Victorian ladies of letters on the Nile: Books by visitors to Egypt

David Tresilian , Sunday 7 Mar 2021

Nineteenth-century Egypt was a magnet for Victorian letter-writers, with some leaving important evidence of life in the country behind


The growth of tourism in 19th-century Europe opened up new possibilities for travel, with first railways and then steamships placing even previously largely inaccessible destinations such as Egypt well within the reach of Europe’s middle classes.

Families could start thinking of package deals to Upper Egypt thanks to travel agencies like the British company Thomas Cook. The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) made it possible for many to think of taking short hops abroad, with a stay in one of Cairo’s new hotels giving way to a few days spent cruising up the Nile.

With tourists came travelers, those who had more long-term plans in mind. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert visited Egypt in 1849, for example, tagging along on French government funds provided to his friend Maxime du Camp. In his well-known letters written from Egypt, Flaubert, never easily satisfied, is already complaining of fellow European visitors clogging up Cairo’s fast-developing hotels.

Some such travelers were women, no doubt on errands that the character of European societies at the time could have made it difficult for them to manage at home. Sophia Lane Poole, sister of the famous British orientalist Edward Lane, became a published author, for example, thanks to her Letters from Cairo discussing some Egyptian women’s lives. Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, settling in Luxor in the 1860s, provided a picture of Egypt at the time in her Letters from Egypt published in 1865.

There were also other European women travelers who found in Egypt a place in which they could exercise talents that could have gone unexercised at home. The British woman traveler Amelia Edwards, for example, not a letter-writer but the author of the popular A Thousand Miles up the Nile, was co-founder of the Egypt Exploration Fund later in the century and the originator of an important collection of Egyptian antiquities.

While many may think of later travelers when women’s travel in the Middle East is mentioned, perhaps pre-eminently the British traveler Gertrude Bell, founder of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, in fact the tradition of women writer-travelers in the region goes back at least to the 1840s when Lane Poole stayed with her brother in Egypt, apparently in the search of something more interesting than what she was doing at home.

Lane had already published his famous Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians in the 1830s, an early catalyst for the tourism that was later to be such a notable feature of Egypt’s economic development. Now he was working on his equally famous Arabic-English Lexicon, a work that took him the rest of his life but that was only finished and published by his nephew, the academic Stanley Lane Poole.

Lane himself got up to the letter qaf in this stupendous work, which still impresses and for some purposes is still indispensable today. While working in Cairo on his Lexicon, he decided to invite his sister to stay with him in 1842, from which developed the idea of Sophia’s adding to Lane’s Manners and Customs by focusing on areas of life that her brother had not been able fully to explore, notably the lives of women.

Anyone interested in Sophia Lane Poole’s Letters on this and other subjects, first published in London in two volumes in 1844 – there was a third in 1846 – is indebted to US scholar Jason Thompson, whose biography of Lane, published in 2010, provides an up-to-date portrait that is alive both to Lane’s personal life and to his research.

Thompson has much to say about Sophia and her stay in Cairo, but perhaps even more useful is the edition of the Letters produced by Egyptian scholar Azza Kararah in 2003, also their translator into Arabic. Kararah was perhaps the first to see the Letters in the round and to carry out the kind of detailed study that would allow readers to discover which parts are by Lane (Sophia often used her brother’s notes) and which are by his sister.

As Kararah notes in the introduction to her edition, Lane Poole’s aim was “not to deal with the women of Egypt in general,” leaving that to her brother in Manners and Customs, but instead “to provide an insight into the life of the hareems of the upper echelon of Egyptian society where the Turkish element predominated.”

Her first such hareem visit was in February 1843 to the home of the wife of Habib Effendi, the then governor of Cairo, followed in September 1843 to the hareem of then Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali at the Qasr al-Dubara Palace west of Cairo, and then in January 1844 to the house of Nezleh Hanem, the eldest daughter of Mohamed Ali.

Letters home

Sophia Lane Poole explains in her Letters that both their form and subject-matter owed much to her brother.

There was a tradition of public letter-writing from the Middle East, pre-eminently Lady Mary Wortley Montague’s famous letters from Istanbul published some 80 years before, but perhaps Lane Poole’s choice of the letter form had more to do with her own uncertainty as an author. Letters could be disguised as personal communications, even if they were intended for publication. Rather like diaries, sometimes also adopted by Victorian women writers, letters allowed their author apparently to report simply on what she had seen and heard, leaving the supposed authority of the article or book to men.

Whatever the reason, Lane Poole’s Letters are a mixed bag, with some of them copied verbatim out of her brother’s notes and others being dutiful rehearsals of the kind of history found in Victorian encyclopaedias. They come more alive when she is reporting on household matters, and many readers must have wished that Lane Poole could have left the historical parts to her brother and focused more on what she had experienced herself.

