The Victorian novelist, travel writer, and founder of the British Egypt Exploration Fund Amelia Edwards is not as well known today as perhaps she should be, given her remarkable and trail-blazing life and career.
Not only was she a successful writer of novels and travel books, the latter including a record of a boat trip from Cairo to Aswan entitled A Thousand Miles up the Nile, but she was also a determined advocate for causes including the protection of Egypt’s antiquities, in her day threatened by unscrupulous private dealers and official neglect.
Taking stock of the situation during her journey up the Nile in a dahabiyah, or houseboat, in 1873, during which she stopped off at many of the ancient Egyptian sites that line the banks of the Nile in Upper Egypt, Edwards resolved to write up her journey for the benefit of English-speaking readers.
The sites were being damaged by development and increasing tourism, and Edwards realised, as some others did in Egypt and elsewhere at the time, that if they were to survive to bear witness to the greatness of ancient Egyptian civilisation they would need far greater conservation and protection.
Where Edwards differed from others also concerned at the damage being done to the ancient Egyptian sites and monuments was in her determination to do something about it. After the publication of the record of her trip in 1877, she set to work to protect them, notably by founding the UK Egypt Exploration Fund, later the Egypt Exploration Society, that was intended to pay for the excavation of unexcavated sites.
She worked tirelessly to raise the necessary funds, and the Fund later supported the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie in his early excavations in the Delta, some of the most important carried out in this distinguished Egyptologist’s long career. It also supported the early work of Howard Carter, some decades later the discover of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian golden boy-king Tutankhamun.
However, despite her importance to the development of Egyptology, her interest in the subject was almost accidental, as a new full-length biography, The Adventurous Life of Amelia Edwards by UK writer Margaret Jones, reveals. She also had many obstacles to overcome in developing that interest that would not have been faced by her male peers.
Born in London in 1831, there was little in Edwards’s early life that might have predicted her going on to play so important a role in the development of Egyptology aside perhaps from her intense interest in other countries and places besides her own.
An almost exact contemporary of the more famous Bronte sisters, born in the north of England in similar economic circumstances, Edwards was attracted early on to producing voluminous imaginative works, perhaps as a substitute for the experiences given to many of her male peers but typically denied to young women.
The latter were often kept cloistered up in the parental home and only left it upon marriage. They had few opportunities for formal education, and even fewer possibilities for rewarding careers.
Like the Bronte sisters, Edwards reacted to this situation by developing her imagination, finding in the writing that she began to produce from the age of seven onwards a way of exploring the opportunities denied her by the social conventions of the time.
By her early twenties, she had begun to develop herself professionally as a writer, publishing her first novels in the early 1850s and later living from her pen, even if that meant having to produce a stream of potboilers as well as more inspired pieces.
There were grim-sounding schoolbooks of a kind probably familiar to the governesses that people the novels of many women writers of the time, among them a Summary of English History and A History of France from the Conquest of Gaul. These included “questions adapted to each paragraph for the use of schools,” presumably framed with the bleak determination necessitated by having to earn a living.
There was also a suitor, a Mister Bacon, first name unknown, probably entertained more for the sake of her parents than for her own, since Edwards’s happiness, like that of most 19th-century women writers, was never to be found in marriage. She broke off the engagement almost as soon as it started and devoted herself to earning her living through writing. This was possible for a young woman of the right background in mid-Victorian England as the examples of others had shown.
Jones is sympathetic towards Edwards’s potboilers in her biography, and she is prepared to give at least some of the novels the benefit of the doubt. However, while the analysis she provides of novels such as My Brother’s Wife (1855), The Ladder of Life (1856), and Hand in Glove (1858) is intriguing, few if any readers today are likely to want to turn up Edwards’s novels from the rather dutiful plot summaries she provides.
After she had thrown herself into Egyptology in the 1870s, the novel-writing stopped. While there is Lord Brackenbury (1880), the story of an English peer “who makes a new life for himself… transporting people and goods around the coastal ports of Italy,” Edwards gave up writing novels “whether owing to lack of time, physical exhaustion, or because she found her work for the Exploration Fund more compelling,” Jones says.
A trip up the Nile: The expansion of the reading public and the growing ease of travel in the mid-Victorian decades led to a boom in travel writing, with the genre appealing to women writers as much as it did to men.
