Review: Letters From Egypt

Letters from Egypt by Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon


So The Mistress of Nothing was a huge disappointment, but it did have one saving grace: introducing me to Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon. As I said in that post, “ [a] middle-aged woman moving to Luxor, Egypt, in the 1860s, traipsing around town in androgynous kit, holding salons, and generally being awesome?” Sign me up. I added it to my Kindle app as soon as I finished, but it’s taken me forever to get through Letters from Egypt, from reasons ranging from the stomach flu from hell (it killed a laptop!) to getting distracted during designated digital book reading time (when I blow-dry my hair). It feels like this is always the way with me and books in the public domain, even if it’s something I love. I gotta fix that.

Letters from Egypt are, as the title may tell you, letters from Egypt from Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon during her final years, 1862 to 1869. Forced to move from England due to her tubercolisis, Lady Duff-Gordon tried the Cape of Good Hope (see Letters from the Cape) before settling in Luxor, Egypt. Most of her letters are addressed either to her beloved mother, Mrs. Sarah Austin, or her beloved husband, Alexander Duff-Gordon (unerringly called “Alick”, her pet name for him). Lady Duff-Gordon’s fascination with Egyptian culture deepens into a sympathy with its people, as she watches the common people being brutally exploited by the ruling Ottomans.

Just as I suspected from The Mistress of Nothing (which isn’t the most flattering light on her), Lady Duff-Gordon has a wonderful voice. I’ve never read a collection of letters before, but, as a letter writer myself, they’re so awfully personal, aren’t they? The edition on Kindle includes an introduction written by Lady Duff-Gordon’s daughter, Janet Ross, where she mentions that parts of the letters that concern only the family are removed, which does rob us of seeing, perhaps, Lucie and Alick fuss over each other. (None of the return correspondence is included.) But nonetheless, her voice shines through—witty, joyous, and self-deprecating. (In my head, she was totally Judi Dench for the last half.) She begins one letter later in the collection to her husband with “The high winds have begun with a vengeance and a great bore they are”, which would be an amazing first line for a novel. While her language is more formal than, say, now, it’s still an interesting human being shining through. Once or twice in the letters, she artfully renders idyllic, gorgeous scenes from her life that make you feel like you’re right there with her; her adoration of the sun undoubtedly endeared her to me, currently stuck in a weird spring and yearning for short sleeves. She’s utterly enchanted with everything around her, from the little owls that live under her window to a Bedouan virgin who travels as a man because she can to the religious tolerance she experiences because she’s one of the few Europeans to be respectful of Islam.

And, naturally, this informs her views on the politics around her. At first, Lady Duff-Gordon pays little attention to politics: she’s new to the country, she doesn’t speak Arabic, and she’s doing some translating work on the side. (That was her main gig, translation.) But as time goes on and the sheen wears off, she begins to see the oppression the poor of Egypt face. Given her medical resources and know-how, she becomes a sort of “doctress” (as she describes herself at one point), and soon becomes disgusted at people praising her for her efforts, because it means that other Europeans don’t even offer the basic human kindness to these people. The last third of the letters often refer to an explosive political situation that claims a lot of lives—I’m having trouble digging up context (I’m not that wonderful at history), but it does mean that Lady Duff-Gordon reports constantly to her husband on the situation, asking him to let all of Europe know what’s actually happening.

Her views on religion (there’s a lovely bit where she chides artists for not depicting Joseph as a beautiful young thing like Mary is) and her views on Egypt’s politics might be progressive, but, at the end of the day, Lady Duff-Gordon is still a Victorian Englishwoman. While she does state that “I am fully convinced that custom and education are the only real differences between one set of men and another, their inner nature is the same all the world over”, she still happily buys slaves, even if she does plan on putting their wages towards their freedom or complains about their lack of free will. Several times, she delights over a small child and wishes she could send them to her young daughter, Rainie. She even delightfully reports a story to someone that I’m pretty sure ends in necrophilia (but it’s romantic!). And, at the end of the day, it’s a collection of letters; there’s no narrative arc to follow here. The letters only end because of her death. It’s nice to spend time in Duff-Gordon’s Egypt, but it’s hardly essential.

Bottom line: Lady Lacie Duff-Gordon’s Letters from Egypt have a strong voice and are, all in all, nice—idyllic scenes of her and her retinue on the river, having philosophical discussions with local religious leaders, and growing indignant on behalf of the Egyptian people and doing what she can to help. But, at the end of the day, it’s a collection of letters with no narrative arc and she’s every inch a Victorian Englishwoman, with all the problematic issues that implies.

I downloaded this digital book from Amazon.

2 thoughts on “Review: Letters From Egypt

  1. I love reading a good collection of letters. The problem with a lot of letter collections is that they aren’t curated — you know? They’ll have the good letters, but they’ll be in amongst the ones that are just like “Shall I send a carriage round for you so that we can dine together tonight?” I bought a really good collection of Tolkien’s letters when I was in high school, and it focuses on letters that relate to his work on Middle Earth. Which is exactly what I want of course, that’s my whole interest in Tolkien!

    Not to say that I don’t understand why letter collections typically include even the boring letters. I get it. It would just be more fun for me if the letter collections’ editors would curate the collections with my particular interests in mind. :p

    Also, coincidence of timing! I am just about to have a post about reading letters that DO have a story arc (Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning) and thus are the lovablest and best letters to read in all the world.

    • Oh, I know. There’s a recent collection of Austen’s letters that’s her complete letters, and it intimidates me! I’d love to have a curated, small collection about certain topics, or just a huge collection arranged by topic.

      I need to read Tolkien’s letters. Everything I’ve read from them is fantastic.

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