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Book Review: The Obelisk and the Englishman

By (May 21, 2015) No Comment

The Obelisk and the Englishman:the obelisk and the englishman cover

The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

by Dorothy U. Seyler

Prometheus Books, 2015

The pioneering 19th Century English adventurer and proto-Egyptologist William Bankes gets exactly the kind of ground-clearing and affectionate biography he’s always deserved in Dorothy Seyler’s new book The Obelisk and the Englishman, with Wilkes being the Englishman and the obelisk being a great carved stone thing he found at Philae in Egypt and had carted all the way back to his family’s home estate in Dorset, Kingston Lacy.

Seyler’s book has a nice healthy Bibliography, but it’s built entirely on Bankes family primary documents – ledgers, letters, and the like – and the portrait it paints of William Bankes is as multifaceted and totally engaging as the man himself. Seyler follows his picaresque life from his student days at Trinity College, where he met his classmate and long-time future friend Lord Byron, to his travels all over Europe, Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean world (“a guest at times in homes of the rich; a visitor to the cities, the palaces, the churches throughout Spain,” writes Seyler, warming to the vagabond romance of her theme, “a camp follower in the midst of war; a traveler off the beaten track, getting lost and taken in by generous peasants …”), to his landmark and long-overlooked sketches and discoveries in Egypt, which Seyler sets in their proper historical prominence:

We should remember that even though the Rosetta Stone had ben in England for more than ten years, no one was yet close, in 1815, to understanding the Egyptian language. There were no Egyptologists, no archeologists exploring ancient ruins for insight, no linguists seeking knowledge through the study of Egyptian texts. William stood at the beginning of a new era.

But the most refreshing thing about The Obelisk and the Englishman is the directness with which it deals with the other prominent aspect of Bankes’ life: his homosexuality, at a time when homosexuality was a capital offense in England. In June of 1833, William was apprehended by London police in a narrow public toilet stall with another man, whose trousers were half undone. They stood trial for gross indecency, with Bankes brazening it out and authorizing a court case that boiled down to “he really, really had to go.” The clincher, as Seyler writes, was a character reference provided for Bankes by no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington:

Wellington’s assertion of William’s manliness was important to combat homosexual stereotypes prevalent in nineteenth-century homophobic England. William’s failure to marry and his interest in art and architecture would be strikes against him, but these details could possibly have been balanced by the roughness and danger of his travels abroad. The duke tipped the scales to innocence with his testimony.

In August of 1841 it happened again: a policeman caught Bankes in London’s Green Park at night with his trousers undone and a strapping guardsman fleeing from the scene. And this time, Bankes only made things worse: he tried to bribe the policeman, and at the police station he gave a fake name, and then he offered to retire permanently to his country home. None of it worked this time, and since he was facing ruin and the confiscation of his properties, he parceled up his estate ownership among friends and family and departed post haste for Venice, never to live in England again (although he snuck back to Kingston Lacy a few times incognito over the remaining years of his life). About this second catastrophic indiscretion, Seyler advances the possibility that Bankes was caught in some kind of sting operation, based on the calculation that “It would, however, defy all odds that during the only two times of his life in London that William chose to seek casual sex he was caught”:

William’s panicked response [the second time, in Green Park] suggests that he had felt reasonably safe with this encounter – late at night, in the dark, under some trees in the park, with a willing partner. After all, when he entered the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem in 1818, he was disguised as a soldier and faked a toothache; he did not just stroll into a “death if discovered” situation without controlling the risk to some degree.

One obvious rejoinder – that these weren’t of course the only two times Bankes sought casual sex while in London, hence his overconfidence – isn’t something her primary documents can allow Seyler to investigate (the family, like all other Victorian families of prominent gay men, made free use of the incinerator), but her loyal assertion that “William was willing to take risks, but he was not stupid” certainly seems, shall we say, about half-right.

The happy upshot of The Obelisk and the Englishman, however, is to give us a Bankes we can know and love regardless of the barbaric court proceedings of a bygone era. Byron was fond of “buffooning” with the man, and thanks to Seyler’s genial efforts, that ends up being good enough for the reader too.