Let me just start in the way of a ringing endorsement for this book by saying that I skipped another round of consignment store shopping (really my favorite kind of shopping) in order to finish this book. And it was worth it.
The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is the first novel by Enid Shomer, and it’s quite a first novel at that. In 1848, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert both traveled the Nile in Egypt. There’s nothing in the historical record to suggest that they actually met, but Shomer imagines what it might have been like if they had.
Reading this novel, I kept having the eerie feeling of deja vu, and finally I realized that Shomer’s novel has interesting parallels to E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Nightingale and her party are, of course, English. They’re traveling through strange and foreign lands. Florence Nightingale makes an interesting Adela Quested and if you squint your eyes, you might see Flaubert as a French version of Dr. Aziz. Though, interestingly, Flaubert is probably much less socially formal and rigid than Dr. Aziz.
Like Forster’s novel, The Twelve Rooms is very much an exploration of Victorian England as it encounters the very non-Victorian Orient. But this time, you get to see that culture also contrasted against what was happening on the other side of the channel in France. I don’t think this contrast is epitomized any better than in the assumptions characters make about English women’s knowledge of their bodies as compared to French women’s knowledge of their bodies.
There’s a lot happening in this novel with gender, social class (Nightingale wants to help the poor, but doesn’t particularly want to see her maid as a full human being) and encounters with the Other, but what holds the story together are the similarities Nightingale and Flaubert discover in their relationship to the world. Both have sworn not to marry, a radical notion for their time period, and especially so for Nightingale. They are both ambitious, but uncertain as to how to realize their ambitions. Their discovery of these similarities is a pleasure to watch.
Fromer’s characterization of Nightingale is a wonderful thing to behold. It seems to me probably the best representation of what it might have been like to have a been a woman imprisoned by the chains of Victorian culture and struggling to find a way free. I love the passage where Fromer describes how Nightingale thought about her body, and how her conversations with Flaubert lead her to question her relationship to her body. Though Victorian England in many ways tried very hard to deny the existence of female bodies, their realities had to have rudely punctured the surface of everyday life. Fromer’s is the perfect example of a fictionalized version of history that meticulously tries to recreate history not just as a setting or backdrop to the actions of thoroughly modern characters, but history as a shaper of personalities, thoughts and feelings. If you believe that we are deeply shaped by the historical period and culture in which we live, then our very way of seeing the world must be in large part determined by when we lived.
The suspense in this novel is created partly by the action of their travels. When will they meet up again? What will happen in their journey across the desert to the Red Sea? And of course, in wondering what ultimately drives the two apart. It’s no spoiler to say that of course, Nightingale and Flaubert do not end up together. They have no contact at all after this meeting. But what ultimately destroys the fascinating intimacy which Fromer creates for them? It’s interesting to contemplate as a work of fiction that what Fromer has done is to carefully and meticulously create an encounter between two historical figures which she must then deftly wipe away. They must move on in the world and into their lives as famous people, keeping the secret of their encounter firmly tucked away in the deepest recesses of who they are. Fromer must convince us that both Nightingale and Flaubert were altered by their meeting, even though we know they were not. What an accomplishment to pull that off and what a joy that Fromer so successfully does!
I received this book as an ARC from the generous purveyors at Village Lights Bookstore, but when it comes out in August, check it out yourself. I’ve already reserved a place for it on my top ten fiction list for 2012.