Ghoreeyah street, Cairo by John Frederick Lewis

The Past In Another Country

My novel THE SACRED RIVER is the story of three Victorian women who leave a fogbound London for the light and heat of Egypt, trying to escape a prophesied death. None can return unchanged and at least one can never return.

In the two years it took me to write the novel, I did sometimes wonder if I’d over-reached myself, setting my second novel not just in the past, well known as another country, but also in – another country.

There were good reasons for both choices. I hadn’t – still haven’t – exhausted my interest in the fascinating, resilient, inventive, near-enough-to-touch Victorians. And I’ve had a long term interest in north Africa, starting back in my early 20s when I first went to Egypt as a traveller and would-be writer and journalist.

My story is about Harriet, Louisa and Yael, and their experience of being in an exotic foreign land, freed from the constraints that Victorian society imposed on many people, women in particular. It’s set in 1882, a time when travel in Africa was just beginning to be possible for the middle classes. Thomas Cook had established his tours and you no longer had to be an adventurous aristocratic explorer to contemplate going up the Nile.

In any novel, there are big things and there are small things. I’m interested in both and the larger themes in my novel are whether travellers can leave themselves behind or are always doomed to take themselves along, the brutal treatment of Egyptians under 19th century Ottoman rule and the emergence of an earlier Arab spring, the complexities of westerners trying to get involved in another society, with all the potential for pitfalls and cultural misunderstandings. I wanted to explore something of the richness of Arab culture and the beauty of the landscape.

But I was just as interested in detail. What might a Victorian woman setting off for Egypt put in her trunk? What kind of food would Harriet, Yael and Louisa have eaten on the steamer on the voyage out? What souvenirs were available in Luxor, when the European fascination for Egyptian antiquities was still new?

I researched THE SACRED RIVER much as I researched my first novel, THE PAINTED BRIDGE, through a mixture of following my nose online in the treasure troves of sites such as, Project Gutenberg and other similar resources.

I also used a real library; I’m a member of the London Library which has the great distinction of being a lending library. I was able to have in my writing room at home a pile of leather bound books on Victorian Egypt that dated from the period; many of these were the actual volumes that my characters – Harriet in particular, with her love of hieroglyphs – could have pored and puzzled over.

It was a thrill to realise that I had borrowed Wallis Budge’s own travel guide to Egypt! The red, pocket-sized guidebook had the Victorian Egyptologist’s name on the flyleaf, his notes in the margins and had been donated to the London Library after his death. Budge was for 30 years Keeper of Egyptology at the British Museum.

I gained a great deal from reading first person accounts of 19th century travellers to north Africa. Even if the narrator is somewhat unreliable, the unmediated stories from the past communicate powerfully. Some travellers’ accounts, read one hundred or more years later, reveal far more about themselves than the country they visited.

No surprises that at the height of imperialism, a lot of Victorians were dismayingly racist. Including Florence Nightingale, who went to Egypt in1849, as a 29-year-old, before she found her vocation in the Crimea. What a relief to learn from the writings of invalid Lucie Duff Gordon in her Letters from Egypt that not every 19th century Englishwoman was a bigot, despite the prevailing ideas of the time.

And to discover in the densely interesting pages of C.B. Klunzinger’s book ‘Upper Egypt, its people and its products’ that some travellers, at least, were capable of a clear sighted focus on the people and the places they saw in front of them, and had the foresight and generosity to record what they learned for posterity.

I went to Egypt again on a short research trip, to Luxor, to experience things that don’t change, which in Egypt is quite a lot. The stark beauty of the barren mountain range on the west bank of the Nile. The rock tombs (in their essence at least – you have to look past plastic shields and wooden ramps built for modern day visitors.) The light of dawn and dusk on the sacred river itself, the smell of incense, the sounds of Arabic and the muezzin’s call floating on the air.

I consulted a brilliant Egyptologist for help in reading hieroglyphs.

But I think that the research and excavation for fiction goes on primarily in the writer’s own heart and mind. Most of the external research must be discarded, because it has no relevance to the story. It is a confidence builder, a necessary starting point, a relief from the hard graft of creating a world of your own.

Admittedly, I allowed in the women’s green glass sun specs recommended in an early travel guide, the barley broth, spaghetti in cream and mutton chops from a P&O menu card, the newly-made ‘antiques’ forced down the throats of geese for instant ageing effects.

But although place and time are significant, and to my mind need to be evoked as accurately and atmospherically as one can manage, the truths you struggle after in a novel are not the ones you can find online or at the end of a plane trip but the ones that you didn’t know you knew, that you stumble on in the act of writing, that lay all along buried in some other more elusive archive of the heart.


This piece was first published on Isabel Costello’s blog On the Literary Sofa.



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