Online Exclusive

The poet’s study was cluttered with his wife’s Egyptian marvels—the plaster head of Isis, a letter opener shaped like the claw of the cat god, Bast, even a shard from an actual canoptic jar that he was to use as a paperweight. Robert Southey employed his gift of after-dinner irony to downplay these knickknacks and amuse the Keswick intellectuals who gathered every Thursday at his house to sip cognac from wide-bottomed glasses and exchange observations on the state of the sovereignty. Egypt, for these thinking men, was little more than fleeting fashion—a confluence of sand and surfaces dredged up by Napoleon’s recent affairs in Africa, which had little apparent effect other than to drive their wives into a mad flurry of redecoration. Never mind the vanity of the conqueror—he’d become more an arbiter of style than of politics—and never mind the Marmelukes with their strange customs. What meaning could such things hold for poets and philosophers? “Tell us about your bears instead, Robert!” one of the men shouted, as another gagged on his drink.

      It was well known that Southey, England’s laureate, was in the process of writing a children’s story about a blonde girl who, upon becoming lost in the woods, came across a thatched cottage that belonged to a group of bears living like Yorkshire peasants. “Do they chew the girl up or bore her to death with Christian homilies?” asked the man. The room chuckled at the joke, and Southey attempted geniality, but such woods were rooted deep in his heart, and the girl who walked there was no subject for humor. He glanced at his wife’s newly purchased earthen bowl, a replica from the Middle Kingdom. She’d placed a single carnation in it, and Southey plucked the flower, bringing it absently to his nose. 

      There is a painting that hangs in the National Gallery depicting Napoleon in a similar state of melancholy. After his successful defeat of the Marmelukes and his taking of Egypt, the conqueror supposedly posed on the shadowed throne of the king’s chamber—a small man in a grand chair—the ceiling of the pyramid pressing down around him like a faded circus tent. Napoleon displayed the pharaoh’s staff across one knee, holding it gingerly as if it might crack, and though we cannot peer into the Emperor’s mind at that moment (if there ever was such a moment in actual history) we can wonder at his sadness, his countenance of want. Did Napoleon imagine that soon the daughters of France and England would be wearing crocodile earrings with dangling tails or that, due to his conquest, scarab beetles would become de rigueur? The creature, still alive when the jeweler attached it to a woman’s garments via a tiny post and chain, would be worn for the evening as a kind of living brooch, a struggling conversation piece, carapace encrusted with jewels. 

      In a matter of no time, Sphinx sofas appeared in European homes, calling for the sitter to be cradled between their monstrous wings. It was difficult to imagine that only a few years prior, sofas did not have faces or even skulls. There were no hearts buried in the stuffing, no riddles carved in the cherry work. The sofas were featured in the so-called “Egypt rooms” of fashionable houses, hunched between fluted columns, brushed by overhanging fronds. A sun-dappled vase painted with untranslatable stiff-limbed figures often stood adjacent. 

      Even Robert Southey himself eventually relented to the concept of the Egypt room—largely due to pressure from his wife, Edith Fricker—purchasing not only a Sphinx sofa but also a writing desk made from the etched stone back of a jackal god. He found it difficult to dismiss the larger furnishings with humor and eventually stopped inviting the intelligentsia for Thursday dinners, using that time instead to sit at his Egyptian writing desk and pen his story of the fair-haired girl and her bears. He was moved to change the color of the girl’s hair from gold to silver. Gold was average and relatable. Silver, on the other hand, seemed beatific. The girl became a saint lost among the pines, wandering among the objects of the provincial home. Like Napoleon, Silverlocks sat in chairs too large for her—thrones made for hips and fur. She too felt a deepening sadness and a sense of questioning. Why had she bothered with this dangerous investigation at all? What good did she think would come of entering the animals’ house? 

      The Times reported that Napoleon had mummies dragged up from the plains of the Nile, great piles of them, to be sold to the medical community at high prices and ground into bitumen, a carbonic powder that was then mixed with oils. A mummy, when correctly prepared, became a dark and fragrant syrup, served as medicine on a plate or in a small bowl, eaten with a miniature spoon. Its bitterness was difficult to stomach and the idea of eating the dead was downright ghoulish, yet the restorative properties of the syrup were said to be worth the pathos. 

      Alice St. Germaine wrote in her monthly women’s column, to which Edith Fricker subscribed, that she had never felt so energized as she did after imbibing the bitumen of an Egyptian mummy. “What wonderful things those ancients must have known!” St. Germaine effused. “We ourselves do not have such forethought to turn our corpses into storehouses of health and provide the same solid insurance for our children.” After eating bitumen, she said she could practically feel the coolness of the Egyptian fronds on her brow, and attested to a new understanding of the sun. It was no mere ball of gas. The Egyptians had it right. The sun was an eye. The sun could see.

