Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Twelve Rooms of the Nile includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Enid Shomer. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Before she became the nineteenth-century’s heroine, before he had written a word of Madame Bovary, Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert traveled up the Nile at the same time. In the imaginative leap taken by Enid Shomer’s The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, the two ignite a passionate friendship marked by intelligence, humor, and ravishing tenderness that will alter both their destinies.
In 1850, both are at crossroads in their lives and burn with unfulfilled ambition. To her family’s chagrin, and in spite of her wealth, charm, and beauty, Florence is, at twenty-nine and of her own volition, well on her way to spinsterhood. She yearns to be of use in the world. Traumatized by the deaths of his father and sister, and plagued by mysterious seizures, Flaubert has dropped out of law school and commenced on a first novel, an effort promptly deemed unpublishable by his closest friends. At twenty-eight, he is an unproven writer with a failing body. In Enid Shomer’s deft hands, the two unlikely soul-mates come together to share their darkest torments and most fervent hopes. Brimming with adventure and the sparkling sensibilities of the two travelers, this mesmerizing debut offers a luminous combination of gorgeous prose and wild imagination, all of it colored by the opulent tapestry of mid-nineteenth century Egypt.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How much did you know about Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert before reading The Twelve Rooms of the Nile? How did your previous knowledge shape your reading experience?
2. Consider the two quotes by Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert that are included on the epigraph page. How do these quotes set the tone for the novel? How do they come to shape your understanding of both Nightingale and Flaubert as characters? How does the third quote, from the Book of the Dead, influence your understanding of the novel?
3. Florence and Gustave have very different goals for their trips to Egypt. What do their different approaches tell you about their temperaments? About their similarities and differences?
4. How has Florence's relationship with her family shaped her view of the world? How has it shaped her relationships with men? Do you credit the picture she paints of her mother and sister, or do you think there is another side to the story?
5. How are sexual relationships portrayed in the novel? Does Gustave view all women as potential sexual partners? Why do you think he is so respectful of the sexual boundaries Florence has outlined? Discuss Gustave’s contention that French women are taught things that English women are not, Florence’s unconventional friend Mary Clarke, and Gustave’s former lover Louise Colet.
6. How honorable are Gustave’s intentions with Florence? How do his intentions change over the course of their relationship?
7. During Trout’s abduction, Florence and Gustave’s relationship reaches a new level. Given what happened between them that night in the tent, do you believe Gustave intended to get Florence drunk?
8. What was Trout’s reaction to her abduction? If Florence were the one abducted, how do you believe she would have handled the ordeal?
9. How did the excerpts from Trout’s diary change your view of her and her relationship with Florence and the Bracebridges? What did you learn about Trout’s character from these entries?
10. In their exploration of the Grotto of the Crocodiles, Maxime and Gustave have a terrible fight. Max accuses him of wasting his chances at renown, while Gustave believes that Max can’t properly enjoy life. What do you believe to be the real source of Max’s anger? Of Gustave’s?
11. On the whole, the Europeans in the novel view the Egyptians and Arabs they meet with condescension. Even Trout, who represents the point of view of a different class, doesn’t quite know what to think of them. Discuss the cultural perspectives and differences between the Victorian era and the modern world. How were international relations different when there was more cultural ignorance? How has increased communication and global awareness improved society’s acceptance of different cultures? How has it made it worse?
14. The “twelve rooms” of the title refer to Egyptian beliefs about the soul’s passage to the afterlife. In what ways do the characters undergo a rebirth on their journey?
15. Religion is a strong theme throughout the novel. How does religious tradition shape the ultimate destinies of each of the characters?
17. Discuss the apparent paradox that Florence’s societal limitations fuel her aspirations while Gustave’s many liberties seemed to stifle his ability to choose a path. Do you think Florence would have been as motivated had she been afforded all the freedoms Gustave enjoyed?
18. Florence likens losing her name (by marrying Richard) to losing her identity and individuality. Gustave also believes that marriage would threaten his identity. Several times in the book, they even equate marriage with death. How do each of the characters deal with these feelings? What were the alternatives to marriage in 1850?
