Magazine article The Spectator

On the Brink

Magazine article The Spectator

On the Brink

Article excerpt


by Anthony Sattin

Hutchinson, £20, pp. 316,

ISBN 9780091926069

Stephen Potter's Lifemanship contains a celebrated tip for writers who want to ensure good reviews. Simply make the dedication so emotionally blackmailing that no critic will dare attack you - something like, 'To Phyllis, in the hope that God's glorious gift of sight will be restored to her.'

It's a ploy that springs inescapably to mind when reading the introduction to Winter on the Nile. What we're about to read, Anthony Sattin explains, is the culmination of a dream he's cherished for decades - a dream whose importance to him will only be truly understood by his beloved wife and children. And, as it turns out, this is just one example of his brazenness in a book that's frequently marred by self-hype.

In November 1849, Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale were both in their late twenties when they responded to personal crises by taking a trip up the Nile; he with Maxime du Camp, she in the somewhat less racy company of Charles and Selina Bracebridge. Flaubert had recently read his first attempt at a novel to du Camp and Louis Bouilhet - and they'd advised him to throw it on the fire. Nightingale was still fighting her wealthy family for the right to be a nurse. As Sattin puts it in his characteristically heartfelt but purple way, both 'were in despair of ever fulfilling their dreams, but on the cusp of achieving more than even they had dared hope'.

As we know from that introduction, Sattin's interest in this undeniably pleasing coincidence dates back to the 1980s.

Having found Nightingale's letters from Egypt in the British Library and published a single-volume edition - 'well received', he assures us, after which 'sales boomed' - he then 'discovered' something else (although we rather have to take his word for it). At the start of her trip, before their timetables diverged, Nightingale was on the same Alexandria to Cairo ferry as Flaubert.

Now, at last, Sattin feels able to take on 'the challenge' of a parallel account of their journeys.

In fact, when he sticks to that brief, the result generally works very well. …

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