Mary Butts, revisionary classicism and H. Rider Haggard's Cleopatra.
In his July 1951 book review of The Cloak that I Left, Lilias Rider Haggard's biography of her father, Graham Greene addresses H. Rider Haggard's vivid power of "enchantment", and how such power is inextricably tied to the "violent images" with which his fictional texts are replete. Like Jim in Greene's 1988 novel The Captain and the Enemy, who has read King Solomon's Mines four times, Greene registers a hallucinatory strangeness in Haggard's adventure stories that never "wear[s] away". By the 1920s, legion middlebrow reviewers had accused Haggard of being little more than a "sensation writer", whose "meretricious artifice" pandered to "bloodthirsty instincts" and "unwholesome appetites" (Rashleigh 45). This is not the gist of Greene's book review however; he articulates instead the "violence" of Haggard's impatient dismay at the inhibiting reflex of cool rationality. Indeed, Greene declares that the "poetic element in Haggard's work", which smudges lyrical description and meditation, "breaks out where the control fails. Because the hidden man was so imprisoned, when he does emerge from the tomb, it is against enormous pressure, and the effect is often one of horror". (Greene 158) Here Greene presents an author given more to rapt reverie than to sober chronicle, to inspiration than to intellection. Haggard's fictions enact and explore startling flights away from the concrete particularities of present time, thus dissolving the markers of possessive individualism. In a region of the "fantastic", Haggard weighs the merits, potentialities, and drawbacks of John Keats's "Negative Capability": "uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (Keats 193).
Haggard's aesthetic strategy of measuring the minutiae of social circumstance against the buried self of subconscious prompting-what lies beyond the lip of the apprehensible-is revelatory for Graham Greene, whose essay "The Lost Childhood" traces the origins of his novelistic obsessions to the narratives he had absorbed in early adolescence, especially King Solomon's Mines (Greene 13). Greene's verdict is striking because he does not position Haggard primarily as a stolid proponent of imperial romance; far from it. Like those contemporary pundits of Haggard's critically overlooked texts such as The Mahatma and the Hare: A Dream Story (1911) who discussed the author's leaning towards the paranormal and the recondite, Greene construes Haggard as a harbinger of the modernist uncanny. He concludes that Haggard is an author of viscerally compelling intensity, whose fascination with spiritual trance and sudden expressions of the unconscious function as "a prophecy of the future" (Greene 157). This mapping of esoteric lore supplies a critical lens through which to magnify the link between psychic aberration and geopolitical strife; what Haggard terms in Cleopatra (1889)"the destiny of Empires" past and present (Cleopatra 8).
Graham Greene's portrayal of Haggard as a tireless excavator of the atavistic, the instinctual and the numinous was partially indebted to the British avant-garde author Mary Franeis Butts (1890-1937), whose interwar journalism scrutinized Haggard's "imaginative archaeology". Published in The Bookman in four parts between January and April 1933, Butts's essay "Ghosties and Ghoulies: The Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction" was at the time one of the most subtle attempts to translate Haggard's aesthetic repertoire into an exacting modernist idiom. Instead of foregrounding, like Graham Greene, the perennially popular texts such as She (1887) and King Solomon's Mines (1885), she turns-in a bold and surprising "knight's move"-to the primal vision imbuing what she calls Haggard's "neglected masterpieces":
Who to-day reads Stella Fregilius, Cleopatra or The World's Desire? [...] From these and other forgotten books one learned [.] the rules of mysticism, the sentences which crystallise the mystic's experience and belief. An exciting story illustrated them; and if Victorian morals and if certain historical ignorance made him condemn Cleopatra for not being married to Antony, his portrait of the queen is not vulgar. He had a sense of the mysterious links and repetitions of history- Cleopatra strung like her own pearl on a thread of beauty and disturbing power running through man's history. ("Ghosties" 356)
Graham Greene's "violent images" and his friend Elizabeth Bowen's sense of an "explosive charge" (1) imbuing Haggard's narrative prose fiction invite comparison with the "disturbing power" which Butts lauds in defiance of seminal interwar cultural commentators such as Malcolm Elwin, whose Victorian Wallflowers (1934) mocked Haggard and his romancer acolytes as maladroit hacks.
