Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt Anthony Sattin

Hutchinson, pp.316, 20

Stephen Potter’s Lifemanship contains a celebrated tip for writers who want to ensure good reviews.

Stephen Potter’s Lifemanship contains a celebrated tip for writers who want to ensure good reviews. Simply make the dedication so emotionally blackmailing that no critic will dare attack you — something like, ‘To Phyllis, in the hope that God’s glorious gift of sight will be restored to her.’

It’s a ploy that springs inescapably to mind when reading the introduction to Winter on the Nile. What we’re about to read, Anthony Sattin explains, is the culmination of a dream he’s cherished for decades — a dream whose importance to him will only be truly understood by his beloved wife and children. And, as it turns out, this is just one example of his brazenness in a book that’s frequently marred by self-hype.

Inline sub2


In November 1849, Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale were both in their late twenties when they responded to personal crises by taking a trip up the Nile; he with Maxime du Camp, she in the somewhat less racy company of Charles and Selina Bracebridge. Flaubert had recently read his first attempt at a novel to du Camp and Louis Bouilhet — and they’d advised him to throw it on the fire. Nightingale was still fighting her wealthy family for the right to be a nurse. As Sattin puts it in his characteristically heartfelt but purple way, both ‘were in despair of ever fulfilling their dreams, but on the cusp of achieving more than even they had dared hope’.

As we know from that introduction, Sattin’s interest in this undeniably pleasing coincidence dates back to the 1980s. Having found Nightingale’s letters from Egypt in the British Library and published a single-volume edition — ‘well received’, he assures us, after which ‘sales boomed’ — he then ‘discovered’ something else (although we rather have to take his word for it). At the start of her trip, before their timetables diverged, Nightingale was on the same Alexandria to Cairo ferry as Flaubert. Now, at last, Sattin feels able to take on ‘the challenge’ of a parallel account of their journeys.

In fact, when he sticks to that brief, the result generally works very well. As an old Egypt hand, Sattin does a fine job of capturing the place in the days before mass tourism, when many of the ancient sights were not just deserted but still covered in sand. The supporting cast of servants, conmen, beggars, consuls, villagers, boatmen — and in the Flaubert sections, whores — is winningly vivid. And, of course, the reactions of the two principals to the same scenes is often revealing about both.

All of which, you might think, would make any book well worth reading — and you’d be right. The trouble is that Sattin himself doesn’t seem so sure, and so keeps either stopping to point out how astonishingly interesting his material is, or simply sexing it up. One regular tactic is to imagine that Flaubert and Nightingale were constantly on the brink of meeting each other — as when he decides that Flaubert’s passing mention of ‘an English family’ on that supposedly shared ferry definitely refers to Nightingale’s party. Another is to overstate the extent of their Egyptian epiphanies, as if they both returned miraculously cured of all self-doubt.

Even so, Sattin’s most desperate editorialising attempt to get us to read a book we might well have read anyway is that it offers ‘a Florence for our times . . . young and fun’. This is a claim both endlessly repeated and endlessly contradicted by the descriptions of what Nightingale actually did. ‘After leaving Armant,’ runs one standard passage, ‘she read aloud to Selina Bracebridge from Wilkinson’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Egyptians. Then she read to Charles Bracebridge from the German scholar Carl Lepsius’ account of his recent excavations.’

Nightingale does come across well here — not least, even in Flaubert’s company, as a writer. Her respect for mosques and ancient temples as ‘gates to heaven’ will surprise anybody who regards Victorian Christians as so many Gillian Duffys. Yet, given that she was clearly a woman who made George Eliot look like Paris Hilton, Sattin’s excited pretence that she was some kind of proto-ladette is not just doomed. It’s also far too typical of a book that really should have let the fascinating story it tells speak for itself.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Artists, Egypt, French, Non-fiction, Novelists, Victorian