by Enid Shomer
What does the phrase “Victorian Age” conjure for you? Hooped skirts and sexual repression? The industrial revolution? Darwin, Marx and Freud? Clearly it is a period rich in social change, and flavored with an air of moral supremacy that produced inevitable contradictions and hypocrisy. Because the era had such a profound impact on our own times, I have always found it fascinating. I thought I knew something about it before beginning my novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, but nothing I had read prepared me for the cabinet of curiosities that I discovered.
In my novel, Florence Nightingale (the “Lady with the Lamp” and heroine of the Crimean War) and Gustave Flaubert (the author, most famously, of Madame Bovary) travel together through Egypt in 1850. In real life, they took separate, nearly-identical tours, sailing for months up and down the Nile, and visiting ancient monuments. We know that they were towed on the same boat and on the same day from Cairo to the navigable portion of the river. Flaubert records seeing an Englishwoman with a “hideous green eyeshade attached to her bonnet” and we know that Nightingale wore such a contraption.
There were other similarities. They were both in their late twenties, considered themselves failures, and were desperately unhappy. Both left an extensive written record of their travels and of their inner turmoil. The more I read, the more convinced I became that despite their obvious and striking differences, they shared a deep connection. Why were they both in a state of despair and why did they consider Egypt a “cure” for their misery? If they had met, I thought, they might have had a life-altering relationship.
Research uncovered rare tidbits about them and the Victorian period. In order not to give away any of the novel, I‘ll focus here on minor characters, and on information that fell beyond the scope or timeline of my book but which is interesting in its own right.
Before Nightingale left for Egypt, much to her family’s dismay she refused her only serious marriage proposal. Richard Monckton Milnes, her suitor, was widely known for his poetry, for writing the first biography of Keats and for being a member of Parliament. His fashionable Sunday brunches attracted everyone of import in London. But he also had a secret obsessive life known to only a few confidants. He amassed England’s largest collection of pornography (now housed in the British Library) and was also part of a group of prominent Victorian men who wrote pornography together as a hobby. They composed it round-robin style and published it under pseudonyms, always attributing the books to fictitious publishers in exotic locales—Constantinople, Cairo or Aleppo in Syria. While Florence Nightingale was daring and open-minded, I feel certain she would have been appalled.
Two other characters are Selina and Charles Bracebridge, Florence’s actual traveling companions in Egypt. A childless couple, they were Florence’s best friends and staunchest supporters, conspiring to help her achieve her goals despite the opposition of her family. Only a year before they had taken her to Italy, plucking her from one of the worst of the Nightingale family wars. But there is more to the story of these loyal friends, facts that are rarely mentioned in retellings of the Nightingale legend. Most of us know that Nightingale went to the Crimea, worked herself to a nub, became ill, nearly died, and yet managed to cut the British mortality rate by two-thirds by inventing what we recognize today as modern nursing. But how many people know that the Bracebridges went with her, facing horrific conditions and constant danger, and doing whatever scutwork she asked of them? There is no doubt in my mind that they are unsung heroes of the Crimean War.
Finally, there is Trout, the maid who accompanied Nightingale to Egypt, often serving as her chaperone. Other than a few mentions in Nightingale’s diary, the real Trout left no footprints in the historical terrain. I had to invent her from scratch.
In the Victorian Age, nearly one in four persons was “in service,” though almost none of them wrote about it. Fortunately, the maidservant Hannah Cullwick, who lived a bit later, kept a diary of her working life. For the fictional Trout, I borrowed Cullwick’s unusual relationship with a gentleman poet whom she clandestinely married. Literature about the pair mentions foot fetishism, infantilism, mysophilia, erotic gaming, ageplay, and other psycho-pathological terms. Despite these modern diagnoses, in my novel, Trout’s is a poignant love story whose eccentricities gives pause to anyone who thinks they understand Victorian attitudes toward sex.
Still on the subject of sexuality, I found significant differences between France and Britain. In Britain, even the medical textbooks were coy about the female body, using blank spaces or rough cartoons instead of realistic and anatomically correct drawings. In France, the doctors were unfettered by such Puritanical squeamishness. Again and again, I discovered diversity where I expected uniformity. Because Flaubert was French and Nightingale was English, there were opportunities to dramatize these differences, sometimes humorously, in the novel.
However, as interesting as these details are, I don’t want to give the impression that I chose to write this book for rational or intellectual reasons. What caught me by the throat and kept me going during the seven years I worked on the novel were not the resonances of the Victorian Age in our time but this: I kept thinking how amazing it would have been if these two geniuses had met. In the end, I wrote the book because I wanted to see what would happen when they did.
--Copyright 2012 by Enid Shomer
Enid Shomer won the Iowa Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories Imaginary Men, and the Florida Gold Medal for her second, Tourist Season, which was selected for Barnes & Noble’s “Discover Great New Writers” series. She is also the author of four books of poetry. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Paris Review, and many other publications. As Visiting Writer, she has taught at the University of Arkansas, Florida State University, and the Ohio State University among others. She lives in Tampa, Florida. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is her first novel.