Two of the 19th century’s most notable minds meet in poet Enid Shomer’s debut novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.
With a novel like this, you know there was a historical fact that provided the initial spark to your imagination. What was it?
The initial spark was learning that Flaubert and Nightingale traveled the Nile at the same time. I’m not talking about approximately the same time. They were towed from Cairo to the navigable part of the river through the Mahmoudieh Canal on the same boat. That day, Flaubert wrote a description in his journal of a woman in a “hideous green eyeshade,” and we know that Nightingale had such a contraption that she wore attached to her bonnet. Their itineraries throughout their Nile journeys were almost identical. It’s kind of a miracle that they didn’t meet!
Did you know a lot about Florence Nightingale and Flaubert before you started the novel? Do you think readers need to know about them before they read the novel?
I did not know a lot. My sense of Nightingale at the outset was based on Lytton Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians, which depicts Nightingale as a shrewish and eccentric control freak. (He claims she actually worked one of her friends to death.) The more I read about and by her, the more I came to reject this depiction. She was, for one thing, blessed with a fabulous wit, a virtue Strachey ignored completely. Other early biographers painted her in saintly sepia tones. I set out to find out who the real Nightingale was.
I knew that Flaubert was an important writer and I’d read many of his books, but I was unfamiliar with his life. His journals and letters were a revelation to me. And he, too, had a magnificent sense of humor.
Readers don’t need to know anything about either character before encountering them in my novel. For one thing, in 1850 they both were unknown, confused and upset about their futures, so any notion the reader may have of who they are doesn’t apply. They hadn’t yet done the deeds that would inscribe them into canonical history. She was 29; he was 28. They considered themselves failures. Part of the pleasure of the novel for the reader is taking the journey to self-discovery with them.
It’s hard to imagine Flaubert and Nightingale together, yet there are so many similarities regarding what stage they were in their lives. Did that surprise you?
Despite the obvious differences between Nightingale and Flaubert, I always intuited that they had something essential in common, and my faith in that connection was one of the driving forces behind the book.
Certainly on the surface the dissimilarities were huge, and not just to me. One scholar of the period I consulted told me that these two lived in different lobes of her brain despite being contemporaries, and that she had never thought of them in the same breath. Of course, it turned out that they had a tremendous number of things in common, for they shared the same general culture and came from similar social classes. They both rebelled against upper-middle-class European values, and perhaps most importantly, they were both geniuses.
You based the character of Trout, Nightingale’s maid, on the real life writings of a different 19th-century servant. Why did you do that and what do you think she adds to the novel?
As part of my research, I delved into the lives of Victorian servants. Also, the real-life Trout had disappeared into the vast bone-pile of history, so I had to make her up from scratch. The only clue I had was that she and Flo didn’t always get along, that there was friction in their relationship. Reading the historical servant’s journals helped me to shape a vocabulary and a love life for the fictional Trout.
To me, Trout is an especially endearing and important character. First of all, she is amusing as well as wise in her own way. We get to read parts of her journal and thus get another view of things, one that is often at odds with Nightingale’s. The class differences between them provide insights into Nightingale’s limitations as a would-be humanitarian and social thinker. Trout forces Nightingale to grow—by example and also by challenging her assumptions.
This is not your first foray into the life of historical person—I am thinking of your poem cycle about the first woman pilot to break the sound barrier, Jacqueline Cochran. Can you talk about the challenges of exploring a famous person’s life in prose versus poetry?
I began my writing career as a poet, but soon turned to writing short stories, and eventually, the novel. Though I wrote the Cochran poem-biography (Stars at Noon) in an attempt to deal with character through poetry, I believe that except for epic or book-length poems, poetry is not well-suited to exploring character, especially as it evolves over time. For me, poetry is primarily about language and metaphor, while fiction, though it, too, requires powerful language and metaphor, is essentially about time.
What did you discover about this time period or any of the characters that you couldn’t or chose not to add to the novel?
I learned a lot of surprising things about the period and my characters. For example, in the late Victorian Age, nearly one in four persons in England was a servant. There were juicy bits, too. Richard Monckton Milnes, the first biographer of Keats and the man Nightingale refused to marry, amassed the largest collection of pornography in England. (It is now housed in the British Library). He was also part of a group of prominent Victorian men who wrote pornography together as a hobby. They composed it round-robin style, and published under pseudonyms, always attributing their books to publishers in exotic locales—Constantinople, Cairo or Aleppo in Syria. Nightingale would not, I venture, have approved. I think she was right to refuse to marry Milnes. She would have been much better off with someone like Flaubert.
Have you been to Egypt and if not, did writing this make you want to visit?
I have never visited Egypt, though I have lived in two countries in the Middle East. Egypt is currently at the top of my travel list. I especially want to travel down the Nile.
What’s next for you?
I am currently working on a project that involves two stories: a contemporary one set in the early 1990s, and an historical one set in 1599. I love doing research, which, after all, is just focused reading and travel.
Read a review of The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.