A Winter on the Nile
Reviewed by Audrey Willis

A Winter on the Nile, by Anthony Sattin. Hutchinson
2010. ISBN 978 0 09 192606. 291 pp. £20.00.

In the winter of 1849–50 two people of different nationality, sex, upbringing and background took the same boat from Alexandria to Cairo. What they had in common was uncertainty about the future.

One was the 29-year-old Florence Nightingale, who was determined to break from the conventions of her class: a ‘good’ marriage, which she regarded as a form of enslavement. She had somehow to follow her strong belief that she could and should do some lasting good in the world.

In France, Gustave Flaubert was determined to become a novelist but was struggling to find a sense of direction. Florence was travelling with family friends, Mr and Mrs Bracebridge, and her maid. Gustave was with his friend Du Camp and a servant.

Anthony Sattin had access to the letters and private diaries of Florence. Both Flaubert and his friend Du Camp published accounts of their travels. Anthony’s own extensive knowledge of Egypt—ancient and modern—add to the enjoyment of this book. The illustrations include a delicate sketch of Florence at 25, a ghostly photograph of Flaubert, an unusual painting of Florence with her friends the Bracebridges and striking photographs by Du Camp. Although these two groups covered the same route up the Nile from Cairo to Abu Simbel, they never met, and their contrasting views of the same journey make for entertaining reading. Florence’s accounts of Abu Simbel, at that time mostly buried in sand, and the lyrical accounts of the days spent in the Temple of Osiris and Philae, are counterpointed by Flaubert’s adventures at Esna, where dancing girls and sex are high on his agenda. While Flaubert visited the bordellos, Florence spent precious hours with the Nursing Nuns in Cairo.

A Winter on the Nile Both travellers comment on day-to-day life in Egypt, the people they met and the stories they told. This winter on the Nile gave both the direction for their future lives. Florence broke free from her hidebound society: she went to the Crimea, founded a School of Nursing and introduced compassion and organisational rigour into the War Office to the benefit of the British Army. Flaubert took storytelling in a new direction and wrote Madame Bovary.
This is a delightful and beautifully written book that deserves wide ASTENE readership.

Audrey Willis