Butts utilizes Haggard's Cleopatra, the most ambitious of its author's novels according to Murray's Magazine at the time of first publication, as inspiration for her own revisionary classicism in her 1935 novel Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra. In her Bookman essay Butts evokes the core tropes of Haggard's other "forgotten books": the ruined Phoenician fortress and hidden loot of Benita: An African Romance (1906), the ancient Egyptian codes of courtly and hierarchical formality in The Way of the Spirit (1906), and the ambience of superstitious dread imbuing The People of the Mist (1894). Butts's critical survey positions her admired literary precursor not as the smug "son of a manor upholstered by centuries of comfort and social amenity" (Collins 108-111). Rather she views an author whose temperamental bias is at odds with a hidebound Victorian culture of "dogmatic materialism" ("Ghosties" 334), embodied for example by thetruculent scepticand scientist Blickley in Haggard's When the World Shook (1919). Perhaps mindful of how Haggard weaves reincarnation motifs into his later fictions such as Moon of Israel (1918), Butts interprets him as an avatar of her own novelistic project, which is to salvage "the old motif of ghost and spirit"; as well as "our occasional sense of awareness of other forms of life" than those "shown us by our senses" ("Ghosties" 334). Haggard, in her judgement, charts the steady accrual of archaeological data that is passed on through generations not only as tangible vestiges like tattered "papyrus rolls" (Cleopatra 1); but also as a subliminal heritage that is far from impersonal: a medley of ancestral "echoes", elemental "harmonies" (Cleopatra 52, 60) and elliptical auras. In a genre heavily reliant upon depictions of witchcraft and elemental agencies, Butts's validates how Haggard transcends the "common business" of his less gifted literary peers. He triggers
[n]ot simple horror or terror at a new and generally evil world, usually invisible but interlocked with ours; we mean also a stirring, a touching of nerves not usually sensitive, an awakening to more than fear-but to something like awareness and conviction or even memory. A touching of nerves inherited from our savage ancestors. ("Ghosties" 335)
A "touching of nerves" wittily puns on familiar accusations levelled against the "sensational school" of the 1860s, epitomized by Wilkie Collins's novel The Woman in White (1859), a volume that was guilty, according to the cultural commentator Henry Mansel, of violating sanctioned modes of mimetic realism by a profusion of lurid physical data and "preaching to the nerves" (Mansel 495-6). III
Butts posits that Haggard's prodigality of invention "touches" a deep human chord, and she praises the visionary imagination which impels her predecessor figuratively to sift among the ruins of the dead. The late-Victorian middlebrow periodical press tended to call Haggard's archaeological lore into question, accusing him of reheating and repeating his own back catalogue according to the law of diminishing returns. Mary Butts by contrast interprets his Gothic figurations (treasure concealed in a subterranean crypt) as part of an elaborate fictional ceremonial in which recurrence and revenance are watchwords. His formidably prolific output reflects for her a serious effort to confront and process the hermeneutic challenges of reading the archive of a remote mythical past. As late as The Virgin of the Sun (1922), Haggard is still exploring the metaphorical possibilities of the manuscript as a recovered vestige, this time a half decayed pile of parchments found in an old chest from a curio shop, its runic inscriptions deciphered by experts at great expense (see Randell 206-7). So when Butts gauges Haggard's keen interest in "the mysterious links and repetitions of history" ("Ghosties" 356) she celebrates the motifs or "unquiet spirits" which resonate through his entire corpus of writing.
Butts proposes that Haggard's Cleopatra extends the exhumation fantasy by illustrating how "historical visions and hauntings" ("Ghosties" 336) spring from the comfortless grandeur of the North African desert. Haggard's visions evidence "the consciousness of a universe enlarged" and seem more substantial in Butts's opinion than her own "age's half shamefaced interest in supernatural beliefs" ("Ghosties" 337). Haggard's Cleopatra throws into sharp relief a cluster of discursive tensions between logical positivism and ecstatic trance; the depredations of the tourist "Foreigner" (Cleopatra 15) and the loyal "guardian" (Cleopatra 100) of deep, durable institutions; the seemingly dishevelled present of frayed "nerves" (Cleopatra 123) and the ceremonial gravitas of bygone epochs. Throughout "the adventures and the big-game hunting, the battles, the lost treasures", Haggard conveys, in Butts's estimation, that "here we are no more than shadows, working out a play on our true existence, and aware of it as shadows might be of their body" ("Ghosties" 357). Her pointed stress on "shadows" evokes the initiation and dream-visions of the priest Harmachis in Haggard's Cleopatra, who imagines himself as a "Shape of Flame" apprehending "[g]reat shadows [and] lines of darkness" in a "rolling sea of air" (Cleopatra 56). Such episodes persuade Butts that Haggard's novelistic craft is proto-modernist in scope; that is, committed to fighting a rearguard action against the inflexible rules of sociological realism, which was the dominant literary form of the interwar years. Yet, as reviewers of Haggard's The Ancient Allan (1920) contended, a novelist with his peculiar antiquarian persuasion might struggle to win over a substantial audience in a disenchanted post-war milieu:
It is rather late in the day for incantations and invocations in fiction; we have to recognise that a hard-headed, disillusioned and incredulous generation has to scramble for a living now in an utterly practical manner. [... Of] the occult powers and visions of Harmachis [...] readers now are less inclined now to surrender their reason even temporarily to the acceptance of this class of event. (Randell 206-7)
"[C]lass of event" is a key phrase in this extract, anchoring Haggard's fictional evocation of "ancient custom" (Cleopatra 65) within a system of cultural stratification. So his literary texts resonate with a lower class of readership which craves the escapist solace epitomized by his garish "picture[s] from the past" (Cleopatra 8). Butts's revisionist reading overturns this dismissive view by re-branding Haggard as a "seer" who glimpses and chronicles an intense atavistic actuality. Her interpretation of Haggard's Cleopatra prioritizes not the extrovert virility or sabre-rattling patriotism deprecated in myriad contemporary periodicals, but rather the "ghostly strength" (Cleopatra 98) of an imperious female fertility figure. This conception of a priestess is rooted in the pioneering research of her intellectual mentor, the feminist classicist Jane Ellen Harrison and the Cambridge Ritualists. Butts's essay foregroundsHaggard's ability in Cleopatra to conceptualizethe shadowy past not as inaccessibly alien; rather it is a vibrant reality which bolsters urgent personal and cultural imperatives. Butts's selective myth of ethno-cultural provenance and feudal tradition in her own interwar fiction exploits Haggard's depiction of Cleopatra's royal "blood" (Cleopatra 178) so as to reinforce rather than reconcile caste differences. Indeed, she proposes that "Mr. Haggard knew very much more than he cared to write down; that some experience of no common order lay behind the country gentleman turned popular novelist ("Ghosties" 353).
