Before Florence Nightingale pioneered the field of professional nursing, and before Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary, both were struggling to find their place in the world. During this period of personal uncertainty, both happened to travel through Egypt along the Nile at the same time. While there is no evidence the two met, Enid Shomer reconstructs what their unique relationship might have been like in her historical novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.
Shomer is an award-winning poet and short story writer who’s written six previous books, but this is her first novel. I sat down with Shomer in her Tampa home days before the global release of The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.
Why do you think the convention of using a physical journey as metaphor for an emotional one is such a popular device?
It’s not just a device or convention; it’s a fact. When you see people practicing totally different values who are just as human as you, it makes you question your assumptions. I think that is the value of travel. It really does broaden your mind. For Nightingale and Flaubert, the trip was key. Egypt was foreign to everything they knew. They both made this journey to obtain a completely different view of the world, and they got it. You sometimes have to physically leave your life before you can come back to it and change it.
Who would you choose to travel down the Nile with, Nightingale or Flaubert?
Flaubert. I think he would be more fun. As a man, he had a greater sense of freedom and safety than Nightingale did, though she was very daring, too. After all, four years later she went off to the Crimean War, armed with a bunch of gauze and a couple of dozen volunteers. She did a lot of extraordinary things. But he was more fun.
If someone wrote a historical fiction about your life, what would be your Nile trip?
In terms of a challenging journey, this book would be my Nile trip. I always said I would not write a novel. I was too interested in language to try the longer form. Then I got hooked on writing short fiction. Agents started contacting me about writing a novel and I still had no desire to write one. But then Nightingale and Flaubert got their hooks into me. The story just grabbed me. It took me seven years. Actually, I wrote the first couple of pages in 2003, and put them aside. It was a very difficult book for me because I don’t think I am a natural novelist.
Did you find it difficult or entertaining to write from the mindset of a notorious womanizer like Flaubert?
It was a lot of fun. I felt so related to Flaubert for whatever reason. His letters are full of yummy details of naughty things he did. Being Flaubert was immensely enjoyable.
Nightingale’s character finds similarities between ancient Egyptian and Christian beliefs in an afterlife. In particular, she compares the crucifixion to the sun-god Ra, dying in the West each night. For you, how does this myth relate to the story you are telling in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile?
In this book, Nightingale is desperately searching for a way to be useful in the world. She was very interested in religion. She knew about Buddhism. She was teaching herself Hebrew. At one time she considered joining the Catholic Church, but she didn’t accept the Roman Catholic concept of evil, which is explained in the novel. All of this religious focus is ultimately about the transformation in death, but she is also looking for a transformation in life. That is the way the mythology illuminates the story. She is looking for a way to make sense of her life, and of life in general.
If Flaubert and Nightingale were to read this book, how would they react?
I hope they would love it because it captures their deepest identities and desires. I really believe that or I could not write the book. I had to become them, to sort of channel them, to do this work.
When I first uncovered the fact that they were both on the Nile at the same time and I read their Nile journals and letters, I sensed that they had a deep connection and profound similarities of character. One historian I talked to said, “I’ve studied both of them, but they exist in separate parts of my brain. They were so different.” Superficially, yes, they are dissimilar. He is such a bad boy and she is such a good girl. Here is a man who practices promiscuity daily, and yet he is writing about goodness in The Temptation of St. Anthony, which he rewrote for 30 years. They had so much in common — education, temperament, genius, etc.
The novel probes the connection they might have had, and also illuminates the times they lived in. They were so constrained by their times. She had absolutely no way to express her brilliance and he was bound up by his culture. Like Nightingale, Flaubert hated the bourgeois class he came from, and yet he knew he was the beneficiary of its virtues. I think they would appreciate that aspect of the novel, which shows how conflicted they were, how constrained they were, and how much they needed to get away. This trip was, in actuality, crucial to their lives. They had to leave everything they knew to understand who they were, because they were both geniuses. And like most geniuses, they both felt like freaks at the outset of the trip.
Buy The Twelve Rooms of the Nile or read more by Enid Shomer at EnidShomer.com.
Bravo for "New Swirl Order" Megan!
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