From Literary Review:

Wall_05_10 The best biographies, like some of the best novels, are packed with subjunctives. They are alive with a persistent, muted sense of what might have been. The lives of educated, imaginative, middle-class, mid-nineteenth century women were often tragically packed with subjunctives. Excluded from the public sphere, these women were further constrained by a scarcely figurative matrimonial corset, that patriarchal contraption so lovingly tightened of late. Subject to such chronic restriction, a young woman might take refuge in illness and romantic fiction or, more audaciously, adultery and suicide. Emma Bovary, that small-town extremist, exhausts both possibilities. For those more fortunate than her, there might be a carefully chaperoned excursion to somewhere far away – to Egypt, for example.

Anthony Sattin's A Winter on the Nile contains the story of one such exceptional nineteenth-century journey. The book is one part travel writing, one part cultural history, and one part biography. It's a delicious mix, skilfully blended. There are two travellers, an English woman and a French man, both in their late twenties. They are eloquently self-aware and profoundly unhappy. They are hoping to find a new purpose to their lives. They arrive in Egypt in November 1849, within days of each other. They stay in adjacent hotels. They travel along the same river, and they visit the same places at the same season of the year. They confide their secrets to their journals. They write vivid letters home. For two days they are to be found on the upper and the lower decks of the same steamship, plodding along the lower Nile from Alexandria to Cairo.

These two young travellers, so nicely oblivious of each other, are Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. Within seven years of their journey along the Nile both will be famous, she as the saviour of the wounded soldiers of the Crimean War, he as the author of Madame Bovary. His novel will be the classic description of the subjection of women. Her mission to the Crimea will foreshadow their emancipation. At this point in their lives, though, their primary creative energies are paralysed. Egypt may transform them.

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