However, Butts is by no means blind to the peculiarly problematic status of Haggard's portrait of the magisterial Egyptian queen. Just as many middlebrow pundits found Haggard's later fiction overly hectoring and didactic, so Butts deplores how Haggard's Cleopatra belies her noble temperament and becomes merely a temptress who destroys those who love and trust her. This narrative arc reveals, in her account, the censorious "preaching" of a "Victorian gentleman" ("Ghosties" 357). What Butts's analysis overlooks is that Harmachis, the son of an Egyptian priest of venerable "lineage" (Cleopatra 282) and instructed as a devotee of the Isis cult, is the core protagonist in Haggard's text. By situating the young priest as the narrative linchpin, Haggard can, at precisely that historical juncture when British military forces had become embroiled in a messy Egyptian conflict, gauge the nationalistic zeal which prompts this embodiment of physical purity to "cleanse" Egypt of the Greek taint embodied by Cleopatra, the third daughter of the eleventh Ptolemy. It is likely that Butts found Haggard's choice of a priest as a "patriot of royal blood" and guarantor of Egypt's "fertile fields" (Cleopatra 14) conducive to her own ethnographic interests. She mobilizes her archaeological passion for a more forbidding purpose however: she retools Haggard's quasi-religious discourses of election and predestination, especially "the secret of religion, which is Sacrifice" (Cleopatra 54), to position her chosen few as staunch epitomes of inbred distinction and genetic "descent" (Cleopatra 39). In her own historical fiction Butts side-lines the machinations of Harmachis to regain the Egyptian throne from the Hellenic Ptolemies. Haggard's detailed focus on Harmachis has the effect of "fixing" Cleopatra as the stereotypical "strumpet" (Scenes 345) whose derogatory connotations Butts's own narrative counteracts.
Butts's Scenes from the Life of Cleopatra is on one level a commemorative literary campaign that shows relatively little interest in the male priest as custodian of the "Divine Mother", "Many-shaped", the "Executrix of Decrees" (Cleopatra, p. 57). Instead it is the "primitive" and "holy body" of Cleopatra herself which captures Butts's attention. The "primitive", for disciples of J.G. Frazer and Sigmund Freud, signified a turbulent force menacing to daily routine and which "still lay stratigraphically embedded in the human psyche" (Stout 106). Butts reimagines the primitive by developing Haggard's thesis that the female fertility figure, or "enchantress", is a dynastic defender who possesses "pure" attributes (Cleopatra 25). These qualities resist the bleak repercussions of the matrimonial code with its alteration in property rights and the status of women (see Garrity 189-230). Butts's Cleopatra, a figure of mutinous aspiration and reminiscent of the venturesome Morning Star from Haggard's 1910 novel of the same name prompts us to unpick normative national myths and the exact location of authority in advanced culture. Butts's Cleopatra unmoors the priestly "clan" from the conception that patriarchal family manners should be universally construed as the fixed foundation of civil society. In order to validate her vision of Cleopatra as a "great goddess", the "type of all things which a woman is or may become" (Ashe of Rings 13), Butts stresses a deterministic credo of "blood" immune to comparative scrutiny or logical criticism. She remakes Cleopatra as the exclusively ordained protector of what Jane Garrity has termed the "maternalized primitive" (Garrity 188-241).
