- Women Writers & Ancient Egypt
MOLLY YOUNGKIN’S British Women Writers and the Reception of Ancient Egypt 1840–1910 constitutes the first extended study of the figure of the female Egyptian—both mortal and divine, ancient and modern—in nineteenth-century women’s writing. Scholars of the period 1840–1910 will be familiar with its better-known male-authored representations of Egyptian femininity which include H. Rider Haggard’s Cleopatra (1889) and “Smith and the Pharaohs” (1920), extensive reporting on Britain’s occupation of Egypt after 1882, and George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra (1899). In recent years these texts have been examined—most notably by Bradley Deane in “Mummy Fiction and the Occupation of Egypt: Imperial Striptease” (2008) and Roger Luckhurst in The Mummy’s Curse (2012)—in light of Victorian eroticization of the Eastern womanhood and the craze of Egyptomania. Youngkin’s book, then, with its determined focus on female authors including Florence Nightingale, George Eliot, “Michael Field,” and Elinor Glyn, is both a timely counterpoint as well as a worthy addition to the burgeoning field of nineteenth-century Egyptian receptions.
Unflinching in its adoption of a third-wave feminist perspective, this book exposes the feminist imperialism inherent in the treatment of Egyptian women by writers including Nightingale, Eliot, Field and Glyn, and the extent to which British women writers were, consciously or unconsciously, complicit in upholding Western imperial power structures, even as they championed gender equality at home. As Youngkin explains in the introduction: “British imperialism influenced women’s visions for their own emancipation—broadly defined as the ability to think, speak, and act for oneself … British women’s ideas about their own emancipation were contingent on denying emancipation to Eastern women, who were subject to the imperialist views and practices of British women.”
Unlike ancient Greece and Rome, which were familiar to Victorian culture as literary pasts as much as material, artistic, or architectural ones, the experience of Egypt was overwhelmingly material. The chapters devoted to the writings of Nightingale, Eliot, Field, and Glyn respectively benefit from a similarly persistent cross-disciplinary energy, exploring fiction, travel writing, art, architecture, sculpture, history, and theology. Chapter two in particular examines the responses of Nightingale to the art and architecture of ancient Egypt. Her travel writing, letters, and journals record reactions both aesthetic and theological to the images of, among others, Ramesses II and Nefertari at Abu Simbel. Nefertari, for Nightingale, “occupies the place which the [End Page 535] most advanced Christian civilization gives to woman” and is praised according to Western, Christian gender ideals. Although the book is prone to over-simplification of the meaning and reception traditions of ancient goddesses—Hera, for instance, is associated with “softer [feminine] qualities” with no acknowledgement of the long tradition of Hera as cruel and vengeful tormentor of Heracles—Youngkin demonstrates how gendered praise of ancient wives and goddesses often went hand-in-hand with the exclusion or rejection of contemporary Egyptian women as models of femininity and matrimonial equality.
Similarly in chapter four Youngkin offers a colourful glimpse into the cultural lives of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (“Michael Field”). They received instruction in art from the critic Bernhard Berenson, who accompanied the pair to several major museums and galleries across Europe. Their lessons are documented in a collaborative journal which Youngkin uses to demonstrate how Field, rather than reaching an understanding of the female nude rooted in the male gaze and Oritentalist visions of the eroticized Cleopatra, instead “chose the ancient Greek ideal of Venus because it offered a way to express lesbian love in a way ancient Egyptian ideals about women could not.”
This argument that Victorian women writers overwhelmingly chose to avoid references to ancient Egypt in favour of other ancient pasts is simultaneously one of the most compelling and frustrating aspects of Youngkin’s book. For a volume on receptions of ancient Egypt, the majority of the chapters have as their core thesis the fact that women writers of the period 1840–1910 downplayed or refused to engage...