The Twelve Rooms of the Nile by Enid Shomer
Where to begin about Enid Shomer’s debut novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile! I feel hopelessly biased when it comes to this book—I wrote my dissertation about British travel narratives of Egypt in the 1840s—and I have been chomping at the bit to read it since it came out. In short, Twelve Rooms imagines what would have happened if Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert had met during their respective holidays in Egypt in 1849-50. Sparks fly, meaningful exchanges are shared, friendship (and maybe more) blossoms, all against the historic backdrop I love best—Victorians in Egypt. Where, oh where, to begin?
I guess, being a historian, I’ll begin with the history. While Flaubert and Nightingale had nearly identical itineraries during their Egyptian trips, there is no evidence they did meet. So Shomer’s novel is entirely made up of fictional conjecture on that point. (Exceptional fictional conjecture, but still.) And the trip (and this novel) took place before either Nightingale or Flaubert had done the thing that made them famous, so there’s no reason to expect either would have sought out the other’s company necessarily.
However, the somewhat loose social mores of Europeans in Egypt is well established, making the premise of Shomer’s novel delightfully probable. Travelers up and down the Nile were known to make fast friends with each other, often formally calling from boat to boat and meeting all kinds of new (European) people they never would have met otherwise. (Of course, they also encountered plenty of new non-European people they never would have come into contact with otherwise, but, even though society was distinctly freer on the Nile, social relationships with non-Europeans, apart from government officials, were still not generally permitted.)
So, with her premise firmly in place, Shomer starts off at a clip up the Nile with “Flo” and “Gustave.” From the very start, the book is fascinating, exploring both the time period itself (both constraints and quirks) and the timeless human puzzle facing every young person—what should I do with my life and my talents?
Of course, this question is additionally interesting in this novel because the two young people asking it are none other than the author of Madame Bovary and, arguably, the founder of the modern nursing profession. The idea that they should have any connection or anything at all in common is a pearl and one which Shomer explores very touchingly. At the beginning of the novel, both Nightingale and Flaubert feel totally misunderstood and lost, a feeling mirrored by their present position as strangers in a foreign land. But, of course, it is only by going to this new, strange place that they are able to fully understand themselves and their place in the world.
Twelve Rooms is full of such elegant parallels, as well as a charming writing style that makes the whole thing go by easily and almost too quickly. And, for the history buff, Shomer has clearly done her homework, making passing homages to Hannah Cullwick, Muhammad Ali Pasha, and contemporary imperial politics throughout the novel. As a total nerd for this time period, I absolutely loved these tidbits and the way she engages with various (and, to the modern eye, problematic) aspects of period tourism (carving one’s name in historic monuments, Europeans making off with mummified bits as souvenirs, etc.).
In terms of biography, I actually think knowing less about both Flaubert and Nightingale makes the book more enjoyable. Just a vague sense of future greatness for both is all you need to dip into this engaging read. As (god willing!) this long winter draws to an end, definitely find a copy of Twelve Rooms of the Nile to add to your beach reading list this summer. You won’t regret this very entertaining journey.