Butts locates in Haggard's Cleopatra a historical personage who epitomizes her own fascination with matriarchal divinities canvassed in E. B. Tylor's seminal Primitive Culture (1871) and Frazer's multivolume The Golden Bough (1891). For Butts, the Egyptian queen dramatizes her own personal quest for secret knowledge in a late-Victorian culture that sought to veil its own contradictory valuation of female fertility. In Butts's estimation, Haggard's "little preaching" in Cleopatra discourages frank discussion of sexuality yet at the same time implies that reproduction is a married woman's paramount civic responsibility. Butts's novel demonstrates that the queen triumphantly unites "all the qualities" her own late-Victorian "culture struggled to keep apart" (Hoberman 140). This facet is thrown into relief in the section of Butts's essay dedicated to Haggard's imaginative excavations:
This is really Mr. Haggard's theme. Even in his Zulu tales he wrote about little else but a piece of some absolute beauty, divided up, usually into three, bodies of men and women; trying again to unite, slipping through each others' fingers; and according to their quality, realising or destroying themselves. ("Ghosties" 356)
Butts indicates that the key to the narrative dynamics of Haggard's Cleopatra is its portrayal of human desire as a process of endless deferral: Harmachis, the physically chaste devotee of "the Holy Isis" (Cleopatra 299), can only realise his lofty nationalistic agenda to "overthrow the foreigner" and "set Egypt free" (Cleopatra 75) if Cleopatra is slain. Yet his rapt regard for her "absolute beauty" is so acute that both his pledge of corporeal purity and plot to assassinate the queen are derailed. Harmachis is ironically undone by Cleopatra's lady-in-waiting Charmian, whose own passion for the priest is at least as vehement as that which Harmachis feels for Cleopatra, who exploits his personal frailties in order to secure the affections of Mark Antony. All these figures then, in Butts's reading, slip through "each others' fingers". Butts's terms are especially resonant when read through the prism of Jacques Derrida's "Che cos' e la poesia?", a dialogue with the ghostly, evacuated subject behind all poetic utterance; an eerie trace that erodes "the borders, slips throughthe hands, you can barely hear it" (Derrida 2989). Harmachis's attempt to record on papyrus the heightened consciousness that Cleopatra induces in him is as tragically doomed as his insurgent impulse to liberate his homeland from the predatory outsider's "yoke" (Cleopatra 31). The faded parchment that he leaves behind, recording his tormented and "broken years" is fractured and unfinished. Despite his claim that "[a]ll is written; I have held back nothing", his text breaks off: "Here the writing on the third roll of papyrus abruptly ends. It would almost seem that the writer was at this moment broken in upon" (Cleopatra 299). The very possibility of fulfilment in written communication as well as spiritual communion is open to doubt. In a further macabre irony, Harmarchis's "unembalmed body" (Cleopatra 7) literally slips through the unspecified narrator's "fingers" in the "Introduction": "within a few seconds from its uncovering [it] began to crumble, now that it was exposed to the action of the air" (Cleopatra 7). At the very moment of its unveiling, the archaeological "body of evidence" dissolves into an "abyss where the ghost of poetry writhes [...] unable to incarnate. You can barely hear its cries as it moves perennially towards a body which it will never achieve" (Punter 3).
Haggard's starkest image of thwarted yearning, disjunction and estrangement is the narrator's discovery, after descending into the "tomb", that the mummified corpse of Harmachis had been buried alive by his own votaries as punishment for betraying the "fervid zeal of patriotic faith" which Isis instils (Cleopatra 92). Richard Pearson argues that Harmachis is "effectively cursed by an eternal separation from his desire". The "symbolic unwrapping" through the parchment narrative located with his remains shows the priest as the victim of his own stymied libido (Pearson 218-44). He is, like Cleopatra, punished for allowing intemperate personal passion to supplant sober concerns for civic wellbeing and national security. However, this does not quite distil the essence of the narrator's "shock" when he glimpses the look frozen on "this dead man's face" (Cleopatra 7). Returning to Butts's essay, she proposes that when reading Haggard one awakens "to more than fear- but to something like awareness and conviction or even memory" ("Ghosties" 335). A "memory" of what though? Haggard's excavating narrator in Cleopatra is forced to become, in Joseph Conrad's riddling phrase, a "secret sharer"; he is reluctantly initiated into the ineffable experience which that "look" conveys. Harmachis has been secreted, while still alive, in a crudely made coffin; a liminal state suspended between womb and tomb.
The archaeological dig portrayed at the start of Haggard's Cleopatra uncovers a grisly site/sight where the customary coordinates by which one assesses felt sensation no longer hold. This may be why the narrator is unwilling, or unable, to translate or capture in the permanency of print the exact features of Harmachis's "death-mask". The term "mystical" derives from the Greek verb myein, signifying "to close" and more specifically, "to close one's eyes". With regard to the pre-Christian mystery cults that Haggard illustrates in his Egyptian romances, the word specifies those symbolic rites and local cultural productions about which the adept maintains a stony silence. As the tomb of Harmachis is prized open then, Haggard's narrator keeps his mouth shut as to what he finds "frozen" on the body of the priest; and it remains an inscrutable mystery. Ultimately the archaeological tomb is enlisted as a "focalizing point for the intersection of physical desire, morbidity, and the displacement of ideal love into a spiritual realm beyond life" (Pearson 219).