Kararah says something along these lines when she notes that one of the events that Lane Poole reports in the Letters, the wedding of Zeyneb Hanem, youngest daughter of Mohamed Ali, is not described in detail anywhere else. Lane Poole’s observations on this event, taking place over eight days at the Cairo Citadel in December 1845, are thus our only source – though, as Kararah notes, this is regrettable in some respects.

“I have since ascertained from the best authority that the cost of the diamonds given by the Pasha to his daughter on this occasion has been 200,000 pounds [around 12 million today], and of these ornaments the girdle and the necklace are the most splendid,” Lane Poole writes. “The girdle cost 40,000, the necklace 37,000, the ear-rings 12,000, and the bracelets 10,000 pounds sterling.” Much of the writing is in this vein, and Lane Poole can overlook things that later readers might prefer to know.

A group of European actors had been hired to entertain guests at the wedding, Lane Poole reports, but she gives no details of what they performed. “It is a great pity that Lane Poole does not elaborate on the subject,” Kararah writes. “Knowledge of the nationality of the company and the play they presented would have been of great value to us today.”

Lane Poole cannot be blamed for writing for her contemporaries rather than for posterity – and for her English contemporaries at that. But it is a pity that she did not focus more on what people said, and less on what they wore, when deciding what to include in her Letters. Thompson says that the voice is one of “Victorian discretion,” one that “tastefully omitted certain details.” It is hard to imagine Lane Poole’s correspondents rushing to open her letters from Cairo.

Comparing Lane Poole’s Letters to those produced 20 years later by Luxor resident Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, such thoughts grow in size. Coming from a more free-thinking background, Duff Gordon was less inhibited in her observations, and she reports interestingly on political and societal matters in a way almost never attempted by Lane Poole.

She is far more attuned to what people say and do, and the results are felt in her prose style, which is lively, conversational, and full of detail.

Luxor letters

Duff Gordon, like Lane Poole, was an accidental visitor to Egypt, though in her case the accident had to do with her own developing needs.

Told by her doctor that she should go abroad to try to recover her health, never strong, in a warmer climate, she went first to South Africa before joining her daughter in Alexandria who was married to the director of a British bank. From there, she moved to Luxor, at the time little more than a village, living in what has been described as a “ramshackle house built over an ancient Egyptian temple” for the better part of seven years.

Arriving in Alexandria in October 1862, Duff Gordon was in Aswan by the following February, already captivated by the beauty of the Nile. “I don’t think Italy or Greece can equal the sacred Nile, the perfect freshness of the gigantic buildings, the beauty of the sculptures, and the charm of the people,” she writes.

Back in Cairo in March, she reports on a visit to Egypt by the Ottoman sultan, then still the nominal ruler of Egypt. “No one knows what he wants,” she writes, adding that the Egyptian khedive, or viceroy, Ismail, “has ordered all the women of the lower orders to keep indoors… as they might shout out their grievances.” In May, she writes of the “destruction of some 68 of the most exquisite buildings” in the Cairo cemeteries, adding that the previous khedive, Said, had used them for artillery practice.

“The days of the beauty of Cairo are numbered,” Duff Gordon writes. “The mosques are falling to decay, the exquisite lattice windows rotting away and replaced by European glass.” Meanwhile, the khedive’s plans to develop the country attracted her scepticism, and she wrote in May 1863 of “the poor fellaheen [farmers] marched off in gangs like convicts” to work on construction projects. “The wealth will perhaps be increased, if meanwhile the people are not exterminated.”

Settling into her house in Luxor in January 1864, Duff Gordon writes of the tourist boats, 70 to 120 a year, going up and down the Nile and the irritating habit of English tourists of shooting local pigeons. “It is very thoughtless, but it is in great measure the fault of servants who think they must not venture to tell their masters that pigeons are private property… I have given my neighbours permission to call the pigeons mine, and to go out and say the sitt [English lady] objects to her poultry being shot.”

She continues her campaign against the khedive, now engaged in building the Suez Canal and rebuilding Cairo along European lines. “The system of wholesale extortion and spoliation [of the countryside] has reached a point beyond which it would be difficult to go,” Duff Gordon writes in January 1865. “It is curious to see the travelers’ dahabiehs [house boats] just as usual and the Europeans as far removed from all care or knowledge of the distress as if they were at home.”

 “When I remember the lovely smiling landscape which I first beheld from my windows, swarming with beasts and men,” she writes, “and look at the dreary waste now, I feel the ‘foot of the Turk’ heavy indeed.”

“Europe is enchanted with the ‘enlightened’ Pasha [Ismail] who has ruined this poor country… I wish you to publish these facts; they are no secret to any but those Europeans whose interests keep their eyes tightly shut, and they will soon have them opened.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: