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Ancient Egypt in the Time of Austen

Updated: May 4, 2022

By Stephen Ord, author of Pemberley By Midnight

In Pemberley by Moonlight, I draw influences from Ancient Egypt into the world of Jane Austen. One might wonder how knowledge of the ancient world had spread, and how the people of Regency Britain could encounter this ancient culture, but it certainly became more familiar during Jane Austen’s lifetime, when France invaded Egypt.

Andrew Knighton writes that, ‘Britain’s strength lay in its economy. If that could be undermined, then it would be far less able to field armies and navies. Much of that wealth came from India, flowing through Egypt and the Mediterranean. If France could control Egypt, then it could not only undermine the British economy but boost her own.’

So we have evidence of some grand trade routes across the British Empire, drawing in goods along with knowledge, stories, culture and no doubt some outright lies and exaggerations--yes, I’m looking at you, Colonel Fitzwilliam, with your droll tales of your travels! It would be such fun to go back in time and swap war stories with such a gentleman, were it possible.

Ancient Egypt remains fascinating for many of us. Whether we first find mention of it in the Bible, encounter tales of it at school or via documentaries or movies on the television, the fact that humans achieved a civilisation that has left such a strong stamp on the world is remarkable. Taking just the fact that in biblical times, Egypt was already an ancient civilisation and the pyramids were thousands of years old is a genuine wonder when considered against the lifespan of the average person. The image of the pyramids is recognised the world over, such is the power of the legacy of this Ancient Culture. Other strong symbols probably flashing through your mind while reading this might include mummified royals, sarcophagus, hieroglyphics.

Yet what is known and unknown about this culture still draws attention five thousand years later.

An integral part of the daily life of Ancient Egypt was centred on religious worship and this, remarkably, led to more than two thousand gods and goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon! Historian Margaret Bunson writes, “The numerous gods of Egypt were the focal points of the nation's cultic rites and personal religious practices. They also played a part in the great mortuary rituals and in the Egyptian belief in posthumous eternal bliss.”

(In comparison, the church-centred religious life of Austen’s England seems like simplicity itself.)

Some of the Egyptian gods are well known, such as Ra, the ‘Great Sun God’; Isis, the ‘Mother of the Gods’; and Osiris, the ‘Judge of the Dead’. One of the lesser known gods, an obscure malevolent deity called Ba-Pef, features in Pemberley by Moonlight. Ba-Pef literally means ‘That Soul’, and the demonstrative adjective ‘Pef’ has an indication of dread or hostility. He was said to have lived in the House of Woe, in the afterlife and was known to afflict the king of Egypt. A Cult of Ba-Pef is believed to have existed to help appease the god and protect the king, and during the Old and Middle Kingdom the priesthood of Ba-Pef was held by the queens of Egypt.

If we assume the Terry Pratchett quote--‘Old gods do new jobs’--is true of the minor gods, then it could be said that Ba-Pef takes on another guise in Greek mythology as the god Phobos, the god of and personification of the fear brought by war. Taking that theory forward, who’s to say that such a wily minor god could not continue to hold some small power in the time of Napoleon?

Napoleon and his armies began the Egyptian campaign and invasion in 1798. We cannot discount the appeal in conquering Egypt for one such as Napoleon, who wished not only to rule a mighty Empire, but wanted to be seen to do so. Napoleon would have found the idea of emulating Alexander the Great and the greatest Roman generals irresistible and, judging by the painting, ‘Bonaparte Before the Sphinx’, (ca. 1886) by Jean-Léon Gérôme, the man certainly had a fine eye for a propaganda opportunity.

‘Napoleon’s motives were not entirely cynical,’ noted Andrew Knighton. ‘His interest in the past came from a sense of intellectual curiosity that dominated Enlightenment Europe. He wanted to know more about history and the world.’

For this reason Napoleon took 160 scholars with him to Egypt. His armies could bring him glory, but these scholars could provide a wealth of knowledge to be taken back to France and then spread around the world.

It was a sophisticated scheme. The opportunity to be seen as an explorer, a beacon of enlightenment and potentially to attract the clever and the curious to his side, as France took its place in the spotlight as the pinnacle of civilisation.

Sadly for Napoleon, his Egyptian campaign ended in defeat, but not before the renowned Rosetta Stone was discovered in July 1799 by French officer Pierre-François Bouchard. When the British and Ottoman forces defeated the French and subsequently besieged them in Alexandria in 1801, the French surrendered, which brought an end to their Egyptian campaign. The transfer of objects discovered by the French, which were included within the Capitulation of Alexandria (signed by representatives of the British, French, and Ottoman forces), included the Rosetta Stone. Before the end of 1802, the stone was transferred to the British Museum, where it is located today.

The importance of the Rosetta Stone, which is inscribed with three versions of a decree issued in Memphis, Egypt in 196 BC during the Ptolemaic dynasty, cannot be overstated. The top and middle texts are in Ancient Egyptian using hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts respectively, while the bottom is in Ancient Greek. Using the Ancient Greek on the stone to decipher the other scripts and thus translate Ancient Egyptian has massively aided our understanding of this rich culture.

Colonel Fitzwilliam’s braggadocio notwithstanding, it has not been confirmed just how much knowledge of these fascinating subjects had migrated around the world for discussion at the Meryton Assembly (and other social events), but one can only hope that Charlotte Lucas had quite a time discussing it with Elizabeth while awaiting a dance partner.


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