Some years ago, there was an internet community where people wrote about their favourite historical pairings. By using Wikipedia, you could find out that, for example, Napoleon Bonaparte and Ludwig von Beethoven lived at the same time. And then you wrote a story, or read other people’s stories, about these people meeting. For history nerds, this was a pretty exciting thing.
In the book The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, Enid Shomer did something similar: she imagined Gustave Flaubert (the writer of Madame Bovary) and Florence Nightingale meeting in Egypt. An interesting concept! Flaubert and Nightingale were in fact in Egypt around the same time, but there’s no evindence they ever met. Shomer shows us how it could have been, had they met eachother on their travels on the Nile.
The books starts out with Flaubert, who just wrote his first unsuccesful book and feels like a failed writer, with his friend Maxine du Camp, where they document the old momuments of Egypt. They meet Nightingale, who is traveling there with some friends and a maid. The book follows their travels, what they see, experience and feel while their boats slowly travel down the Nile.
Shomer is definitely a very good writer. Having published four books of poetry, it’s no surprise that she describes the surroundings and the feelings of the main characters very skillfully. It is clear she did a lot of research for this book as well: Shomer used parts of Flaubert’s and Nightingale’s diaries and memoires to construct the book, sometimes taking actual sentences and using them in their conversation.
There is one thing though that Enid Shomer did not research: etiquette in the 1850s. When Flaubert and Nightingale meet for the first time, their conversation and behaviour is… peculiar.
First of all, Nightingale starts of with scolding the two men for shooting guns in a populated area. This is not something a woman would usually do, but knowing miss Nightingale’s character, it could be possible. Then, after some minutes of conversation, Flaubert takes her hand, not for a specific reason or to shake it, but just out of a sort of enthousiasm. From Jane Austen’s Emma we learn that taking hands was not a common thing: Harriet is over the moon when Emma shakes her hand at last, after meeting several times, because this was a true sign of friendship and intimacy. Therefore, it would be unlikely for a gentleman to grab a lady’s hand so shortly after meeting.
The other thing is Nightingale’s conversation and behaviour. Still in the same conversation, with the two gentlemen she just met, she “hugged herself and stood on tiptoes”, she “drew a little closer [and said] “I am sleeping with a new invention”. After that she writes Flaubert a letter showing this invention (a sort of musquito net) where she draws herself sleeping, wearing a nightcap. This seems not something a 19th century person would do.
Lastly, she doesn’t introduce her companions to the two men. If you’ve read A Room with a View you know how important a companion or chaperone was for young women abroad. Even taking a walk outside alone would be unacceptable and cause for rumours, so it’s very unlikely that Nightingale would not introduce them first and foremost.
Oh, and in the entire book, Nightingale is called “Flo”. This itches me like people saying “King Tut” but this might just be my personal preference!
If you forget about history-nerd-nitpicking, this book is very nice. I would think it makes a great gift, the book looks amazing with cream pages, a sober black hardcover, and beautiful dustjacket (see above). The tale is romantic and thrilling. Four stars!