Flaubert on the Nile

David Tresilian , Sunday 21 Jul 2019

French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s account of his trip up the Nile in 1850 can still intrigue today

Flaubert on the Nile

The 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert was not a great traveller. In his letters he often complains of anything likely to dislodge him from his house in a town near Rouen in northern France, a place he did more than most to immortalise as the home of Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife, in perhaps his best-known novel Madame Bovary.

However, before becoming famous as a novelist, Flaubert was persuaded to take at least one major trip abroad, which he did in 1849-50 in the company of Maxime Du Camp, another aspiring writer, to Egypt and other parts of the then Ottoman Empire. Flaubert, according to Du Camp, was a miserable traveller, seldom likely to show enthusiasm for the things he saw and often refusing to leave his room to visit historical sites or monuments.

But Flaubert’s own notes and letters from the voyage, helpfully translated and annotated by US scholar Francis Steegmuller, tell a different story. Far from being uninterested in what he saw about him on a trip that took the pair from Alexandria to Cairo and then up the Nile to Aswan and back, Flaubert was often intensely curious about what he saw in Egypt, though he usually chose to see rather different things to those indicated by Du Camp.

As Steegmuller’s commentary explains, Flaubert had earlier been in a state of some uncertainty regarding the possibility of a future career as a novelist. Rather like Frédéric Moreau, the main character in L’Education sentimentale, probably his best-known novel apart from Madame Bovary, Flaubert was bored if not nauseated by the prospect of a career in law, his mother’s choice and a safe option for a young man of his background in France at the time.

Many 19th-century French novels describe the lives of young men attracted by the law, not least because it could be part of a rite of passage from the provinces to Paris. Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir is one of the earliest examples of a long line of such provincial parvenus that also includes Eugène de Rastignac in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, Félix Tholomyès, the father of Cosette, in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and indeed Frédéric Moreau in L’Education sentimentale.

Some of these young men eventually buckled down to their books, but not Flaubert. Having extracted what was then an enormous sum from his mother to fund his trip eastwards, Flaubert set off in November 1849 accompanied by Du Camp with the intention of seeing something of the Orient and focusing his ideas about future novels and if necessary the choice of future career.

They left Marseilles for Alexandria on 4 November in one of the newish steamships, this one called the Nil, that had dramatically shortened journey times across the Mediterranean. Eventually, these ships were to encourage mass tourism to Egypt and other countries in the Southern Mediterranean, signalled by the establishment of the tour operator Thomas Cook and the development of luxury hotels from Cairo to Aswan later in the century. But at the time of Flaubert’s journey most of this was still in the future.

Du Camp, a rather more obviously calculating young man than Flaubert, had managed to extract a commission from the French Ministry of Education to support his trip and had also invested in an impressive set of photographic equipment to record it. Only recently invented and still beyond the budgets of most travellers, photography was later in the century to make the Middle East better known to generations of Europeans through the sale of photographic albums and postcards.

For the time being, however, it involved transporting a large quantity of equipment, since photographic plates had to be prepared on site and the chemicals needed to develop them transported. Because of the long exposure times, it was seldom possible to photograph human subjects — their movements blurred the image — and it was also necessary to clear away the crowds from otherwise busy streets in order to photograph buildings and other monuments.

Flaubert had been given a commission by the French Ministry of Commerce to collect information in Egypt likely to interest local chambers of commerce. Needless to say, his surviving notes and letters from the journey have nothing whatsoever to say about commercial matters, but neither were they produced with the intention of later working them up into books.

Whereas Du Camp published two books on his trip to Egypt, the first duly illustrated with his photographs and managing to avoid mentioning his fellow traveller, Flaubert’s impressions were kept for his private journals and letters. Some of the latter are to his mother, in which case they are more discreet than the sometimes bawdy letters he sent to his friend Louis Bouilhet.

The notes and journals contain observations sometimes worked up for the consumption of others, but just as often they show Flaubert to have had his mind in at least two places at once, sometimes bowled over by what he saw around him Egypt and sometimes thinking of his life in France and possibilities for future novels.

IN EGYPT: Thanks to the letters of introduction they had arranged as part of their official missions, Flaubert and Du Camp found almost all doors open to them as soon as they arrived in Alexandria on 17 November 1849.
However, in addition to the effect such letters could have there was also the disconcerting fact that Egypt at the time seemed to be infested with French officials. Commenting on Flaubert’s mentions of these, Steegmuller notes that the country’s former ruler, Mohamed Ali, who had died just a few months before the two men’s arrival to be replaced by Abbas Pasha, “had taken many Frenchmen into his service and conferred on some of them the title of Bey or occasionally Pasha”.

Among these was Suleiman Pasha, a former French army colonel called Sève who had helped to reorganise the Egyptian army, along with Lambert Bey, an engineer, Lubbert Bey, the court chamberlain, and Clot Bey, a doctor. “The French canaille [riff-raff] abroad is impressive — and, let me add, there is a lot of it,” Flaubert wrote in a letter to Bouilhet. There was also the fact that Egypt, or at least Alexandria, had become a kind of magnet for Europeans, with Flaubert writing to his mother that “at table in our hotel alone there are thirty, and the place is full of Englishmen and Italians”.

Arriving in Cairo, Flaubert and Du Camp checked into a hotel in Azbekiya in the centre of the city, apparently well on its way to becoming a tourist district. They visited Khan Al-Khalili and the “tombs of the caliphs” (the cemetery districts), and on 7 December they visited the Pyramids at Giza. At this time and for some time later it was customary for foreign visitors to climb at least one of these — now of course rightly forbidden — and Flaubert and Du Camp were dutifully hauled up the Great Pyramid by local guides.

The view was magnificent, Flaubert writes in his travel notes, with “the dry desert light behind us, and before us an immense, delightful expanse of green, furrowed by endless canals, dotted here and there with tufts of palms; then, in the background, a little to the left, the minarets of Cairo and especially the Mosque of Mohamed Ali towering above the others.”

Back in Cairo, Flaubert began quizzing local interlocutors about life in Egypt. Writing to his mother on 5 January 1850, he says he has been talking to various religious dignitaries while being delighted by the name he has been given in Arabic — “Abu Chanab, which means ‘father of the moustache’”. Visiting a Coptic bishop, he is struck by the elaborate introduction provided by his interpreter — “this is a French gentleman (cawadja faransaoui) who is travelling all over the world in search of knowledge and who has come to you to speak of your religion.”

Later in the same letter, he strikes two characteristic notes, the first having to do with the fact that even while in Egypt his mind is often elsewhere. “When I think of my future… when I ask myself ‘what shall I do when I return? What path shall I follow?’ and the like, I am full of doubts and indecision,” he says, before following it up with the equally characteristic comment that “you ask me whether the Orient is up to what I imagined it to be. Yes, it is; and more than that, it extends far beyond the narrow idea I had of it.”

“I have found, clearly delineated, everything that was hazy in my mind. Facts have taken the place of suppositions — so excellently so that it is often as though I were suddenly coming upon old forgotten dreams.”

Flaubert still had many experiences in Egypt and beyond before him when these words were written (after leaving Egypt in July 1850 he and Du Camp went on to visit Palestine, Greece and Turkey). But perhaps it is here that one finds one of the best expressions of the deeper impact that Egypt had on him, with received ideas giving way to closely observed facts in the same way that earlier romantic experiments in writing were to give way, once he had returned to France, to more bracing and disenchanted but also more genuine realism.

Gustave Flaubert, Flaubert in Egypt, ed. Francis Steegmuller, London: Penguin, 1996. 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Flaubert on the Nile

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