There is no seemingly credible way that British spinster Florence Nightingale, called by God to do his bidding, and French writer Gustave Flaubert, called by his groin to patronize every brothel, could be soul mates. Yet in a mesmerizing new work of historical fiction, the pair’s relationship is a no-brainer. They meet on the Nile in 1850. She is on a tour with her chaperones and her comical but sad maid, Trout. He is on a working trip with a photographer friend; his job is to make molds of the inscriptions on monuments. They meet at one historical site, and their relationship begins.
Tampa author Enid Shomer notes that while Nightingale and Flaubert traveled the Nile at the same time, there is no evidence that they met. But the story she spins about them in The Twelve Rooms of the Nile is a fine work of imagination; she gets inside the minds and yearnings of these two prominent figures.
Nightingale is a lady. At 29, before she becomes a famous wartime nurse, she has never dressed herself without help and “had never so much as boiled an egg.” Prim, proper and pious as she may be, though, she also is an independent thinker who dislikes “her own class” and its restraints. Flaubert also comes from a well-to-do family, a “mama’s boy” and struggling writer who pens pornographic “treatises” after his other, more mainstream attempts failed. (Madame Bovary was published seven years later .) Though a gentleman, he is also often crude and boyish, resorting to jokes about flatulence, although not around women. He spends a lot of time worrying about contracting a venereal disease, for good reason.
But as these two get to know each other, through letters, visits at various Egyptian stops along their separate journeys and then through a trip they take together across the desert by camel to the Red Sea, Nightingale and Flaubert share their innermost thoughts on love, marriage, their families, their bouts with depression and their place in life in spite of its contradictions to what they desire.
“I am meant to sit quietly, look pretty, and entertain at the piano — in short, to be useless in a world where so much needs to be done,” she tells Flaubert. He understands her predicament. “He recognized the dull world she described. However, his unhappiness was of a different stripe, for he refused to aspire to the usefulness within it that she so desired.”
Poignant moments abound, as when Flaubert instructs Nightingale about her anatomy, about which she is ignorant. They are not lovers, but the question hangs in the air: What does she want from him, he wonders, and on her part, how does he think of me?
Egypt and its tombs and monuments play an exquisite role in this novel that examines hidden secrets. At Philae, “Gustave leaned against a fallen pillar and scanned the view. He was standing in a painted postcard, the sky hand-tinted cerulean for added grandeur. Philae was almost too beautiful to be real. A profusion of chapels and temples …” What the temples represent is of the most importance. Even Trout has secrets that come to light, furthering Shomer’s point that outward appearances often obfuscate unfulfilled ambitions and dreams.
Nightingale and Flaubert each change considerably because of their bittersweet relationship. This beguiling story, ribald and sometimes explicitly sexual, is a fascinating travel back in time to what might have been.
Amy Canfield is a freelance writer in Portland, Me.