Monday, August 6, 2018

Women in Science Fiction -- Jane Webb Loudon

Ruth de Jauregui

Ancient Egyptian mummies have been the fodder for a number of 20th century stories and movies. What most fans don't realize is that the original Mummy novel was written in the 1800s – by a woman!

Jane Webb (1807-1858) was the child of manufacturing businessman Thomas Webb, Esq. and his wife. After her mother's death in 1819, she traveled in Europe with her father for a year. Although a wealthy businessman, he lost his fortune after their return to England. She was only 17 when her father died in 1824. She was quoted after her father's death and the realization that she was penniless: "…on the winding up of his affairs that it would be necessary to do something for my support. I had written a strange, wild novel, called The Mummy, in which I had laid the scene in the twenty-second century, and attempted to predict the state of improvement to which this country might possibly arrive."

She had been writing since age 12 and published her first book of poems Prose and Verse in 1826. It was only a year later that she anonymously published The Mummy!: Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. The Mummy drew many favorable reviews. It was originally published as a three volume set, a common practice that allowed readers to easily carry a small volume, rather than a large unwieldy book.

The Mummy provided an imaginative glimpse of the future, with somewhat liberated women (no more Kings -- the nation's leader was selected from the women of the Royal Family, yet marriages were arranged), scientific and technological advances, travel by balloon and a form of communication that we now know as the internet. The mummy itself was not the horror of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but an adviser. However, like many political creatures, Cheops had his own agenda that was revealed at the end of the story.

Loudon's story "The Grotto of Akteleg. A Hungarian Legend" was included in The Forgotten Gothic: Short Stories from British Literary Annuals 1823-1831 (2012). The original story, published in 1828, was credited to "Author of 'The Mummy.'" She also wrote the novel, Stories of a Bride (1829).

The Mummy was reviewed in The Gardeners Magazine in 1829. Her descriptions of the inventions caught the attention of Scottish horticulturalist, landscape designer and writer John C. Loudon. He asked a friend to invite the author to lunch, thinking that Wells was a man. They met in 1830. She said, “It may easily be supposed that he was surprised to find the author of the book a woman; but I believe that from that evening he formed an attachment to me, and, in fact, we were married on the 14th of the following September.”

After their marriage, she laid down her fiction career and after immersing herself in her husband's work, began writing gardening books for ladies. The Victorian obsession with gardening and exotic plants attracted many gardeners, but most books of the era were not written for the layman. Of her eight books on gardening and botany, The Ladies' Companion to the Flower Garden (1841), proved extremely popular with gardeners. In only 10 years, it had reached five editions and nine by 1879, selling more than 20,000 copies.

John Loudon's death in 1843 left her and their daughter nearly penniless, due to the debt incurred by the cost of illustrations in his work. She continued writing her garden books and began covering the first English horticultural shows as a journalist. Though her work as a garden writer was an enormous influence in the gardening world, she died in poverty at age 59.

John's and Jane's work also influenced their only child, Agnes Loudon, who authored several children's stories and books. Her first story "The Lost Gloves, or We Shall See. A Story for Little Girls" was published in 1845, when she was only 12 or 13. She also contributed most of the stories in Tales for Young People (1846) and Tales of School Life (1850).

Amazon: Jane Loudon search 
The Mummy (2017 edition) 
The Forgotten Gothic: Short Stories from British Literary Annuals 1823-1831 (2012) 

Read Jane Webb Loudon's books on the Gutenberg Project: The Mummy and Entertaining Naturalist

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