In 1892, Arthur Conan Doyle published “Lot No. 249” in Harper’s Magazine. The short story tells the account of a young undergraduate student, who stumbles into his neighbor’s dark plot to exact revenge on his enemies through the manipulation of an ancient Egyptian mummy. The tale twists together scary action sequences, mythic Eastern intrigue, and blatant Victorian power struggles, congregating in a story of asserting dominant masculinity amongst the intrinsically homoerotic scene of Oxford University. Through the delineations of his characters and their roles throughout the narrative, Doyle reflects and emphasizes the standards of the time for what the ideal English man should be. By embedding his characterizations with traditionally masculine or feminine traits, he codes his characters to represent contrasting caricatures of gender identity. These characters ultimately influence the arc of the narrative, and their ends reveal Doyle’s bias against those who do not fit his perceived ideal paradigm of masculinity, therefore celebrating the triumph of “true masculinity” against the threat of non-British influence.
Almost immediately, Doyle makes it clear that British masculinity will be at the crux of his story. He sets his conflict amongst the backdrop of “so famed a center of learning and light as the University of Oxford” (Doyle 2), perhaps one of the most recognizable and distinctly British establishments that is ageless in its renown. Through this, he provides his reader with an acute subconscious impression of British excellence, as Oxford has for many years stood as a representation of classical British education and perceived intellectual superiority. The setting also creates a decisive focus on the masculine power struggle, as the Oxford apartments featured in the story are completely void of any female influence. Inhabited only by men, Doyle’s apartments create a scene already rife with testosterone-filled tension before the conflict even starts, as the environment certainly carries a vague homoerotic atmosphere due to the close confines of many young men with only each other for company. To combat this, the students of Doyle’s story seem to compensate by engaging in an unending competition over their hypermasculinity.
The first set of dialogue takes place between the protagonist Abercrombie Smith and his good friend Jephro Hastie. These two men can quite definitively be understood as the most traditionally masculine of the story, as they both share an affinity for athletic activities considered necessary for a Victorian man, seem to have a firm grasp on a traditional moral code, and are able to balance a studious lifestyle without losing sight of their British, manly roots. Should there be any doubt that Doyle believes them to be the epitome of British manhood, he emphasizes that “Both men were in flannels, for they had spent their evening upon the river, but apart from their dress no one could look at their hard-cut, alert faces without seeing that they were open-air men—men whose minds and tastes turned naturally to all that was manly and robust” (Doyle 3). They kickstart the story by gossiping about the other two men who live in the apartments around them: Monkhouse Lee and Edward Bellingham. Lee seems to be manly enough to pass Hastie’s vetting, as Hastie describes him as a “gentlemanly little fellow” (Doyle 3) and gives him points for his demeanor while simultaneously condescending him about his stature. In contrast, the overweight and over-studious Bellingham fails and Smith is warned against associating with his type. Simply through this conversation, Doyle sets up a scene rife with masculine competition, pitting man against man to vie for the mostly traditionally manly. Through these conditions at Oxford, Doyle emphasizes the benefit of British higher education and academic success, but only so long as it can be thoroughly offset with the proper British virility. Lose sight of the essential machismo Doyle believes to be necessary in a man, and you begin to enter dangerous territory.
Doyle clearly defines how he believes British masculinity should present itself through the contrasts of his characters. Abercrombie Smith, ever the charming protagonist, is the ideal British man, and all of his virtues become obvious against the contrast of his foils’ vices. The other two men most present in the story, Monkhouse Lee and Edward Bellingham, are coded with traditional femininity, therefore instantaneously setting them up as either a villain or a victim. This is illustrated upon their first interaction as a trio. Lee interrupts Smith at work to desperately ask for his help, as Bellingham seems to have fallen suddenly ill. Like the archetypal hero he is, Smith rushes down without a moment’s notice and saves Bellingham from a terrible fright. Lee on the other hand is helpless and worrisome, and can’t seem to help Bellingham himself. He tells Bellingham, “ If our neighbour here from above hadn’t come down, I’m sure I don’t know what I should have done with you” (Doyle 6). Not only does this light Smith in a sort of angelic, savior-like manner, but it emphasizes Lee’s complete impotency in the situation and therefore, his lack of masculinity. He hovers and frets around his partner Bellingham too much, telling Smith how Bellingham “knows more about [mummies] than any man in England, but I wish he wouldn’t” as “it’s the second fright he has given me”, and sounds much more like a distraught wife than a competent scientific partner. This classifies Lee as a victim in Doyle’s masculine England; he is simple collateral damage and plays the damsel in distress. He is a nice person, but not a true “man”.
