For the Record: The Malleability of History in Mumbo Jumbo and The Abbess of Crewe

Sydney Weiner
7 min readJan 23, 2022

Author’s Note: The second take-home essay for my conspiracies in literature class. I like it much better than the first one, and I hope it finds the right audience here on medium — my friends not in the class had never even heard of these two books.

History vs. history — both the same and very different

In both Muriel Spark’s The Abbess of Crewe and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, two opposing sides seek to create and propagate “histories,” in which they use specific events from the historical record and rewrite others for their own gain and blur the line between real and fictional events. In order to create their “histories,” the characters in both novels use performance to the public to rewrite “History,” by portraying themselves and historical actors in different roles and by editing their performances to only include evidence that supports their versions of events. While “History” refers to the historical record — a definitive, unchangeable, and objective set of events, a “history” refers to these narratives — malleable, created, and subjective. “Performance,” then, refers to the public displays (interviews, stage shows, publications) that the characters use to convince their audiences (including the reader) that their histories are the correct readings of History. In The Abbess of Crewe, the performances are interviews and publications — whether they be newspapers or the edited transcripts Alexandra releases to the public. In Mumbo Jumbo, performances also come in the form of newspapers, but also stage shows. Although we tend to think of History as undeniable and straightforward, the ease with which the characters in The Abbess of Crewe and Mumbo Jumbo turn History into history with their performances reveals its uncertainty and fallibility.

In Abbess, both Alexandra and Felicity successfully perform in the press to convince their British audience and Rome of the other woman’s wrongdoing. The only reason there is a scandal in the convent is because Felicity’s lover Thomas, whom she left the convent to join, leaked the story of Felicity’s lost thimble, to her a confirmation of election rigging, to the press. Alexandra says that after he leaked the story, the press “immediately got Felicity on the television,” where, using her “insufferable charisma,” she told “her familiar story to the entranced world” (16–17). Using television, Felicity changes the English view of the Abbey as pure and proper, instead painting it as a site of corruption and the leader, Alexandra, as a cunning, evil mastermind. Perhaps over-exaggerating to the press, Felicity turns the History of bugging and election rigging in the covent into an anti-Crewe history. Later in the novel, Felicity also uses the press to further convince the public that the police should shut down the convent and convince the public of her history. In an article accusing the Abbey of Crewe of dozens of crimes, she uses the rhetorical figures of alliteration, homeoteleuton, and asyndeton in a sort of political performance. At the end of the first paragraph of allegations, Felicity writes “etcetera,” impling more wrong-doings by the Abbey and inviting the reader to interact with and contribute to her history with their own thoughts of the Abbey’s other possible crimes (95). Using her charm, rhetoric, and careful editing, Felicity uses performance in the media to convince the public of her history.

Although Alexandra is diametrically opposed to Felicity in both History (as her rival in the election) and history (trying to prevent the shutdown of her convent), she uses the same performance tactics to convince the public of her version of events — that the convent and Alexandra are innocent of any wrongdoing and that Felicity’s accusations are deliberate mischaracterizations. When she goes on television for an interview, “The audiences goggled with awe at this lovely lady” (103). Like Felicity, Alexandra convinces her viewers of her history using her charm, shedding her villainous image. After the interview, “The cameras have all gone and the reporters wait outside the gates” (103). No longer loitering and trespassing on the convent grounds for news coverage, the press’s sudden disinterest in the convent reflects Alexandra’s success at convincing the press and public alike of her (and by extension, the convent’s) innocuousness. Alexandra also performs through the publication of the transcripts of her tapes. She instructs the Mildred and Walburga to “Sedulously expurgate all such trivial fond records and entitle the compilation ‘The Abbess of Crewe’” (106). By selecting what she wants to put in the tapes and then branding it as the definitive record of what happened in the convent, Alexandra effectively turns her history into the History, making it unreliable and biased.

In Mumbo Jumbo, both sides — The Knights Templar and the Wallflower Order — use the press while Charlotte and Peter Pick use stage shows to manipulate History. Both Hinkle von Vampton and the editors of the New York Sun use the newspaper and what parts of the United States’ invasion of Haiti they write about to persuade the public for their own ends. Hinkle Von Vampton wants to hurt the Wallflower Order enough so that they need his help with suppressing Jes Grew and so includes the headline “VooDoo Generals Surround Marines at Port-au-Prince,” prompting the newspaper to immediately fire him (58). The Sun’s urgency to suppress the headline because they had “orders from the Occupation Forces that no news of this war would be printed on the mainland” and his “headline has done considerable damage” and later the Hierophant’s plea for Von Vampton’s assistance reflects how powerful a tool the press is in shaping History into a history (58).

