‘To the Heart of the Nile’ by Pat Shipman

July 18, 2012 at 12:00 am 1 comment


To the Heart of the Nile: Lady Florence Baker and the Exploration of Central Africa by Pat Shipman is a excellent example of why non-historians should not write history books. Or perhaps why non-historians interested in history should confine themselves to writing historical fiction since, apparently, there are people out there who fail to understand some basics of nonfiction. These include, but are not limited to:

1. No dialogue.
There is simply no way to verify conversations between historical figures and a biography should not attempt to “recreate” them.

2. No first names.
When referring to your subjects, it should be by last name, or first and last to save on confusion when dealing with a family who all have the same last names.

2a. Certainly never, ever use nicknames.

3. Support your statements. Quote your sources whenever possible.
Don’t just say so-and-so was much taken with something if there is no evidence to support such a statement. If you’re assuming or imagining, say so. (And then delete the whole sentence, because you really shouldn’t be imagining in a nonfiction book. That’s for novels.)

4. Correctly assess your sources.
If there isn’t enough source material to write a book on a topic or person, don’t write it. You should under no circumstances attempt such a book with spotty source material and just fill in the rest with what you imagined probably took place or was felt by your subject.

5. Leave feelings out of it. Both yours and the subject’s.
Tell us what happened, postulate on why it happened, discuss the aftermath, but please don’t ever assume to know how everyone felt about it happening. And don’t get carried away by your own feelings on the matter to project onto your topic.

I just found reading this book extremely trying, obviously. As just one example of all the above:

“Florence and Sam were blissfully happy in Bucharest, though Sam described the city to Min as ‘a mass of filth, the streets everywhere are five inches deep in black mud’ and complained of ‘fleas as big as bantam cocks and bugs as large as turbots.’ The rustic nature of Bucharest did not bother Sam and Florence in the least…they lived in a world of their own.” [49-50]

The sources seem to suggest that Florence and Samuel Baker were not blissfully happy nor were they not bothered by Bucharest. In fact, it sounds like they (and really, we’re just talking about Mr. Baker here) found it gross. And exactly what evidence is there to suggest they lived in a world of their own?

However, once I set aside my notions of how one should write history (and this effort took me a good chunk of the book), I must admit I learned a few things from this book. Not about Florence or Samuel Baker, really, who came across more as characters from some kind of contemporary romance novel the way Shipman writes of them than actual people, but about the British in the Sudan and the politics of exploring and annexing that area of Africa in the late 19th century. It’s an area of history literally touching my specialty (the British in Egypt proper), but one of which I had only a sketchy understanding. Until Shipman’s book.

Shipman, although I think she did a horrible job of writing a biography of Florence Baker—Florence is a largely imagined figure throughout the book, something which I can’t tell is due to a lack of sources or an overpowering fascination with her husband Samuel Baker taking over—actually does a very nice job of neatly and simply laying out the basics of the political situation in the Sudan. Thanks to her, I finally understood the whole Mad Mahdi/Gallant Gordon thing. It’s a slightly obscure piece of history, but one which I’d always wondered about.

So, if you can get on board with an anthropologist apologetically writing a history book (she does sort of admit that the book is written in, shall we say, an unorthodox manner in the preface), go for it. But honestly, I don’t think this book is worth the effort of doing so. You can no doubt find a better book about the British in the Sudan and you can certainly find better written biographies. And, if it’s Florence Baker you’re after, her diaries were published in 1972 so you can go straight to the source.

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Entry filed under: Biography, Non-fiction. Tags: , , , .

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