It is not just his feminine reaction that delineates Lee to the archetype of a fragile woman, but also his appearance and background. When Smith first meets him, he describes him as “a slim, handsome fellow, olive skinned and dark eyed, of a Spanish rather than of an English type, with a Celtic intensity of manner which contrasted with the Saxon phlegm of Abercrombie Smith” (Doyle 6). This description of Lee depicts him as beautiful, but clearly not a picture of British masculinity- there is too much emphasis on his eyes and skin, unlike Smith and Hastie who have little to no descriptions of their physical appearance, and Lee is Spanish and Celtic. In truth, he is simply not British enough. This becomes an issue for him later in the story, as he is the first to discover how Bellingham is using his mummy to exact his revenge, but when he tries to stand up to his former partner, he lacks the British wherewithal and strength to stand up to him properly. Because of his lack of British masculinity, he can’t help but become a casualty of the dangerous Eastern magic his partner possesses, and therefore is destined to become a victim of it from his first appearance in the story. Therefore, through his characters and their pre-determined downfalls, Doyle conflates true British-ness with masculinity, and those who do not fall within his harsh standard of British male excellence are conflated with femininity.
Lee is not the only depiction of femininity in a man in this story, however, as his partner Bellingham is also coded strongly with feminine traits, only this time to result in him becoming the villain. The story’s first encounter with Bellingham is when Lee rushes Smith down to save him from what appears to be a terrible and sudden fright, although his rude and overly studious characteristics are mentioned earlier by Hastie. Bellingham’s physical appearance is described as quite ghastly and morbid: “He was very fat, but gave the impression of having at some time been considerably fatter, for his skin hung loosely in creases and folds, and was shot with a meshwork of wrinkles. Short, stubbly brown hair bristled up from his scalp, with a pair of thick, wrinkled ears protruding on either side” (Doyle 6). His skin is white as a ghostand he is described as “unnatural” (Doyle 6). Immediately, it is made clear that he is not the ideal British man, as so much time is spent pointing out the flaws of his appearance, he could never fit the paradigm of athletic, strapping, and heroic manhood. This lack of physical perfection seems to be written into his genetic code, as even his loss of weight wasn’t enough to make him aesthetically sufficient. Moreover, his “short, stubbly brown hair” and his “thick, wrinkled ears protruding on either side” (Doyle 6) accentuate his lack of typically Anglo-Saxon traits, therefore indicating that he is not the standard for a white male like the time expects.
Beyond just his grotesque appearance, his fascination with “Eastern” culture is significantly mentioned. All the characters within the story are scholars, but Bellingham is designated to be the best, specifically with the study of the “Eastern” (and therefore non-Western) world. Lee claims “He knows more about these things than any man in England,” (Doyle 6), which should be a compliment, however his intellect and drive are counterbalanced by his ugly imperfections and his lack of pure British masculinity. He becomes too invested with the “Eastern” world, which includes dark magic and mysterious, dangerous history, and therefore loses sight of his need to balance this out with British athleticism and machismo. This lack of masculinity just compels his problem further, as he does not have the strength to control this dark, “Eastern” magic on his own, therefore coding “Eastern” culture as a feminine and dangerous sort of seductress, which threatens British moral purity. The ‘sudden illness’ he fell to was his own terrible fright at the power and danger of the mummy in his possession, and it sends him into “peal after peal of hysterical laughter” (Doyle 6), once more cementing him as a man plagued with feminine traits. This becomes even more apparent upon recognition that “hysteria is undoubtedly the first mental disorder attributable to women…and until Freud considered an exclusively female disease” (Tasca, Rapetti, Carta and Fada). Bellingham’s major flaw is his lack of courage and masculinity, which dissuades him from being able to stand up to his enemies himself. He instead sends him mummy after them, but lacks the courage to properly control it. Smith, the contrasting personification of British masculinity, can though, and upon discovering Bellingham’s sinister plan, is able to put up a fight and oppose the perceived terrible threat of “Eastern” magic in a way Bellingham simply cannot. This affirms Smith and Bellingham’s respective positions as hero and villain, all rooted in their presentations of masculinity. Bellingham’s lack of courage persists even to the end, as it forces him to cede early to Smith’s call to destroy the mummy- once again reiterating that Bellingham can never stand up for himself.
