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E. A. Wallis Budge's Victorian Life: Living the Great Novel

Updated: Feb 8, 2022

For many years, beginning when I was a teenager, I loved to read Victorian novels. I especially liked long and sprawling works in which characters were launched on a great and conflicted journey of self-exploration such as The Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son, Great Expectations, Vanity Fair, and Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels, which were all favorites, but I also loved shorter works such as The Man Who Would Be King, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Heart of Darkness, Diary of a Nobody, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

There was something about the raw, undisciplined, exploding energy of these longer books, with their huge cast of characters and the compelling social and psychological conflicts, that drew me in. The only contemporary novels I have really loved, such as Shantaram, Sacred Games, the Aubrey and Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brian, Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, also have this undisciplined quality in which characters explode out of the imagination of the author into an sprawling world canvas in which they struggle and strive across imagined lives that ask, with Hamlet, "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?"

This sort of novel of struggle and self-discovery was no doubt popular with the middle classes in Victorian England as people sought to make sense of the profound transformations wrought on a traditional society by industrialization, increased social mobility, the emergence of mass society, and the challenges to the hegemony of the landed elites, who were forced to negotiate a sharing of power with the rising industrial magnates. Novels such as Great Expectations or Doctor Thorne are beautiful examples of literature that engages with the social and psychological struggles of an individual to establish himself in the shifting terrain of Victorian England.

Literary critics will often discuss Victorian novels that focus on the struggles and development of one character in the context of the Bildungsroman. The Bildungsroman is described thus in Wikipedia:

In literary criticism, a Bildungsroman is a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from childhood to adulthood (coming of age), in which character change is important. The term comes from the German words Bildung ("education") and Roman ("novel").

It is perhaps not surprising that the Bildungsroman resonated with many of those who inhabited Victorian England. Their own lives were also journeys of self-discovery and struggle within a social context that was tilted in the favor of both traditional landed and emerging industrial elites, but was also a context in which increased social mobility offered an opening for an energetic and determined individual who was willing to absorb the blows of those proverbial slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

And, indeed, anyone who reads my life of the famed Victorian Egyptologist Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo, cannot help but see that he lived the Bildungsroman in all of its explosive facets. Born in rural Bodmin, Cornwall, in 1857 as the illegitimate child of a teenage girl named Mary Ann Budge and an unknown father, young Ernest Budge was much more likely to become a farm worker or day laborer in Cornwall than he was anything else.

The fact that Budge was able to overcome poverty, rural obscurity, rampant British class prejudice, as well as his spotty and makeshift early education, to become a prominent scholar, Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities in the British Museum, and a knighted figure in elite British society, is both a tribute to his incredible energy and ambition, but also to the openings that were emerging in the previously rigid class structures of his society.

Like Pip in Great Expectations, who moved up in Victorian society both through his own energy and the support of patrons and friends, the low-born and teenaged Budge unexpectedly gained the support of such great men as the millionaire and Tory politician W. H. Smith, Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, the organist of St. Paul's Sir John Stainer, and scholars such as Sir Henry Rawlinson and Archibald Sayce of Oxford University.

These great men helped Budge become a great man in his turn, but Budge's journey from rural Bodmin to his knighthood in 1924 was not just a triumphal march. His life was a Victorian epic across the contested terrains of British social and cultural history, English religious struggle and transformation, the British conquest of Egypt and the Sudan, the declining Ottoman Empire, the opening up of the ancient English universities of Cambridge and Oxford, the emergence of Egyptology in the cradle of 19th century European imperialism, and the world of the European occult. Budge's life was rife with both professional and personal conflicts and the remarkable triumphs of an ambitious man fighting against his many disadvantages to arrive at a goal that would have been unimaginable to the boy or his obscure family.

And no Bildungsroman would be complete without the large cast of fascinating characters, both friends and enemies, great and humble, who populate its pages. Memorable people such as:

To read about Budge's life is not the sedate story of an scholar and his books. Budge's life was an epic that roared across the British and Ottoman Empires at a time when Egyptology was emerging as a discipline in the very heart of British and French imperialism in the Middle East. Budge also managed his rise in British society by a masterful set of performances as the scholar, the popular author, the Egyptologist, the smuggler of antiquities, the British Museum's man-on-the-ground in Egypt and Iraq, the traveler and adventurer, the much-sought storyteller, the social climber and flatterer of aristocratic old ladies, and the Liberal imperialist who glorified the British Empire's civilizing mission.

Budge's life was adventurous, eventful, full of conflict with powerful enemies, and ultimately a triumph over adversity. Wallis Budge: Magic and Mummies in London and Cairo, is not for or against Budge, however--it's a detailed historical Bildungsroman seen through one man's fascinating life. Enjoy the journey!

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