Novelist, journalist, travel enthusiast, artist and illustrator, Amelia Edwards was one driven Victorian. Born in 1831 to middle class parents she was educated at home by her mother. From an early age she showed prodigious talent and energy and was writing and publishing poems, stories and articles in a number of magazines and newspapers, eventually becoming a professional writer. Sounds unconventional already for the era? She then went on to be one of Britain’s main champions of Egyptology.
In 1873-4 Edwards travelled with friends to Egypt for the first time and began the life-changing journey up the Nile which was to make her a household name. Entranced with the scenery, the people and the rich archaeological history she wrote an account of her adventures in “A Thousand Miles up the Nile” – her chatty asides and personal anecdotes making her book an instant best-seller. She opens her first chapter with the scene in the dining room at the famous Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo, home away from home and watering-hole for anyone and everyone of European colonial society.
“IT is the traveller’s lot to dine at many table-d’hôtes in the course of many wanderings ; but it seldom befalls him to make one of a more miscellaneous gathering than that which overfills the great dining-room at Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo during the beginning and height of the regular Egyptian season. Here assemble daily some two to three hundred persons of all ranks, nationalities, and pursuits ; half of whom are Anglo-Indians homeward or outward bound, European residents, or visitors established in Cairo for the winter. The other half, it may be taken for granted, are going up the Nile. So composite and incongruous is this body of Nile-goers, young and old, well-dressed and ill-dressed, learned and unlearned, that the new-comer’s first impulse is to inquire from what motives so many persons of dissimilar tastes and training can be led to embark upon an expedition which is, to say the least of it, very tedious, very costly, and of an altogether exceptional interest.
His curiousity, however, is soon gratified. Before two days are over, he knows everybody’s name and everybody’s business ; distinguishes at first sight between a Cook’s tourist and an independent traveller ; and has discovered that nine-tenths of those whom he is likely to meet up the river are English or American. The rest will be mostly German, with a sprinkling of Belgian and French. So far en bloc ; but the details are more heterogeneous still. Here are invalids in search of health ; artists in search of subjects ; sportsmen keen upon crocodiles ; statesman out for a holiday ; special correspondents alert for gossip ; collectors on the scent of papyri and mummies ; men of science with only scientific ends in view ; and the usual surplus of idlers who travel for the mere love of travel, or the satisfaction of a purposeless curiousity.
Now in a place like Shepheard’s, where every fresh arrival has the honor of contributing, for at least a few minutes, to the general entertainment, the first appearance of L. and the Writer, tired, dusty, and considerably sunburnt, may well have given rise to some of the comments in usual circulation at those crowded tables. People asked each other, most likely, where these two wandering Englishwomen had come from ; why they had not dressed for dinner ; what brought them to Egypt ; and if they also were going up the Nile…”
Can you not picture her and her friend? single women in their early forties, arriving at this celebrated hotel, extraordinary crossroads and meeting place for adventurers and sightseers from all corners of the world? Dusty and exhausted from their overland journey from Alexandria, going in to dinner, not dressed for the evening as everybody else was in the celebrated dining room, people’s heads turning to see the arrival of the new Englishwomen?
Amelia was a prodigious sketcher, and completed detailed and skilled watercolours as she travelled, recording the sites she saw. Fascinated with ancient Eqyptian archaeology, she meticulously recorded her findings. Her drawings formed the basis of the illustrations for her travelogue One thousand Miles Up the Nile. To a Victorian reader illustrations added authenticity and entertainment, the writer had seen it, and in their drawings lay the ‘truth’. Her frontispiece claims
WITH UPWARDS OF SEVENTY ILLUSTRATIONS ENGRAVED ON WOOD BY G. PEARSON
AFTER FINISHED DRAWINGS EXECUTED ON THE SPOT BY THE AUTHOR.
Note the “On The Spot”! This then was what the East was really like…Amelia had been there and drawn on the spot…and was enabling all the armchair travellers back home in England to be there as well. Herein lies my research, for surely this is an interpreted ‘truth’, Egypt told through the eyes of an English woman. What do her drawings reveal of her thinking of the East? How are they shaped by her class, her gender, her nationality?
The wonderful thing I discovered this week, is that when Amelia died in 1892, as an established Egyptologist she left her entire papers; letters, diaries, scrapbooks, sketchbooks and finished watercolours all in ONE PLACE – Somerville College in Oxford. For a researcher that is a dream….