Mary Butts's version of the Egyptian queen as a "biologically determined" heroine and "giver of sanctities [on] the most ancient throne on earth" (Scenes 122) exalts rather than diminishes physical desire (see Garrity 190). Whereas in Haggard's text Harmachis must disavow bodily imperatives as part of his initiatory ordeal ("put away the thought of earthly woman" [Cleopatra 50]), Cleopatra's mystical kudos is anchored in the symbiosis of the corporeal and ethereal:
She saw herself standing alone between her kingdom and this Power, this Rome [...] Indeed she was like a person seeking an essentially spiritual victory in terms of the body. That will not do. Not because she was a specially sensual woman, but because she knew no other way. A rare body, a quick mind, immense prestige, limitless wealth was all she had. All her life, until the end, they seemed to her enough, tempering them as she did with her [.] brilliant understanding, her wit. (Scenes 264-5)
What Butts's underlines here is a mercurial, ritualized sexuality that challenges Haggard's implied link between Harmachis's purity, physical chastity and dynastic pride (see Slingsby 28). While Haggard's "Author's Note" in Cleopatra claims that the story is told not from the "modern point of view", Butts deliberately interpolates her own "modern" impressions and value-judgments.
Although Butts deprecated Haggard's indictment of Cleopatra's so-called decadence, she was no doubt impressed by his conception of Harmachis as a disciple of Isis. Haggard's authorial fascination with the Isis cult subverts early-Victorian ethnographic perceptions of this ancient religion as a byword for female sexual incontinence. In Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) for instance, the hierophants of Isis are biddable, volatile and venal (Hoberman 140-1). Informed by his careful reading of Frazer's The Golden Bough which measures the dignified restraint of Isis worship against the cruel rites and lawless caprice which characterize the veneration of rival Oriental deities, Haggard shows the beneficent power of Isis. Similarly, Butts lauds a vitalizing feminine archetype in her short story "Mappa Mundi" (1938): "the womb of Isis" is "eternally fertile, eternally bringing forth. An activity of which we were the latest eidola" (Selected Short Stories, 192). Like H. D., Butts saw herself as a self-appointed "secular Isis" (Blondel 102). This view of the divinity not only evokes the Russian emigree Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's 1877 spiritualist opus Isis Unveiled; but also the "Isis Movement" that Moina MacGregor Mathers, a follower of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had staged with her husband in Paris during the 1890s. When Butts was introduced to the occultist celebrity Aleister Crowley in the first half of 1921 her keen preoccupation with clairvoyance, divination and geomancy, partly fostered by reading Haggard's African romances, deepened. For Crowley, as for Haggard, Isis is a goddess synonymous with ideas of unstinting plenitude; an "eternal spirit" whose "majesty" (Cleopatra 60) and obedience to all of nature's appetites exposes the grudging, narrow-minded piety of suburban mores. Isis appears both as "portent" and "prodigy", symbolizing the "aeon" of the "woman", and reverence for the "Great Mother" (Crowley, 1972 399).
Butts's essay presents Haggard as a guide through the obscure "chambers" (Cleopatra 4) of the archaeological past, claiming that he "made the ancient religions live; re-evoked Isis; led one into the heart of the Pyramid to the grave of Menkau-Ra" ("Ghosties" 356). Butts admits that she is "haunted" by one of the defining episodes of Haggard's Cleopatra: Harmachis and the Egyptian Queen infiltrate the "Pyramid" so that the queen may seize the secret "treasure" of "Menkau-ra, the Osirian" in chapters ten and eleven of Book II:
We stood and gazed in awe, for the weight of the silence and the solemnity of that holy place seemed to crush us. Above us, cubit over cubit in its mighty measure, the pyramid towered up to heaven and was kissed of the night air. But we were deep in the bowels of the rock beneath its base. We were alone with the dead, whose rest we were about to break; and no sound of the murmuring air, and no sight of life came to dull the awful edge of solitude. I gazed on the sarcophagus; its heavy lid had been lifted and rested at its side, and around it the dust of ages had gathered thick. (Cleopatra 164-5)
This arduous journey into "the bowels of the rock" echoes Haggard's "Introduction" to the novel, in which he alludes to the German Egyptologist Heinrich Karl Brugsch (1827-1894), who descended into the tomb of the royal mummies in 1881. (2) Harmachis's bitter self-reproach at his own sacrilegious act-deliberately disturbing the "rest" of the holy "dead"--parallels Haggard's enigmatic ambivalence throughout Cleopatra about the claims made on behalf of modern excavatory science, which often destroyed the very curios it was supposed to salvage and preserve for posterity. So the narrator of the "Introduction" impugns the "shameless" treasure-seekers who violated "the coffin-chamber" of the "rock-hewn cave" and "broke up" the "bodies of the High Priest, Amenemhat, and of his wife, father and mother of Harmachis" (Cleopatra 1-2).