19. Père Elias refers to his servant Hakim as a “misfit” for refusing to marry. How does this theme recur throughout the novel? Why is Florence so devastated by Clarkey’s marriage and Gustave by Caroline’s marriage?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In the acknowledgments, Enid Shomer mentions the copious information available on Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert, and their Victorian contemporaries. Reference the sources she provides at the end of the novel and come prepared to share what you’ve found with your book club members.
2. The Ababda or Ababdeh, as it is spelled in the novel, figure heavily into the plot line. They are also known as the Beja people. Find out more about them by visiting www.adroub.net. Discuss their portrayal in the novel, and how it matches up to what you learn about them today.
3. Florence Nightingale was instrumental in developing the profession of nursing and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is still considered a staple in the modern literary canon. Do you want to know more about their actual history, or do you enjoy imagining the alternative possibilities as portrayed in Shomer’s novel? Explore the difference between historical novels and true history with the group and find out the group’s preferences.
4. Take a virtual tour of Egypt! You can find photographs of various sites from Florence and Gustave’s itineraries, both historical and present-day—including those taken by Maxime Du Camp—online. Discuss how well the photos you discover compare with what you imagined when reading The Twelve Rooms of the Nile.
A Conversation with Enid Shomer
What led you to write this novel?
A few years ago, I read an essay by William Styron about his cruise down the Nile as a guest—lucky man!—of the Agha Kahn. Styron frequently quoted from Gustave Flaubert’s Nile journal, which I found raucously entertaining, so I decided to read it myself. I became fascinated by Flaubert. He was a tremendous personality, a great sensitive and at the same time, the bad boy of 19th century French literature. He loved language and prostitutes with equal dedication and vigor.
Also, I’ve had a lifelong amateur interest in ancient Egypt. Doesn’t everyone find mummies, Egyptian tombs, King Tut’s jewels and cow beds fascinating? I’d seen a lot of museum exhibits and I had a small library about ancient Egypt before I began the novel.
At first the book was only about Flaubert. I’d written about half of the first chapter, when I discovered Florence Nightingale’s book Letters from Egypt. She was on the Nile at the exact same moment and also kept a journal and wrote numerous letters home. She seemed the perfect foil for Flaubert and he for her. In a very real sense I wrote the book so that I could read it. I mean, I wanted to read a book that didn’t exist yet, a book about a friendship between two apparent misfits, two geniuses: Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale.
Those two historical figures occupy such different realms. I’ve never thought of them together before.
They do seem to live in two different hemispheres of the brain. He is the innovative novelist, a giant of French literature, and a rather louche character, and she is the heroine of the 19th century, the iconic Good Girl Who Invented Nursing as a Profession. I found that separation between them provocative. Of course, it turned out that they had much more in common than was apparent for they shared the same general culture and came from similar social classes. They both rebelled against middle-class European values.
They never actually met, though, did they?
Not that the historical record indicates, though Flaubert does mention seeing an English woman that could have been Nightingale, a woman wearing what he calls a “hideous green eyeshade over her bonnet.” You see, they were towed through the Mahmoudieh Canal to the navigable portion of the Nile on the same boat on the very same day, so they must have glimpsed each other at the very least.
Were you familiar with Nightingale’s life at the outset?
Years earlier I had read Lytton Strachey’s seminal biography of her in his groundbreaking book Eminent Victorians, where he takes on several famous Victorians. With great wit and style, he convincingly portrays her as a harridan and a controlling egomaniac. He claims she actually worked one of her friends to death. His book determined the public view of her until very recently. I quickly came to reject his view. I have great empathy and sympathy and admiration for her. She had radical ideas about women and God; she was way ahead of her time, but too polite to make her most outrageous beliefs known during her lifetime. Her most radical book, Cassandra, was published posthumously, though she wrote it shortly after the Egypt trip.
You must have done a lot of research to achieve the verisimilitude of time and place.
I love doing research; it’s just focused reading. It was tremendously interesting to delve into their lives and to dig deeper in the nineteenth century. I consider myself a late Victorian anyway.
