Geoffrey Wall

Before They Were Famous

A Winter on the Nile: Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert and the Temptations of Egypt

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Hutchinson 291pp £20 order from our bookshop

The best biographies, like some of the best novels, are packed with subjunctives. They are alive with a persistent, muted sense of what might have been.

The lives of educated, imaginative, middle-class, mid-nineteenth century women were often tragically packed with subjunctives. Excluded from the public sphere, these women were further constrained by a scarcely figurative matrimonial corset, that patriarchal contraption so lovingly tightened of late. Subject to such chronic restriction, a young woman might take refuge in illness and romantic fiction or, more audaciously, adultery and suicide. Emma Bovary, that small-town extremist, exhausts both possibilities. For those more fortunate than her, there might be a carefully chaperoned excursion to somewhere far away – to Egypt, for example. 

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