Haggard's opening gambit, detailing the "violence" and dissolution attending the archaeological dig, in which acquisitive interlopers "sell" the "very bones for a few piastres to the last ignorant tourist who came their way" (Cleopatra 1-2) foreshadows Cleopatra's ruse to steal the subterranean trinkets so as to fund her opulent lifestyle. Haggard's account of the queen's cynical manipulation of Harmachis acerbically judges the stereotypical "Egyptologist in Europe" (Cleopatra 8) as well as dilettante collectors and amateur antiquarians. Indeed, Haggard's 1906 Pall Mall Magazine article "Thebes of the Hundred Gates", notes that since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and Thomas Cook's lavish package tours along the Nile, Cairo had become a "fashion resort" and so for "the lover of old Egypt and of the East, the place" is irredeemably "spoiled". He deplores the extent to which archaeological "science in its zeal, and greed in its hunger, have between them rifled here about a thousand tombs". Haggard observes with especial dismay "Egyptian women weeping over the desecration of the mummies of their ancient kings" ("Thebes" 688-97). This concern informs his rendering of burial sites in Cleopatra that are "yet unprofaned" by avaricious "tourists" (Cleopatra 2).
While Haggard's Cleopatra and journalism concedes that the genetic study of archaic Egyptian institutions had been tainted by touristic appreciation, he is also skeptical about positive snapshots of the contemporary excavator who was "dropping a sounding-line into the oceanic depths of the remote past, and dredging up" striking "evidences of the life and labour of prehistoric man" (Swayne 3). Egyptology truly came of age during Haggard's lifetime, and he grasped better than most late-Victorian novelists how excavation as a research tool had amplified and enriched the results of surface observation and record. He is explicit in Cleopatra as to how much of his "illustrative matter" in Book I derive from recent archaeological findings. Haggard's own amateur fieldwork shows that he was responsive to the semiotic status of exhumed "fragments" (Cleopatra 227). However, in his Egyptian romances he queries empiricist techniques of documenting the material past, most of which were crude and reductive in their calibration of the relationship between artefacts and the cultures that crafted them. Indeed, Haggard concludes how "that moment of measurable time which we call" the Egyptian "Past has gone from us, and can be reconstructed only with the aid of imagination's faint and fickle gleam shining on it" ("Thebes" 696-7). Haggard's "gleam" carries complex accretions of semantic resonance in Cleopatra (it is mentioned on eight separate occasions); reminding us not only of Wordsworth's "visionary gleam" in "Intimations of Immortality" but also of his "Perfect Woman" ("She was a phantom of delight/When first she gleam'd upon my sight" [11.1-2]) which mirrors Harmarchis's highly charged response to Cleopatra's sleeping form. However much Haggard is piqued by accounts of intrepid excavators and their "triumphs" in rescuing Egyptian rarities from oblivion, he postulates that it is the novelist's "gleam", rather than the scientist's cold, estranging light of logic, which revitalizes "the legends of antiquity" (Cleopatra 9). Haggard therefore practices what Harriet Martineau called the novelistic "fairy gift" of blowing away "the sand which buries the monuments of Egypt" (Martineau 45).
In "Thebes of the Hundred Gates", Haggard avers that the "modern research" of Egyptologists has wrested precious amulets from one kind of tomb, only to immure them in a different, more sanitized crypt: physical heirlooms garnered, fabricated, and enshrined in the "glass cases" of a "new museum" such as the Great Exhibition ("Thebes" 690). Haggard indicates that late-Victorian Egyptology sought to pique the audience's appetite for an emotional "encounter" across centuries that purged the distant past of the brutish, the untidy and the "desolate" (Cleopatra 1-2). In his Pall Mall Magazine article Haggard's "new museum" approximates to a bizarre modern parody of Harmachus's subterranean shrine in Cleopatra. Haggard questions the capacity of excavated curios to transmit the ambience of a lost locality. He implies that Egyptologists have distanced themselves from and quarantined the discoloured evidence of purported cultural beginnings. Inquiries into ancient Egyptian mores decree a perceived separateness from that venerable history, and a need to extol as well as memorialize the gulf.