      St. Germaine’s column caused a flurry of correspondence from women all over England who were also enjoying the virtues of bitumen. One such reader wrote that her own flesh had developed curative properties. She’d recently revived several houseplants from near death simply by touching their leaves. And when the family dog grew sick, she’d held it against her stomach for an hour until the animal was fit again. 

      There were darker letters too, left unpublished, of course—a woman whose use of bitumen caused her to walk nightly and allowed her very spirit to drift into the bodies of her countrymen. Consciousness was no longer secure within her frame. She wrote that she crept like sand along the streets and among the people. She called her state Bituminoid Madness, saying she became a shopkeeper, a vagabond, even the awful man who watched girls pass through the square with their mothers. The poor woman couldn’t help herself. Bitumen had opened her up, and no matter how hard she tried, she could not close herself off again. 

      One wonders if Robert Southey was influenced by these stories when imagining the porridge of the bears. Did he picture bowls of black bitumen for his Silverlocks to eat? Certainly those long muzzled owners of the house didn’t eat the bland pottage of England but a more grotesque variety. And after a meal of such strange porridge, should we be surprised that Silverlocks found herself drifting toward the staircase in a state of semiconsciousness? The girl was dreaming of the great hairy beds in the second-floor rooms, no longer concerned about the monstrous family’s lumbering return. Her priceless saintly locks were tipped in the black salt of mummies, and her lips were streaked with more of the same as she ascended the staircase, the soles of her black patent shoes never quite falling on the wooden steps. 

      There are numerous other stories of Egyptian influence—some even went so far as to say that the Marmelukes were waging a secret war on Europe as punishment for Napoleon’s pillaging—though perhaps the story that most concerns this record is what befell the Southey family not so long after the poet’s humorous and disparaging statements to the men of Keswick about Egyptian revival furnishing. Southey’s wife, Edith Fricker, continued to accumulate decorative pieces from the Middle Kingdom, finally purchasing an actual sarcophagus that had, until recently, housed the mummy of a little-known aristocrat. She had the piece installed in the parlor, telling the poet that she didn’t find the object morbid in the least. She quoted Alice St. Germaine: “For the Egyptians, my dear,” she said, stroking the poet’s hair with her abbreviated fingers, “death was another kind of life.” 

      Hearing his mother and father talk this way drew the attention of the Southey’s five-year-old son, Hammond, who became curious about the new sarcophagus and one afternoon attempted to seal himself inside the box. He was too weak to move the heavy lid, so rather than experiencing full-body entombment, the boy settled for a half-death, lying in the gut of the cool stone and staring at the parlor’s painted ceiling. He allowed his gaze to drift and his limbs to fall. The boy discovered the sarcophagus was more comfortable than it appeared. Stone could feel rather like a feather bed, and soon he was asleep. 

      When Southey returned to discover his son so pink with life in the sepulcher, he could neither speak nor move. His wife had been wrong about the Egyptian coffin. Death was death, no matter how one dressed it, and he couldn’t help but picture his own father and then his grandfather, faces lit with funeral rouge. He thought of his mother who had not waited for his carriage to arrive. He’d found her impossibly lifeless in her bed. 

      The poet’s suffering did not abate when he gently lifted his son’s warm body from the sarcophagus and rested the boy’s head against his breast. The feeling extended into the following day when reports arrived that Napoleon had finally returned from Africa. “Tired of the dust,” he said. “Sick of all the useless relics.” And Southey sent word to his wife that the sarcophagus must be removed from the parlor along with all the other Egyptian trash. He instructed her to have it put behind the house where no one could see, or better yet, to have it interred. She relented. He was the laureate, after all. And so it was that a whole host of Egyptian artifacts were piled begrudgingly into a sarcophagus and buried in one of the finer gardens of Keswick, and even still, our poet was haunted by fashion. 

      We cannot be certain when Southey sat down to finish his story of Silverlocks, but we imagine him in the dark of the evening, an oil lamp burning on his French writing desk which had been restored to the study, replacing the one that was buried in the yard. His wife and son are sleeping. Napoleon is once again safely ensconced at Fontainebleau. And, despite the poet’s attempts to bar their way, the animal-headed gods of Egypt are moving toward their cottage again, shaking pines as they pass on massive legs. The gods learned long ago to decorate their homes with European artifice. They find pleasure in the rustic furnishings and sensible fireplaces. They festoon their tables with tatted lace and unostentatious bowls of fruit. Fashion in the underworld exists largely as a lure for the living. And what do they find sleeping in their bed? What have their predilections drawn? She with her silver face, hard and bright as a funeral mask, and her hair, a silent ivory dome.