Before she became a heroine of the Crimean War, and before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert each traveled to Egypt—and, reportedly, glimpsed each other on the Nile. Though the historical record suggests that they did not actually meet, in poet Enid Shomer’s rich and imaginative novel, The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, they do, igniting a passionate friendship that both inspired and repelled.
Though the enfant terrible of French letters and the Lady of the Lamp might not seem to have many similarities, in 1849 both were searching for a larger purpose to their lives. Nightingale had just turned down a marriage proposal and Flaubert had just dropped out of law school and was mourning the death of his sister. He had also written his first novel, deemed unpublishable by a group of close friends. Both suffered from maladies; Flaubert had recurring seizures, which were probably epilepsy, and Nightingale endured debilitating depression. A trip down the Nile was an opportunity to refresh their minds and stimulate their senses. Most importantly it was a chance to leave their families behind.
In The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, so called after the many rooms the sun god Ra was said to pass through on his sacred journey from sunset to sunrise, Flaubert and Nightingale are both traveling the river with arranged stops at archaeological sites such as Philae and Abu Simbel. Flaubert was traveling with his friend Max Du Camp, an amateur photographer and archaeologist; Nightingale was with family friends and a lady’s maid, Trout. Shomer suggests that the strange surroundings provided opportunities for Flaubert and Nightingale to confide their deepest wishes and fears to one another, and the intensity of the environment, with its extreme temperatures and strange fauna, encouraged their closeness.
The striking Egyptian ruins serve as a perfect backdrop for the intensity of the characters and the plot gets a comic, though not wholly successful, twist in an apparent desert kidnapping. But the novel shines brightly as a thoughtful study of these two singular geniuses, a story Shomer tells with a deep understanding of the poignancy of human connection.