In Cleopatra Haggard bridges that glaring gap, providing an imaginative point of entry into "records of the past" (Cleopatra 37) that Egyptologists could only explicate through partial, mangled or incomplete tangible evidence. The Egyptologists referenced in the opening gambit of Haggard's Cleopatra, seeking a conceptual, cultural and historical classification which would lend coherence to the shards of flawed records, arrogate a certain kind of "knowledge" which affects a spurious "authority". Egyptology has produced troubling signs of historical decay (the torn papyrus, the dissolving body of Harmachis) and belatedness rather than a copious reserve to be tapped and exploited. So the historical romancer's "imagination" affords the necessary "gleam" by which to irradiate the shadowy "recesses of the desolate Libyan mountains", the "supposed burying place of the holy Osiris" (Cleopatra 1-2). In 1869, J. R. Green remarked that "History [...] we are told by publishers, is the most unpopular of all branches of literature at the present day, but it is only unpopular because it seems more and more to sever itself from all that can touch the heart of a people" (Green xi). Yet Haggard, through a canny compression of discrete time-periods, makes what might have seemed an absent past a piercingly vivid and immediate "presence" (Cleopatra. 21), indeed an intransigent actuality.
This is why Haggard assumes such cultural importance in Butts's critical essay. He employs archaeological data as a springboard to experiment with "theories of life existing beyond" our mundane perception; "theories which, in different make-ups" are "immeasurably old" and "not all accounted for by our increased scientific knowledge of the world". Haggard charts the recesses of an inland empire; he gifts his readers with what Butts terms an "atlas of unknown worlds" ("Ghosties" 335). Haggard's fictional enterprise,"convey[ing] a picture, however imperfect" of the "inmost mysteries" of old Egypt (Cleopatra,'Dedication') implicitly endorses Oscar Wilde's thesis in "The Truth of Masks: A Note on Illusion" (1891), published two years after Cleopatra. While late-Victorian cultural pundits tended to report Egyptology either as a uniquely compelling cultural phenomenon or as an evolving professional institution, Wilde repackages it not as "priggish pedantry" but as a fund of supernatural tropes, open to the visionary artist who wishes, through the gleam of surmise and speculation, to make the ancient past move "as a pageant before our eyes, without obliging us to have recourse to a dictionary or an encyclopaedia for the perfection of our enjoyment" ("Truth of Masks" 1160). Wilde asserts that the literary artist is better equipped to piece together the shattered fragments of a defunct past than those archaeologists and comparative mythographers who expound and become overly reliant on an ideal of rational spectatorship.
Wilde's claim not only harmonizes with Haggard's published remarks; it also augurs Mary Butts's notion in 1929 that the historical novelist should, with impudent brio, "take over" the "anthropologist's material" (Journals324). How else, Butts asks, can pharaonic time be captured in palpable human terms except through the creative writer's repertoire of literary effects? So she chronicles the "Pharaohs in days gone by" (Scenes 122) in a manner that relies on the "gleam" of subjective impressions. "For during the first three reigns, reigns of the Ptolemaic Pharaohs [...] it is possible to hear another pulse beating, Pulse of an earlier world, with a dawn-light still on it, and a touch of mind distilled from an earlier dew" (Scenes 122). Butts, like Haggard, is unconvinced that archaeological practice can of its own surmount the historical record's lacunae, and push back dated scrutiny to an earlier epoch for which other documentary clues were too damaged or simply non-existent. Instead she assesses and dramatizes the mysteries linked to the provenance of Isis worship, and the genetic relationship of that worship to aesthetic innovation, language, myth, matrimony and philosophy.
It is a notable irony then that Haggard's Cleopatra, so conflicted about the cultural repercussions of archaeology, was first serialized in the Illustrated London News, whose editors were at the forefront of devising breezy, eye-catching methods to expound, visualize and publicize Egyptian "finds". (3) In a magazine that frequently invited its readership to acclaim the Egyptologist as a dauntless treasure-hunter, Haggard wittily depicts Cleopatra as the consummate gold-digger, whose own descent into the subterranean crypt of the "Pyramid" (Cleopatra 78) is impelled by an acquisitive aim to fill depleted coffers. Her improvidence, according to Harmachis ("being ever wasteful, she was ever in want of money" [Cleopatra 78]) smothers any respect for the sanctity of a hallowed site. Against the motifs of the "burying-place" (Cleopatra 78) as a continual memorial of decay, stripped of any picturesque connotations, Haggard reveals Cleopatra as both fiery advocate and hapless victim of conspicuous consumption, whose domestic "resting-place" is festooned with "many coloured marbles, with gold and ivory, gems and flowers" (Cleopatra 98).