Through his characters’ battles with masculinity and self-assurance, Doyle paints a picture of his conundrum with the academic scene. An intriguing tale of mummified horror on the outside, upon deeper reading, “Lot No. 249” punctuates Doyle’s message that intellectual study and dedication to the non-Western world can be a task of glory (as seen through the heroic actions of Abercrombie Smith), but it comes with the caveat that one must only undertake this task should he have the true British masculine strength to withstand its dangerous and demonic temptations. Otherwise, the “Eastern” world becomes terrifying and horrific, with a sinful influence of the morally upstanding British society. Against modern sensibilities, readers can understand that this blatant vilification of non-Western history is racist and ridiculous, and a pressing need for masculine competition creates a toxic atmosphere; however it is undeniable that this mindset was prominent amongst scholars of the Victorian era. This story can perhaps lead one to wonder the influence that this racist ideology had on some of the first scholarly advances in the world of Egyptology, and how that history continues to impact Western understanding of the mythology and culture that does not pertain to itself. After all, the mummy continues to be a common monster trope in horror fiction today, and it just might be time to truly unpack the racist stereotypes that led this to be so prevalent. Should we not, we risk internalizing the subliminal messages found in our media that paint the feminine or Eastern as threatening or morally impure, therefore further perpetuating the colonial-era supremacy of only the British White man.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. “Lot No. 249.” DFW Sherlock. https://www.dfw-sherlock.org/uploads/3/7/3/8/37380505/1892_september_lot_no_249.pdf Originally published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1892.
“Dark Piano- Sociopath.” YouTube, uploaded by Lucas King, 11 Jan. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VagES3pxttQ
Google Images for Free and Fair Use
“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – the truth about Peter Pettigrew reveald part 2 (HD).” YouTube, uploaded by DutchHPfan1992, 27 Nov. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzmgTU6VI2Y
“The Mummy Awakens | The Mummy (1999).” YouTube, uploaded by Fear: The Home of Horror, 15 Feb. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKpNfOR9vF4
“The Mummy (1/10) Movie CLIP – The Pharaoh is Killed (1999) HD.” YouTube, uploaded by Movieclips, 16 Jun. 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3XXKF0oDtU
“Mr. Turner Official Trailer #1 (2014) – Mike Leigh Biopic HD.” YouTube, uploaded by Movieclips Trailers, 20 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GKlo2xWvuI
“Nowhere Boy (2009) Official Trailer #1 – John Lennon Biopic.” YouTube, uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, 22 Nov. 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC7jREW6cv8
“Oxford University Campus Tour – UK.” YouTube, uploaded by Guide for the Traveler, 4 Aug. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdfMgotGKIM
Pexels Images and Videos for Free and Fair Use
“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street/Best scene/Johnny Depp/Helena B. Carter/Timothy Spall.” YouTube, uploaded by Eli D, 18 Oct. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzNTsBcJz2g
Tasca, Cecilia, Rapetti, Mariangela, Carta, Mauro Goivanni, Fadda, Bianca. “Women and Hysteria in the History of Mental Health.” Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, vol. 8, 2012, pp. 110-119. PMC, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480686/
Featured Image Source
Google Images for Free and Fair Use