Although Abbess glossed over how easy it was for its characters to supplant History with histories and to lose their good standing in the eyes of the public, Mumbo Jumbo explicitly addresses how being able to distort History without difficulty has disastrous consequences. As he hears a newsboy shout out his headline, he smiles, saying” That’s America for you. Rumor stacked upon rumor like bricks in the Mason’s Tower of Babel” (59). All of the “rumors” Von Vampton talks about come from different actors trying to shape their version of History and convince the American public of its veracity. By comparing America’s competing histories to the Tower of Babel, Von Vampton describes the danger the country is in: once the tower falls and the true History is revealed, the country will fall apart, forever fractured.

Charlotte and Peter Pick’s “comic burlesque” at the Plantation house also reflects how performers turn History into history. In the show, Peter Pick, a Black man and presumably a slave, summons Charlotte playing the slave master’s wife. As she strips for him and he begins to hear dogs hunting him down, Peter desperately tries to make her disappear using magic. In the end, Charlotte takes the book and instead makes him disappear. Although adhering to the gender and racial hierarchies of the Antebellum South, the show transforms the History of the brutality slavery and makes a farcical history in which Peter’s fear is cause for laughter instead of concern and empathy by marketing itself as a comedy and editing out the torture and lynching that would have happened had Peter not disappeared. When Peter suggests reversing the roles to “Stand it on its head. Upside-down the Plantation,” the continued success of the show also reveals the unreliability of History (103). If the roles Charlotte and Peter play can so easily be switched, thus resulting in a different history, and the show remains popular, then it must be quite easy to form a different history and, through performance, convince your audience (at least partially) of its truth. Ultimately, Charlotte and Peter Pick’s act and its initial success reveals the reason we form histories: to make History more palatable to a target audience.

Every single person, organization, or ideology that produces and spreads a history does so for someone else’s comfort. In Abbess, Felicity broadcasts her narrative to justify her loss in the election, to console herself, and to shift the weight of sin from her to Alexandra, thereby pardoning herself. Meanwhile, Alexandra creates her mythological history to make the History more palatable to the English public who cannot handle the discomfort of knowing their nuns are so brazenly immoral. In Mumbo Jumbo, the Wallflower Order, the Masons, and the editors of the Sun are trying to shape a history of current events because “Americans will not tolerate wars that can’t be explained in simple terms of economics or White man’s destiny” — put simply, Americans cannot tolerate History (58). Lastly, Peter Pick and Charlotte’s show is meant to make their white powerful audience more comfortable with America’s History of slavery. It is not Black people who they perform for, but “bankers, publishers, visiting Knights of Pythias and Knights of the White Camelia, theatrical people, gangsters and city officials who frequent the club” (43). By making histories and burying History, these characters might make their own lives easier, but ultimately keep exploitative systems in place and never hold wrongdoers accountable, allowing them to continue harming others.

In both The Abbess of Crewe and Mumbo Jumbo, characters fashion histories from History to serve their own purposes. They use performance in both the press and the stage in interviews and scripted acts and carefully edit and position themselves. Their widespread successes (however brief) reveal not only how easily we can manipulate History, but also how we can no longer trust what we are told is “History” as such. Instead, we have to assume that all of our media is filled with histories, that nothing we hear is subjective and has a deeper purpose behind it, to the point where the existence of a History in the first place comes into question. However, the books also explain why we need histories: to ignore the atrocities of the past to make ourselves more comfortable living with our privilege in the present. Ultimately, Alexandra was correct when she said “We have entered the realm of mythology,” that nothing but garbled versions of History exist (101). But we should not be as happy with this realization as she is. With the decreasing importance of History and the increasing prevalence of histories in the media, we’re building a global Tower of Babel faster than ever before. We can only hope that if a global reckoning calls our conflicting histories into question and our tower collapses, there will still be some sort of foundation, some sort of History left.

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Sydney Weiner

A student publishing essays, short stories, and other pieces I’m currently writing. Come along for the ride