In the past month I've finally been able to return to the British Library. I'd had a number of things I'd been wanting to see, including two issues of the Victoria Quarterly, a Jamaica-based literary journal published in the 1890s. Having first learned about the journal in the course of researching last month's post "Colonial Archaeology in the Caribbean", I was hoping to see the issue in which Lady Edith Blake published the article on her excavations on a kitchen midden at Norbrook (Northbrook), near Kingston.
But it was not to be – the British Library's two issues were not the ones in which Blake's article appeared. But all was not lost – in flipping through one issue, from July 1892, I came across Mrs Spencer Heaven's story "My Family Mummy".
The plot summary is as follows: a party of young cousins are in the ancestral family home over the Christmas holidays. The one 'grown up' around – Aunt Bessie – leaves them to their own devices and only communicates with them through (affectionate) notes. As boredom descends upon the young folks, one of them remarks that the family has a mummy stored away in the attic, a 'relic' of a long-dead ancestor's travels in Egypt. All the others are determined to see the mummy and so they make a pilgrimage to the attic. One of the girls, Maud, sees the mummy for what it is – a human being – and tells the others that respect should be paid to it. Eventually she convinces everyone that the mummy, nicknamed "Miss Pharaoh" should be reburied. After some discussion, during which it is determined that no suitable ground could be found for the reburial, Maud decides that cremation would be best. A day is chosen, the fire built and "Miss Pharaoh" burned. The cousins abandon the fire to the care of servants and go to town, but it transpires that eventually the servants are arrested for murder; the police have found a burning corpse in thier charge. The young folks are both horrified and convinced that "Miss Pharaoh" is seeking revenge. However, the story ends tidily with them rescuing the servants from probable hanging by explaining the situation in court.
The story is presented as being an anonymised re-telling of events that actually happened – whether or not that is true I'm not sure! But it's certainly fictionalised, if not fiction. Having literally just listened to an excellent panel on ancient Egyptian human remains ("Your Mummies Their Ancestors") this 19th century story reflects a discussion about how 'mummies' are viewed, displayed and interpreted that is still continuing today.
[Originally from Devon, Selina Frances Smyly married De Bonniot Spencer Heaven of "The Rambles" and "Whitfield Hall" Jamaica in 1864. She lived in Jamaica for many years before returning to Britain, where she died in 1911. She was a musician and botanist as well as a writer.]
Colonies and India. 1893 [News]. [British Newspaper Archive]. 4 Feb: 11.
Exeter and Plymouth Gazette. 1864. Abbotsham. Wedding Festivities. [British Newspaper Archive]. 11 Nov: 6.
Heaven, Mrs Spencer (Selina). 1892. My Family Mummy. Victoria Quarterly 4 (2): 16-26.
Stienne, Angela (Ed). Mummy Stories[Blog]
Western Daily Press, 1911. Deaths. [British Newspaper Archive]. 26 June: 10
Hartland and West Country Chronicle. 1911. [News] [British Newspaper Archive]. 15 June: 9.