As a conscious riposte to Haggard's embellishment of description when situating the queen as a "wanton squandering the wealth of Egypt" (Cleopatra 85), Butts shows Cleopatra's ascetic resolve, and the way her rigorous "training" consecrates "the right abstinences" (Scenes 138) against a "flood of foreign luxuries" (Scenes 234). Butts's counter-narrative implies that Haggard's novel hampers its own well-intentioned effort to render the "richness and variety" of Cleopatra's mind (Cleopatra 105) by reverting to trite prejudices about a queen fatally distracted by opulent props of selfhood. In another decisive re-visioning of Haggard's text, Butts allows Charmian scope to demonstrate her commanding abilities as prophet. For Haggard Charmian is governed by petty jealousy, whispered innuendo and "strange", destructive "whims" (Cleopatra 111): "the blood of youth runs too warm in those blue veins of hers" (Cleopatra 92). This supplies a sharp contrast to Butts's rival conception: "Charmian [...] came out then, drawn up to what we call her priestess'size, as though she might be as tall as she willed, thinned to a flame-to the idea of a hierophant" (Scenes 213). Here Charmian personifies the animistic affinities for which Butts praised Haggard in her essay on supernatural fiction. Haggard does not fall into the trap of belittling "the beliefs and faiths of our ancestors as science misunderstood", or "as nothing more than a way of externalizing the unconscious' ("Ghosties" 334). "Our forefathers thought 'animistically', endowed everything that lives with life, like or unlike our own. (All artists still do.)" ("Ghosties" 335). The meaning of that clipped parenthetical clause is crucial: Butts fashions Charmian and her mistress Cleopatra as upholders of the traits which Freud undervalues in his seminal essay on "The Uncanny":
Our analysis of the uncanny has led us back to the old, animistic conception of the universe. This was characterized by the idea that the world was peopled with the spirits of human beings; by the subject's narcissistic overvaluation of his own mental processes; by the belief in the omnipotence of thoughts and the technique of magic based on that belief; by the attribution to various outside persons and things of carefully graded magical powers ("The Uncanny" 240)
Whereas Haggard's Cleopatra embarks on a self-serving odyssey of personal deification-she becomes in effect her own vanity project-Butts's eponymous protagonist, encouraged by Charmian's animistic insight, retains a humility to work as a conduit between spiritual and secular domains; she moves and speaks with "divine directness" (Scenes 300) and does not presume to act as if she were a god, for whom pre-established earthly decrees were negligible. In many respects she assumes the grave duties that weigh so heavily on Harmachus after his initiation into the Isis mystery cult: she is a "deputy [.] of the divine" who "has in some measure to play Providence to her people which means bearing more than a share of their griefs, let alone their resentments when things go wrong" (Scenes 217). Unlike Haggard, whose account proposes that Cleopatra permitted illicit desire to quash political pragmatism, Butts shows that "[g]ood interior government was as essential to [Cleopatra] as the use of her power over men" (Scenes 263). This assertion signifies that Cleopatra's "magical powers" ("The Uncanny" 240) are rooted in a sincere commitment to sober governance. Such is the "fitting end" (Scenes 316) which Butts believed Haggard's salvaging of the text of Harmachis so signally lacked. VII
What finally unites Haggard and Butts in terms of their "imaginative archaeology" is a shared sense of how the "sacred depths" (Cleopatra 3)of the archaeological site operate as a crucible for the elaboration of uncanny and Gothic motifs (see Butler 62-98). Haggard's Cleopatra opens with descent into a "tomb" (Cleopatra 7) in which the choking, oppressive residues of time ("mummy dust and spices") make the narrator feel "more dead than alive" (Cleopatra 7). And yet through the gleam of Haggard's art, defunct personalities declare their urgent presence as part of a spectral conversation between the endemic and the exotic, the recent and the remote. This sensation is what prompts Mary Butts to begin her own visionary "descent" into the Egyptian archives. Haggard's text however reveals the dangers of an author who fails to write against the grain of stereotypical portraits of the queen; what Butts calls the "oriental lady of temperament incarnate, loaded with jewels, eyelashed 'like a panther's whiskers'" (Scenes 23). Butts's novel figuratively corrects the "papyrus rolls" that Haggard's narrator exhumes, turning the torn document into a suggestive palimpsest for the next generation of readers to decode. And yet the crusading verve behind Cleopatra's effort to "play the queen" (Scenes 207) remains encrypted, or "broken off' like the last words of Harmachis himself.
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(1) Reading Haggard's She reputedly gave Bowen a sense of the vigour of individual agency, which, "came up like a reinforcement", of her own adolescent insurgency. She, Bowen proclaims, "contained thoughts and sayings I never had seen in print". Its seditious impact prepared her, "to handle any book like a bomb". (See Afterthought 107). In a short story of the Blitz inspired by She,"Mysterious Kor", Bowen links the immense impact of fictional recreation with that of an explosive charge. (See Collected Stories 730).
(2) Brugsch became director of the School of Egyptology and his associated primarily with Auguste Mariette and the excavations at Memphis. See (Pearson 218-41).
(3) Founded in May 1842, the Illustrated London News it began publication when Queen Victoria had reigned only five years and it was one of the few general periodicals to consistently report archaeological discoveries as a general practice. It was selling 20,000 copies within six weeks of initial publication and reached a circulation of 250,000 by 1852. See (Sinnema 1998).
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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