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Here is the lovely cover art for Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, a travelogue originally published in 1877 which I am using as research for the third volume of Jane Digby’s Diary: Following an Eastern Star. Below is a brief excerpt from this volume in which I borrow heavily from Edwards’s lyrical description of the Great Pyramid of Giza:
The greatest of the great pyramids, the pyramid of Cheops – thought to be in its 70th century – stands 480 feet tall, with the length of each side running 732 feet, but like most calculations of the kind, they diminish. Only someone who has walked the length of one side or climbed to its top can realize, however imperfectly, the duration of seven thousand years – it was as if I had been snatched up for an instant to some vast heights overlooking the plains of time and had seen the centuries mapped out beneath my feet.
What follows is an excerpt from Following an Eastern Star. Here Jane first encounters the Sahara desert:
After two hundred miles and three days upon a desert road, we have finally arrived in Cairo. The trip here was a peculiar mix of the familiar and the exotic. The carriage I hired rivaled those of London. I have since learned that Egyptians have a long tradition in carriage making. The road too was well-maintained, being an important trade route between Alexandria and Cairo with many hostels along the way to feed and board hungry and tired travellers. Even the heat of the late October days – if you stayed out of the sun – was tolerable, no worse than high summer in Dorset. However, the desert Sahara held glimpses of a land far stranger and far more bewitching than I have ever encountered:
We pass through miles upon miles of golden sand spun fine by winds and shaped into undulating dunes that continue to an endless horizon. Late each day clouds build there, as though gathering to say farewell to the setting sun which creates a palette of red, orange, yellow, blue, and purple, first one color than the next until darkness. It falls quickly here, but every day before sunset we are in sight of our hostel, an oasis flashing grey-green palm trees and smelling of fresh herbs. There we are provided with a dinner of koshari, a rice dish with a spicy red sauce served with tea. Then moonless nights in which stars uncountable shine bright beyond imaging. Sleep comes on woven mats upon the floor. We women, in deference to our sex, are given a private room, no larger than a closet, while the men sleep together in a common room. A breakfast of ful medames, a bean dish served with eggs, cheese, and pita bread with tea -along with bird song – greet us in the morning. The first to leave are the caravans of camels. Their queer, lumbering gait cast moving shadows in the sunrise.
Holkham Hall was the home of Jane Digby’s grandfather, Thomas Coke. Here Jane spent much of her childhood. The estate is still owned by his descendants and is a popular tourist destination in England. The family and estate also served as the inspiration for the television series, Downton Abbey.
It has been said that we can learn everything from history, though historical fiction is rarely given such recognition. The bastard sister of historical fact historical fiction is maligned by historians and readers of history for its many perceived faults. Among those perceptions are that historical fiction is poorly researched, is plagued by anachronisms, and is far too concerned with entertaining its readers at the expense of accuracy. And that may be true of bad historical fiction, but not of good historical fiction, as any lover of the genre can tell you.
I remember reading Irene Hunt’s Across Five Aprils in middle school which spurred my life-long interest in the American Civil War. From Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I learned that a young girl’s coming of age at the turn of the 20th century was not very different from my own during the 1970s. Later I traveled through the American West with a group of colorful characters from Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. I journeyed across the world to Australia to meet the Cleary family in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds. And from any Jane Austen heroine I discovered that a young woman’s quest for true love knows no country or era.
I could go on, but I doubt that I need to, since I suspect that you too have your own favorites. I also suspect that you know that historical fiction offers more than an escape from reality. It offers a window into the lives of other people in other times and other cultures who are both different and not so different from us.
In other words, from historical fiction we can learn just about anything.