Twelve Rooms of the Nile

  • Enid Shomer
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 464 pp/320 pp

A novel exploring the experiences — both real and imagined — of Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert in mid-19th-century Egypt.

Reviewed by Rhoda Trooboff

“Fiction and nonfiction share a border,” says writing guru Roy Peter Clark. “The name of that border is storytelling.” In a novel by Enid Shomer and a work of nonfiction by Anthony Sattin, we have two books that tell nearly the same story about Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale and their separate travels in Egypt. Reading the two provides a delicious chance to consider this fascinating, contested border.

Enid Shomer’s new novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, covers the same events, characters, and locale as Anthony Sattin’s most recent nonfiction title, A Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt (released in 2010).  In the winter of 1849-1850, Nightingale and Flaubert both toured Egypt. They never met. Separately but simultaneously they marveled at the life and culture of North Africa and were deeply moved by the evocative remains of the world of the Pharaohs. They traveled on the same ferry and stayed in hotels on the same square in Cairo. Sailing the Nile on different riverboats, they saw the same sunsets and desert vistas and visited sites like Luxor and Abu Simbel. They wrote about their touring in private journals and letters to family at home.

During their winter on the Nile, Nightingale and Flaubert, both in their late 20s, suffered deep existential crises. Soon after returning to Europe from Egypt, both embarked on their extraordinary life’s work: Nightingale broke from her family’s stifling Victorian expectations, served as a nurse in the Crimean War, and revolutionized medical care. Flaubert foreswore his profligate life and began writing Madame Bovary, which would transform the European literary landscape.

A Winter on the Nile is a lucid, objective, contrapuntal narrative that convincingly renders the early lives of these future geniuses and places them in the context of other contemporary European travelers to the Orient. Relying strictly upon primary and secondary sources, journalist Sattin details the Nile experiences of Flaubert, Nightingale, and others enthralled by the mythic powers of antiquity, the austere beauty of the Libyan and Arabian Deserts, and the Nile itself. Via carefully cited passages from Flaubert’s and Nightingale’s letters and journals, Sattin exposes the psychological malaise of these two young adults locked in unsatisfying, stultifying lives. Writing from Karnak on December 31, 1849 to her family in England, Nightingale observed, “One wonders that people come back from Egypt and live lives as they did before.” In Cairo two months later, Flaubert wrote, “The Orient, Egypt especially, smoothes away all the little worldly vanities. After visiting so many ruins, one doesn’t think of building shacks.”

Sattin demonstrates that travel can clear the mind of trivialities and change the course, dramatically and positively, of a life. Soon after leaving Egypt, Flaubert began writing Madame Bovary. Sattin wonders if Flaubert derived Emma Bovary’s name from that of Monsieur Bouvaret, the manager of Cairo’s Hôtel du Nil, where Flaubert and his friend and traveling companion, Maxime du Camp, had stayed. Du Camp published Madame Bovary in 1856. Perhaps his memory wasn’t playing tricks when in the 1890s he wrote that the novel’s spark came to Flaubert “on the summit of Gebel Abusir, overlooking the Second Cataract, as we were watching the Nile. … He gave a cry, ‘I have found it! Eureka!’”

One may doubt eureka moments, but in Nightingale’s case the transformative power of travel is undeniable. The Egypt trip, chaperoned by family friends Selina and Charles Bracebridge, was Nightingale’s first long journey without her hovering parents and sister. After it she accompanied the Bracebridges to Carlsbad, Germany. Nearby was Kaiserswerth Deaconess Hospital, renowned for its revolutionary approach to nursing care and training. Nightingale had long known of and wished to visit the hospital. Her parents had refused, but the Bracebridges yielded. Nightingale made the visit, alone. And the rest is, as they say, history.

From the facts about Nightingale’s and Flaubert’s separate pasts, discontents, and soon-to-be-realized trajectories to greatness, Shomer weaves a colorful, sensual, psychological novel. Her chapters go back and forth between Flaubert’s and Nightingale’s viewpoints. She breaks with the historical record and invents their meeting and intimacy. Via vivid invented detail, Shomer embellishes evidence from her subjects’ letters and diaries to expound on Flaubert’s sexual adventures and obsessions and Nightingale’s repressed anxieties and longings. In lushly described locales that Nightingale and Flaubert indeed visited separately, Shomer has them meet, travel together, and share intimacies.

Shomer attributes the next colossal stages of Nightingale’s and Flaubert’s lives to her invented scenes of personal intimacy. According to her novel, Flaubert bases Emma Bovary on Nightingale’s frustrations with the narrow opportunities of upper-class Victorian women. Shomer has Nightingale grasp her divine call to nurse wounded men in wartime from insights into Flaubert’s actual epileptic seizures and early symptoms of venereal disease. By way of a colorful, invented subplot, Shomer has Flaubert and Nightingale together travel the desert unchaperoned, face grueling thirst and near death, and share an unforgettable night.

In his introduction Sattin writes, “Part of the fascination of writing this story has been in thinking about all the ‘what ifs?’ Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert make a deliciously unlikely couple, but they only ever lie together between the sheets of this book. At times I imagine them roaming up the Nile together, concocting scenes of seduction and outrage, of love in Luxor and unbelievable nights behind the pyramids, watching them jointly face the temptations of Egypt, reveling in their common fascination with the past and the lessons it has to teach us. But … I could not bring myself to take them further than they chose to go. … There is no need to change the historical record, especially when I have such eloquent witnesses.”

In an interview Shomer said that she “wanted to read a book that didn’t exist yet, a book about a friendship between two apparent misfits, two geniuses.” She has written the novel that Sattin has said he imagined. Readers will decide on their own whether Shomer’s compelling psychological insights and colorful prose style justify her manipulations of history.

Shomer and Sattin are both highly acclaimed writers. Shomer is a frequently anthologized and prize-winning American poet, short-story writer, and creative-writing teacher. Her previous works include Imaginary Men, Tourist Season, and Stalking the Florida Panther. Specializing in the Mideast and North Africa, Sattin has written frequent travel essays for major British publications. His previous books include Lifting the Veil, The Pharaoh’s Shadow, and The Gates of Africa. He also edited Nightingale’s Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile 1849-1850.

Shomer and Sattin both acknowledge their debts to experts, libraries, archives, and primary and secondary source material. Both particularly thank staff members at London’s Florence Nightingale Museum. In print at least, they seem unaware of each other. Just as it is tantalizing to imagine that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert met in Egypt, it is exciting to imagine Enid Shomer and Anthony Sattin crossing paths — and engaging with each other — on the contested border between fiction and nonfiction.

Rhoda Trooboff, a longtime literature and writing teacher at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., is a publisher of children’s books at Tenley Circle Press, Ltd.


comments powered by Disqus