|Société d'Édition et de Publications (1906)|
This episode, we get wrapped up in Conan Doyle’s Mummytastic horror classic, ‘Lot No 249’ (1892).
You can read the story here: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Lot_No._249
An audiobook version read by Greg Wagland can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5A89sKeMGM
Listen to the episode here:
Or at our Youtube channel, www.youtube.com/@doingsofdoyle. Closed captions will be available two days after the video is uploaded.
Abercrombie Smith is studying for his final year medical exams at Oxford when his work is interrupted by a commotion in the rooms underneath his which are occupied by Edward Bellingham, a brilliant student of Eastern languages. Summoned to help Bellingham, who has apparently suffered some sort of shock, Smith is astonished by his fellow student’s chambers which seem more like a strange museum than living quarters. Central to the array of ancient Eastern artefacts is an Egyptian mummy, close to which lies an unrolled papyrus scroll…
Writing and publication history
Most probably based on Conan Doyle’s experience of visiting the Egyptian collections in the Louvre and British Museum.
ACD first visited Paris in June 1876, on his way back from studying in Feldkirch, Austria. He certainly visited the Louvre in November 1888 as he wrote to his mother, on 14 November, about an idea for a story set in the museum.
In March 1891, ACD moved from Southsea to London and took a flat at 23 Montague Place, a stone’s throw from the British Museum. He applied for a reader’s card for the library shortly thereafter.
The story was first published by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in September 1892, although how ACD came to be involved with Harper’s is not known (Andrew Lang is the likely connection). In January 1891, Harper’s commissioned The Refugees, which had a notoriously difficult gestation (see Episode 13). Conceivable ‘Lot No 249’ was written to appease the publisher for late delivery of the serial. The story was later collected in Round the Red Lamp (1894).
Reaction was very positive, notably from Rudyard Kipling who said the story gave him his first real nightmare in years.
The British Museum connection
|E A Wallis Budge|
Budge assisted E. Nesbit with her book The Story of the Amulet (1905-6), which was later dedicated to him. He was also friendly with Walter Bessant and Henry Rider Haggard. Budge also had encounters with theosophists, spiritualists and occultists who attended the Museum and, in some cases, wanted to hold psychic experiments on site.
Political and cultural context
|Bullock's Museum aka the Egyptian Hall|
Popular interest grew thereafter, with phases of Egyptomania. In the 1820s, an Egyptian Hall could be found on Piccadilly. In the 1830s and 40s, there were public Mummy unwrappings. The Egyptian Avenue in Highgate Cemetery dates from the 1840s. The work of Flinders Petrie, the father of modern Egyptology, in the 1880s was closely followed by the public too.
In 1882, nationalist uprisings in opposition to European control of the Khedivate of Abbas II in Egypt, led to Britain and France sending expeditionary forces to protect their access to the Suez Canal. By the end of 1882, Egypt was a British protectorate in all but name. Although popular thinking was that the British would stay only so long as needed to prop up Abbas II, they stayed decades.
Roger Luckhurst, in his excellent book The Mummy’s Curse – The True History of a Dark Fantasy (2012), ascribes the change in political circumstances to Mummy stories taking a more gothic turn around this time. There was also an emerging tension between Ancient and Modern Egypt, with ACD lacking any serious interest in the ancient world and being more interested in the modern during his visit in 1896/97.
Notable early Mummy Stories
Jane Webb (sometimes Loudon), The Mummy – A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827).
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Some Words with a Mummy’ (1845).
Theophile Gautier, ‘The Mummy’s Foot’ (1840) – influenced ACD’s The Brown Hand (1898), Hester White’s The Dead Hand (1904) and Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903).
Grant Allen, ‘My New Year’s Eve Among the Mummies’ (1879).
1880s Mummy curse rumours
The Unlucky Mummy – the Mummy board (inner coffin lid) ascribed to a priestess of Amen-Ra. Purchased by Thomas Douglas Murray, and ultimately donated to the British Museum by a friend, Mrs Wheeler, in July 1889. The curse was investigated by Bertram Fletcher Robinson and popularised by W. T. Stead in Pearson’s in 1909.
The Coffin of Nesmin – Purchased by Walter Herbert Ingram in 1884. The associated curse was known to Kipling who relayed it to H. Rider Haggard in 1889.
Another notable curse that ACD may have heard relates to Henry Rider Haggard and (another) Nesmin – Purchased by H. Rider Haggard’s brother, Andrew, and shipped back to Britain. Henry promptly got rid of the Mummy. See Tom Pocock, Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire (1993), pp.69-70 for the story.
The Oxford setting probably is to signify it as a bastion of Western knowledge, to contrast with the more insidious wisdom of the East. In The Firm of Girdlestone, ACD characterised Oxbridge as an extension of public-school life, some of which carries through into the depiction here. In the 1880s, Cambridge had a better reputation for oriental studies than Oxford, and Bellingham would probably have been better suited there.
Masculinity is a major theme of the story, with Abercrombie Smith and Jephro Hastie as athletic, model students and Britons. The description of Lee is more exoticised and he is painted to fit the mould of the female victim. Bellingham has counter-masculine characteristics, is swarthy, fat, and unhealthy looking. Importantly, Smith says he is “unmanned” by his encounter with the Mummy. The Mummy, too, is male, in contrast to many earlier stories.
Bellingham is a stereotype of the archaeologist, a role that required far more hardiness than the student appears to possess. Bellingham’s rooms are similar to other rooms in The Narrative of John Smith, Sholto’s room in The Sign of the Four, and ‘The Surgeon of Gaster Fell’, which are probably something of ACD’s wish-fulfilment!
‘Lot No 249’ is another example of Imperial Gothic. Here, though, the Mummy has no agency, while Bellingham is the prime agent. The influence of the East is in the corruption of Bellingham through the parchment.
The story makes a specific point about the limits of scientific knowledge, to stress the danger of Bellingham’s knowledge from the East.
Lot No 249’s lasting influence
|All hail Rubbatiti|
Notable authors influenced by ACD include: Arthur Machen, The Three Imposters (1895); E and H Heron, The Story of Baelbrow 1898); Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903); Sax Rohmer’s Brood of the Witch Queen (1918); Algernon Blackwood, The Nemesis of Fire (1908); Ricardo Stevens, The Mummy (1923); and H. P. Lovecraft’s own ‘Under the Pyramids’ (1924), which was ghost written for Harry Houdini.
Universal Film’s The Mummy (1932), starring Boris Karloff, combines ‘The Ring of Thoth’ and ‘Lot No 249.’ After this, the Mummy entered the mainstream and was spoofed by Abbot and Costello and the Carry On team, among others.
In 1967, John Hawkesworth adapted ‘Lot No 249’ as the opening episode of his thirteen-part series of non-Sherlockian tales ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’ for the BBC. The episode is sadly lost. Mark has written a book on the series, Conan Doyle - Mystery and Adventure: Inside the Lost 1967 BBC TV Series 'Sir Arthur Conan Doyle' (Kaleidoscope, 2023), which is available here: https://www.tvbrain.info/shop/books/conan-doyle-mystery-and-adventure
|Radio Times, 5 Jan 1967, showing a scene from the Mummy's chase|
Next time on Doings of Doyle…
We are joined by Sarah LeFanu to discuss her book Something of Themselves – Kipling, Kingsley, Conan Doyle and the Anglo-Boer War (2019).
Image credits: Thanks to Alexis Barquin at The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopaedia for permission to reproduce these images. Please support the encyclopaedia at www.arthur-conan-doyle.com.
Music credit: Sneaky Snitch Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/