally important in international relations. To protect its access to the vital waterway, Britain unofficially occupied Egypt in 1882, and the unstable status of Egypt following this quickly became a source of ongoing dispute with both emerging Egyptian Islamic-nationalist groups and the other European powers. The burning issue of Britain's ambiguous relationship with Egypt became popularly known as "the Egyptian Question," a recurrent plague to British foreign policy over the ensuing decades. Given Edward Said's assertions of the broad constitutive effect of the imperial project upon British society, of the reciprocity between the development of imperialism and the novel, 3 it follows that an issue as fraught as the Egyptian Question could not have been without an effect of its own. Other literary critics have observed the tendency for doubts and fears concerning the imperial project to be gothicized and addressed through the medium of popular fiction. 4 And indeed, contemporaneously with developments in Anglo-Egyptian politics, a subgenre of Egyptian-themed gothic fiction began to grow in popularity, within which concerns over the Egyptian situation tended to find fictional expression in the form of the supernatural invader. 5

This article aims to elucidate the reciprocal relationship between problems arising from British colonial policy in Egypt following the opening of the Suez Canal and the development of this paranoid sub-genre of popular fiction. From 1869 when the canal opened, gaining further momentum after the 1882 occupation, numerous tales positing the irruption of vengeful, supernatural, ancient Egyptian forces in civilised, rational, modern England began to appear. The most...


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pp. 411-443
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