Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert sitting in a tree…

5 August 2012

You would not believe how much fun I am having researching my novel set in Egypt in 1842. My desk is piled high with books about Egyptian history, both ancient and more up to date; I’ve been watching The Mummy on repeat and I’m on my husband’s case night and day to take me to Egypt in the winter so I can see it for myself. I’ve got it bad all over again. I’ve even got my children OBSESSED with ancient Egypt right now – their Playmobil pyramid is taking pride of place in the sitting room once more, the Three Year Old is all about ‘begipsheens’ and the Seven Year Old likes to give mini lectures about Tutankhamun over dinner. I love it.

When I finished my degree in History of Art, I badly wanted to go on to do a Masters in something related to Egyptology as I was completely fascinated by ancient Egypt and also thought this would be the perfect progression for an Art History graduate who liked to dabble in Archaeology. Sadly this wasn’t to happen but my love of ancient Egypt has not diminished one whit and now I feel like it burns even brighter than ever because I am trying to convey it to other people.

It’s funny – whenever people used to ask me if I’d ever consider going into teaching, I used to reply that I was far too greedy and possessive of history to ever want to share what I know with anyone else. How times have changed. Well, the times haven’t changed, have they? It’s me.

Right now I am GRIPPED by the stunning Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel by the very charming Andrew Humphreys, Egypt by Joyce Tyldersley and Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt by Anthony Sattin all of which are giving me the most complete and marvellous picture of both the birth of Egyptology and the beginnings of tourism not only to Egypt but also all over the world. It’s amazing really – we take the ability to hop on a plane and go off all over the globe almost for granted these days and yet to the intrepid early Victorians it was an epic and most wonderful adventure. It’s fascinating too to read about how tourism developed over the decades from rudimentary journeys by boat and donkey to steamers and then the advent of trains as well as the building of increasingly opulent hotels to accomodate them.

One little snippet in particular has really caught my imagination as I read Lifting the Veil though and that is the fact that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, both of whom were in their late twenties at the time, were both on the same steamer from Alexandria to Cairo on the 25th of November 1849 and proceded to have an almost parallel visit to Egypt over the next few months. Miss Nightingale and Monsieur Flaubert were not known to each other and did not meet at any point in their journey – it just seems so incredible that two such celebrated figures could have made the same epic journey at the exact same time and not have met at all.

Florence Nightingale made no mention at all of an intense looking little French gentleman with heavily lidded eyes in her letters home but it seems that Flaubert noticed her travelling group on the way over and commented in his journal on how ‘hideous’ they were. Fabulous.

What is particularly fascinating is how their experiences of Cairo and Egypt differed – Florence Nightingale sailed down the Nile on a hired dahabieh, enjoying the stately beauty of ancient monuments and what she perceived to be the almost Biblical purity of the village life that lined the Nile, although she was extremely concerned about the poverty of their living conditions. Flaubert, however was more interested in more sensual experiences involving prostitutes, dancing girls and hashish.

Apparently at one point while visiting an ancient site, Flaubert’s guide pointed out to him the perfect imprint of a woman’s footprint which had been left by a visiting English lady a few days earlier. We don’t know for sure that it belonged to Miss Nightingale but how irresistible to assume that it did.

There’s a novel in there somewhere but in the meantime I was excited to find that Anthony Sattin has expanded upon this and written A Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt, which has just made it to the very TOP of my already formidable To Read List.

Further reading:

A Winter on the Nile

Lifting the Veil: Two Centuries of Travellers, Traders and Tourists in Egypt

Grand Hotels of Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel

Egypt: How A Lost Civilisation Was Rediscovered

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