Florence Nightingale, Letters from Egypt

Having cleared at least the semblance of a path through the draft thesis chapters that have taken up the bulk of my time since my summer class wrapped up at the end of June, I’m finally turning my attention back to my summer research project, which is to extend and perhaps even complete the essay on Ahdaf Soueif that I’ve posted about here and at The Valve before. Yes, that’s right, it’s not done yet. It got as far as a conference paper last year, and since then, in between other projects, I’ve been collecting references and sources for it and trying to conceptualize what it is I hope that the final essay will do, or be about and where exactly I might submit it. My basic idea is to fill in more details about In the Eye of the Sun and then develop a comparison between it and The Map of Love–which I’ve just finished re-re-reading. The Map of Love has a more complex form than In the Eye of the Sun, interweaving the story of two 20th-century women (Isabel, an American, and Amal, an Egyptian who turns out to be Isabel’s cousin) with the story of Lady Anna Winterbourne, an Edwardian Englishwoman who travels to–and eventually marries and lives in–Egypt. While my motivating interest is still the intertextual relationship between Soueif’s work and George Eliot’s, The Map of Love clearly has strong ties to other literary sources, particularly accounts of “lady travellers” in Egypt. Lucie Duff Gordon is probably the most famous, but I’ve also signed out of the library a lovely illustrated edition of Florence Nightingale’s Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile 1849-50, which turns out to be quite entertaining. For instance, like me she wages war on biting insects:

I and the gnats have so many ways of outwitting each other. X and Mr B. look as if they had the small-pox; but I, who would sleep in an Indian rubber tub with a tallow candle in my mouth if it were suggested, shut my windows before sundown; and I hear those who are in, furling their wings and uttering little infernal cries of triumph. Then I set my door open, and put a light in the passage, and they think I’m there, and follow; but I’m not,–don’t tell them. Then, when night comes, I take out a large sheet of paper and begin to write, and they believe I’m not thinking of sleep. But I leave off in the middle of a word, run with all my might at the Levinge [an elaborate netted sleeping bag], where I insert myself by so small a hole that you would say a camel could get through the eye of a needle; and then I clap my hands, and sing a little ode in honour of Mercury, the god of theft, because I have stolen myself from the gnats. Meanwhile I hear their whistle of rage and disappointment, and I see their proboscises coming through the curtains, as if they would fly away with the whole concern.

In a more serious vein, she often reflects on what she perceives of “Mahometism.” Carefully fitted up in “Egyptian dress,” including a complete veil, for instance, she is able to step inside a mosque to observe:

That quarter of an hour seemed to reveal to one what it is to be a woman in these countries, where Christ has not been to raise us. God save them, for it is a hopeless life. . . . Still, the mosque struck me with a pleasant feeling; X was struck with its irreverence. Some were at their prayers; but one was making baskets, another was telling Arabian Night stories to a whole group of listeners, sitting round him–others were asleep. I am much more struck with the irreverence of a London church.

It is so pleasant to see a place where any man may go for a moment’s quiet, and there is none to find fault with him, nor make him afraid. Here the homeless finds a home, the weary repose, the busy leisure,–if I could have said where any woman may go for an hour’s rest, to me the feeling would have been perfect,–perfect at least compared with the streets of London and Edinburgh, where there is not a spot on earth a poor woman may call her own to find repose in. The mosque leaves the more religious impression of the two, it is the better place of worship,–not than St. Peter’s, perhaps, but better than St. Paul’s.

I don’t know why it surprised me, from the author of Cassandra, after all, but I was struck by how often her interest and enjoyment in the scenes she observes are undercut, or at least rendered more problematic, by her consciousness of her sex and the complications it brings:

We have had a delightful week at Cairo. I wish we were going to stay longer. It is the riding in the streets, above all, which is so delightful, of which one never wearies; the latticed windows meeting overhead, the pearls of Moorish architecture at every corner, the looking up to the blue sky and golden sunlight from the wells of streets and in the bazaars, the streets entirely roofed in; and as you stand bargaining for a pair of yellow slippers, you see the corner of a street with the spring of an arch covered with Moorish network, and the sunlight pouring through the square holes left in the roof which shuts in the street. . .

In riding home by moonlight, … there is not a corner which is not a picture; and no picture can give an idea of the colouring. But you don’t enjoy all this for nothing. A Christian female dog has two titles of dishonour here, and she cannot stir out without her ass, her running ass-driver, and at least one gentleman or a dragoman. A la langue this dependence becomes tiresome beyond what a European can conceive. It is not that one minds being spat at (which I have been) for a religion which one loves, but one is so afraid of the gentlemen of one’s party noticing any insult, as an Englishman’s complaint would bring a bastinado upon the poor wretch, which has often ended in death.

Like Soueif’s Lady Anna, she is particularly fascinated and spiritually moved by the desert. “The oftener you are astonished at it, the more like a stranger a mysterious power it seems,” she remarks;

While the earth in our country is rich and variegated with light, and crowded with animation, the sky above contrasts with its deadness. Here, on the other hand, the sky is radiant, the light is living, the golden light which seems to pour not only from the sun, but from all the points of the transparent blue heavens. One looks down, and the ungrateful earth lies there, hopeless and helpless, a dying, withered desert: one almost fancies one hears the Devil laughing as he dares even Almighty power to bring forth bread.

This is what gives one a supernatural, mysterious feeling in Egypt,–the looks naturally turn to the sky when the earth has no beauty that one should desire it, and the heavens have all beauty. The struggle between God and the Devil is perpetually visible before one’s thoughts, for the earth seems the abode of the Devil, the heavens of God; and you do not wonder at the Orientals being the mystical people they have become, nor at the Europeans, where all beauty is of the earth, and the thoughts turn to the earth, becoming a practical, active people.

Here’s an excerpt from Lady Anna’s (fictional) journal:

We rode on, and we stopped only twice. Once when we made camp for the night. The other earlier: when the sun set beyond the Gulf of Suez, making clear to me whence came the name the ‘Red’ Sea, for the setting sun brought out the red and black of the ore in the mountains and the sea reflected it all back. All the reds, and yellows and orange and purple, were in that wonderful landscape, and as it faded and the colours all round us melted more and more into gentleness, I thought there should be some act–some formal recognition of this daily magnificence. Even as the thought formed itself in my mind, we came to a halt as if by agreement. The animals knelt, the men dismounted and turned towards the South-East. One voice was lifted: ‘Allahu Akbar’, and they prayed silently together.

I might think that Soueif is delicately parodying the orientalizing English tendency to translate the Egyptian landscape into something exotically mystical, except that in her scene, Anna too is moved to prayer and to peace–and after all, isn’t there something spiritually uplifting about extraordinary natural beauty? For George Eliot, it’s the landscapes of one’s childhood that carry one towards “religious” peace and truth. What’s interesting in these examples (well, one among many interesting things) is the way an unfamiliar landscape opens up new spiritual ideas or possibilities.

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