Victorian Alchemy

Science, magic and ancient Egypt

Eleanor Dobson

ISBN: 9781787358485

Publication: October 06, 2022

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Victorian Alchemy explores nineteenth-century conceptions of ancient Egypt as this extant civilisation was being ‘rediscovered’ in the modern world. With its material remnants somewhat paradoxically symbolic of both antiquity and modernity (in the very currentness of Egyptological excavations), ancient Egypt was at once evocative of ancient magical power and of cutting-edge science, a tension that might be productively conceived of as ‘alchemical’. Allusions to ancient Egypt simultaneously lent an air of legitimacy to depictions of the supernatural while projecting a sense of enchantment onto representations of cutting-edge science.

Examining literature and other cultural forms including art, photography and early film, Eleanor Dobson traces the myriad ways in which magic and science were perceived as entwined, and ancient Egypt evoked in parallel with various fields of study, from imaging technologies and astronomy, to investigations into the electromagnetic spectrum and the human mind itself. In so doing, counter to linear narratives of nineteenth-century progress, and demonstrating how ancient Egypt was more than a mere setting for Orientalist fantasies or nightmares, the book establishes how conceptions of modernity were inextricably bound up in the contemporary reception of the ancient world, and suggests how such ideas that took root and flourished in the Victorian era persist to this day.

Eleanor Dobson is Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Birmingham.

List of figures

1 Ghostly Images: Magic, Illusion, and Techology
2 Worlds Lost and Found: Journeys through Time and Space
3 Weird Physics: Visible Light, Invisible Forces, and the Electromagnetic Spectrum
4 Occult Psychology: Dreams, Trance, and Telepathy
Conclusion: Afterlives


‘Eleanor Dobson delivers an intriguing study of the intersection between hard science and magic via representations of ancient Egypt in Victorian literature and culture. Highlighting the role of scientific, photographic and theatrical technologies in this intersection, Dobson effectively redirects existing scholarship by showing how popular fiction from this period depicts ancient Egyptians holding magical and scientific power, rather than simply showing European appropriation of this power to establish its own authority in these areas.’ – Molly Youngkin, Loyola Marymount University

Format: Open Access PDF

279 Pages

36 colour illustrations

Copyright: © 2022

ISBN: 9781787358485

Publication: October 06, 2022

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