What did Flaubert and Nightingale have in common that would have brought them together as friends?
Both of them were young and quite lost at this point in their lives, both despairing about the future. And for both, travel in Egypt was a prescription for refreshing the mind, for sorting things out. He had just finished his first novel, The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He read it to two friends out loud—it took 32 hours!—and they pronounced it an utter and complete failure. She had been searching for a profession but her family had opposed her at every step of the way. Her mother wanted her to marry more than anything and she had just refused her only serious suitor.
What else did Egypt add as a setting?
The “Orient,” as Europeans called the Middle East, was not only a colorful place to let down their hair. Travel there involved real risk and therefore real adventures for both Nightingale and Flaubert. They climb pyramids, cross the eastern Sahara in a caravan, visit the Red Sea. Sometimes they are in mufti, disguised as Muslims. Flaubert explores a series of caves at great peril searching for a souvenir mummy. Nothing was restricted to visitors at this time. It’s a wonder any antiquities and monuments remain in Egypt as many tourists brought home great chunks of it. Comical as well as high stakes clashes with local cultures test their intelligence and mettle. For example, following Bedouin law, Flo and her maid, Trout, must decide whether one of their young guides should be put to death. So, lots of local color!
Though your novel is modern, it has the flavor of a 19th century book. Why did you choose that strategy?
I wanted the book to reflect the period in which it happens. In 1850, the camera was brand new and still evolving. There was no telegraph or telephone. Letters were the primary means of connecting with people. Mail in London was delivered three times a day. Letters are as important in the novel as they would have been in life. Also, people of all classes frequently kept journals and so, there are journals. Even Nightingale’s maid, Trout, keeps a journal, which we get to read part of.
How much of the book is fiction and how much based on the historical record?
Almost everyone in the book is based on a real historical personage, some of whom I had to invent from scratch and some of whom had sizeable biographical resources available in either English or French. Only one major character had disappeared completely into the recesses of history, Nightingale’s maid, Trout. It was important to me to give each character as full a portrayal as possible. Anjali Singh, my editor, said that now that she had read the story of Nightingale and Flaubert’s friendship, she couldn’t believe their lives didn’t unfold in this way. That was very gratifying.
Is this a romantic story?
It certainly has romantic elements, but it’s just as much a novel of ideas, since these two had such active, ambitious, and probing minds. Flaubert was never not writing or observing. Nightingale, who was the best educated woman in England of her generation, had a wide range of interests, an encyclopedic mind, and a wicked sense of humor. This solidified their attraction. Their friendship could not have evolved in France or England as there were too many restrictions on men and women in 1850. But in Egypt they were free to develop something approaching a modern friendship. I think it will be surprising for today’s reader to grasp how naïve Nightingale was, and how little time alone, that is, unchaperoned, respectable men and women were allowed.
Does the reader have to be familiar with Flaubert or Nightingale to appreciate the novel fully?
Not at all. The novel is the story of two unlikely and passionate friends, both of whom are desperately searching for their identity in a world that seems set against them. Their friendship, in my vision, helps them to accomplish the real goal of discovering their destinies. So no, no advance knowledge required! They are Nightingale and Flaubert before the laurels and postage stamps and scholarly tomes.
Did you uncover any interesting tidbits that didn’t find their way into the novel?
Tons of interesting facts! Did you know that at the height of the Victorian Age, one in four persons was a servant? And some juicy bits, too. For example, Richard Monckton Milnes, the first biographer of Keats and the man Nightingale refused to marry, amassed the largest collection of pornography in England. (It is now housed in the British Library). He was also part of a group of prominent Victorian men who wrote pornography together as a hobby. They composed it round-robin style, and published under pseudonyms, always attributing their books to publishers in exotic locales—Constantinople, Cairo, or Aleppo in Syria. Despite her curiosity and open-mindedness, Nightingale would not, I venture, have approved. I think she was right to refuse to marry Milnes, to put it mildly. She would have been much better off with someone like Flaubert.