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.
Anthony Sattin’s A Winter on the Nile contains the story of one such exceptional nineteenth-century journey. The book is one part travel writing, one part cultural history, and one part biography. It’s a delicious mix, skilfully blended. There are two travellers, an English woman and a French man,