The French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s letters from Egypt, sent in the late 1840s when the author tagged along on a trip paid for by the French government, are early examples of a genre that soon saw a clutch of English women authors catching a steamer at Southampton on their way to Egypt with writing projects in mind. Sophia Lane Poole, sister of the orientalist Edward Lane, published her Englishwoman in Egypt in 1846, and Lucie Duff-Gordon, published her Letters from Egypt in 1865.
Wanting to develop her talents to fit the new profile of travel writer to add to her role as the writer of schoolbooks and novels, Edwards left for the Dolomites Mountains in northern Italy in 1872, going on to publish her Untrodden Peaks: A Midsummer Ramble in the Dolomites in London in 1873. Later in the same year, she left for Egypt and a trip up the Nile in response to a suggestion from her publisher who wanted a travel book on a country generating increasing international interest after the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal.
Edwards had never left Europe before her Egyptian trip, but she threw herself into it with characteristic gusto. In her write-up, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, she describes boarding the Philae, the ship that was to take her up the Nile to Aswan, in late 1873, along with the cast of characters that was to accompany her and her readers. These included the captain Reis Hassan, “short, stern-looking, and authoritative,” a steersman, 12 sailors, a cook, an assistant cook, two waiters, and “the boy who cooked for the crew.” There was also a dragoman who acted as an interpreter or guide.
The Philae proceeded at a leisurely pace, reaching Minya by Christmas where it was boarded by more English visitors, before setting off again for Luxor, Aswan, and, eventually, Abu Simbel, then accessible by boat before the building of the Aswan High Dam. Jones quotes liberally from Edwards’s descriptions of the sites and monuments she visited, pointing to the way in which she dramatises the trip by recording the interactions between her cast of characters, Egyptian and English, as they shared the same restricted space on their way up the Nile.
“The Egyptian people Edwards got closest to were the sailors and other crew members of the Philae,” she says, adding that “each of them told her his story, in which the ‘local oppressor’ and the dreaded military conscription were invariably central themes.”
It was on this trip that Edwards became aware “of the shocking neglect of Egypt’s precious cultural heritage,” Jones says, the remedying of which was to absorb most of her energy during her remaining years. “Damage to the monuments took many forms. Tourists scribbled on them; local people carted off masonry for their own building needs; even professional scholars, taking prints of precious wall paintings, used a method that over time destroyed the original colours. Unscrupulous excavators carried off temple statuary for foreign museums or for their own private collections.”
Back in London, Edwards began sounding out friends and acquaintances about ways to protect the monuments from further damage while also contributing to excavation and research. A preliminary meeting of what was to become the UK Egypt Exploration Fund was held in London at Edwards’s instigation in June 1880, followed by its first regular committee meeting two years later. Negotiations then began with Egypt’s then Director of Antiquities, the Frenchman Auguste Mariette, on excavation licenses.
In early 1883, the Fund appointed Egyptologist Edouard Naville to carry out its first sponsored excavations at Tel al-Maskhuta in the eastern Delta, followed a year later by the young Flinders Petrie, the author of a survey of the Great Pyramid at Giza, who was contracted to excavate at the ancient site of Tanis some 40 miles west of the Suez Canal.
Edwards worked tirelessly to raise funds for the Fund and to raise its national and international profile while at the same time sitting on its committee and reviewing reports on excavations, requests for funding, and, more often than perhaps might have been thought, adjudicating conflicts between some of the nascent field’s outsize egos.
By 1890, the date when Edwards returned from America after a successful Egyptological lecture tour drawing on materials collected in her Pharaohs, Fellahs, and Explorers, her overall achievements, widely recognised, were nevertheless difficult to classify, Jones says. When she died, just one year later, she made provision in her will for the foundation of the Edwards Chair of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology at University College London, where it still exists today. As for the Egypt Exploration Fund, this changed its name to the Egypt Exploration Society in 1919 and continues to fund excavations and other activities.
Jones’s admiring new biography is a good place to start for all those wanting to gauge the full range of Edwards’s Egyptological and other achievements.
Margaret Jones, The Adventurous Life of Amelia Edwards, London: Bloomsbury, 2022, pp219.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.