Novels featuring nurses are not altogether rare, but a novel depicting the fictional meeting of the French writer Gustave Flaubert and a young Florence Nightingale amidst the ancient ruins of Egypt was unimaginable until author Enid Shomer brought this odd coupling to life. “The Twelve Rooms of the Nile” is a story-telling gem, and the fact that the publisher (Simon and Schuster) sent a review copy to this humble nurse blogger has proven to be a delight.
I was admittedly dubious that Shomer could deliver a believable narrative in which Flaubert and Nightingale encounter one another while traveling in Egypt. Accounts do indeed appear to place these two disparate yet important historical figures in Egypt during the period in and around 1850, yet no documents seem to exist that suggest they actually met. However, Ms. Shomer succeeds in painting a portrait of an innocent and soul-searching Nightingale long before her days as the most famous nurse in history. In the course of the book, Nightingale begins an intellectually intimate relationship with Flaubert—a well-known literary womanizer--as their parties consistently encounter one another during their respective journeys along the Nile.
Within the context of the novel, Flaubert is still not a known writer (but soon to become quite famous indeed), and he is obviously struggling with his place in the world, an unfinished manuscript haunting his steps in a desert landscape strewn with artifacts of immense beauty and grandeur.
Meanwhile, Nightingale, traveling with a working class maid and two middle-aged chaperones appointed by her parents, is herself searching for meaning as she struggles with the confines of being born to an upper-class British family. She is 29 and perilously close to being viewed as a future spinster. Flaubert is 28, wrestling with his failing health (mostly due to his proclivity towards debauchery) and equally concerned about his own lack of direction and (apparently failed) literary ambitions.
The young writer is a frequent patron of prostitutes and a prodigious drinker with a foul mouth and mind, and the young virginal woman who would become the patron saint of the modern profession of nursing is a true innocent with a child’s view of the mysteries of love and sex.
Having met and felt a mutual spark of curiosity between them, Flaubert and Nightingale begin an intellectual courtship of sorts, sparring over religion, morality, art and the meaning of life, while a slow recognition of greater feelings smolders just beneath the surface. Flaubert, accustomed to sexual conquest without romanticism, is apparently surprised by certain tender feelings that he experiences for Ms. Nightingale, and the young woman is also dogged by confusing and contradictory emotions that are relatively new to her.
Of course, the events and conversations that take place within the novel are all fictitious, yet I found myself believing the context and intent of the story, enraptured by the emotional tension created by the author. Secondary plot lines depicting Flaubert’s traveling companion and Nightingale’s maid and chaperones are also weaved cunningly, and issues of class and privilege in 19th century Europe are intelligently depicted.
Luckily, we are able to view Nightingale’s privilege through the eyes of Trout, her maid, and this helps to contextualize Nightingale’s innocence and slowly dissipating obliviousness to class. These revelations also help to bring our awareness back to Nightingale’s future (well-known to us but not yet revealed to the fictional Nightingale) as the champion of battlefield nursing, hygiene, sanitation, and the horrors faced by (mostly) working class soldiers torn from their homes and thrust into the blood-soaked and muddy fields of the Crimea.
Dubbing her “Rossignol” (the French translation of “nightingale”), Flaubert’s literary perception adds a certain continental romanticism to their relationship, and Nightingale obviously continues to struggle with her conflicted feelings of both attraction and revulsion. Her emotions are in turmoil, as is her sense of self and her place in the world.
During one encounter, Nightingale states:
I am, I’m told, too intense. Too serious. Too ambitious. Oh, and too talkative and I have an impossibly deep, passionate nature that will find its outlet. I have loved music too much and friends too much and my family insufficiently…..As a woman, I am unnatural.
Exploring his own misgivings about his role as a man, Flaubert describes his conflicted feelings:
I hate conventionality…..People are sheep. Sheep-mayors and sheep-grocers. In the esteemed Academy, immortal sheep! I shall never marry, never have children. I hate all that. I refuse to become the standard-bearer of all that I despise for the sake of offspring.
Shomer captures Flaubert’s views on life very vividly, and one can only imagine the emotional torture and confusion that these two 19th-century characters face, however different they may be.
He hadn’t planned to tell quite so much, but in all likelihood, they’d never meet outside Egypt. Of course, they could continue a friendship by mail. She seemed to enjoy writing letters and was at ease on the page. But the prospect was unappealing. Rossignol was much more interesting in the flesh, more mercurial, more chemically alive, like a fire. By comparison, her letters emitted only sparks. Anyway, he mused, it was impossible for a man and woman truly to be friends the way he and Bouilhet were friends….Women were more like household accoutrements—walking, talking furnishings with especially alluring appendages and apertures……As for Miss Nightingale, she was, apparently, another sort of being---female and an intellectual. Plus, Miss Nightingale had a touch of severity that was aesthetically pleasing. He had never met anyone like her.
Meanwhile, Nightingale begins to reveal the makings of the significant figure she would become:
“It is true,” she said, unperturbed. “The common man is dirty. He cannot read and therefore barely thinks. But how can he rise above his station without education and the right to determine his destiny?”
“I’ve grown cynical about people, my own class of people. They are smug, so comfortable, sitting in judgment.”
The future nurse concludes:
“But all my luxuries and leisure depend upon the drudgery of people who are barely acknowledged as human beings.”
Thus the fictional relationship of Flaubert (the future author of the scandalous “Madame Bovary”) and Nightingale (the future lantern-carrier of modern nursing) deepens and widens within the landscapes and antiquities of the Nile River Valley.
This may not be a book about nursing, yet it reveals something as yet unseen about Florence Nightingale despite the fact that the scenes, conversations and relationships are entirely fictional.
If the reader is open to intrigue, excellent storytelling and the suspension of disbelief regarding the imagined intersection of these two 19th-century European giants, he or she will be well-rewarded by a rich and enthralling tale of an intensely satisfying meeting of minds in the cradle of human civilization.