BOOK REVIEW / Traveller's checks and bank balances: 'Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt' - Katherine Frank: Hamish Hamilton, 17.99 pounds

Claire Harman
Saturday 23 April 1994 23:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


IN 1988, Katherine Frank went to Cairo to search for the grave of Lucie Duff Gordon, an upper-class Englishwoman whose Letters from Egypt made her famous in the 1860s. The idea was to start with the grave and work backwards through the life, which had been well documented, and carefully conserved in family archives. But while preparing to write this life, Frank's own took a terrible turn: her husband, who had accompanied her to Cairo, died suddenly from hepatitis on the fourth day, and the author was left alone at a different graveside in Cairo's vast City of the Dead. This catastrophe and its consequences - rapidly outlined in the prologue to the biography - inform the whole work with a powerful awareness of the pain of separation and the obsessive need to reconstruct the past. It is a book about bereavement in the widest sense.

The prologue over, Frank carefully excludes any personal references from the text. This is no Footsteps: more like 'Footnotes', for Frank withdraws, shadowing her subject at a distance in a series of succinct and thoughtful asides. The life of Lucie Duff Gordon unfolds above all this, and oblivious of it.

Lucie Duff Gordon was raised and educated with boys, the only child of a remarkably inept father and a strong-minded mother who kept the family going by translating German texts and whom Francis Jeffrey described as 'a heroine of domestic life'. Lucie had an irregular childhood, moving around constantly in search of cheapness within respectable limits, but she was blessed with an unfettered mind and some remarkable family friends - Jeremy Bentham, Sidney Smith, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle - and grew into an eccentric, cigar-smoking woman who, like her mother, earned a reputation as a translator. Her marriage to Alexander Duff Gordon, a man with good looks and a title but no money, was certainly a love match. During the 1840s they were widely admired, a 'golden couple' who glimmer in the background of other more famous literary lives; those of Tennyson, Meredith or Dickens. But lack of money and ill-health drove Lucie out of London, first to her parents' house in Weybridge, later to Esher, and so began the strange disintegration of her family and social life, hastened by tuberculosis and the years of travelling this necessitated.

Some of Lucie's letters to Alexander from the first of her journeys in search of a healthy climate - to South Africa - form an interlude in the book. About halfway through this correspondence, 'dearest Alick' suggests that 'Yr affte Toodie' might publish a selection from it to defray the costs of the expedition - an extraordinary response to letters which are clearly designed to reassure and entertain him - and all Lucie's subsequent letters home were written with one eye on publication, with injections of local colour and political opinion accompanying her inquiries after the children. Letters from the Cape appeared in 1864, and the first volume of Letters from Egypt in 1865. By then, Lucie was settled (if that is the word) in a house built over the ruins of Luxor Temple, with cavernous gaps between the floorboards. She had gone to Egypt in 1861 for the first of a series of convalescent trips that melted into a permanent exile, forcing her to make the adjustment from traveller to pseudo-native. Her open-mindedness and upper-class sang froid stood her in good stead, and she quickly grew to love and understand Egypt, and to win respect and affection there, although everything was tainted by illness and approaching death.

The Letters contain all this; the pathos of writing to a lost home, trying (unsuccessfully) to tempt Alexander to visit her, trying to write saleable letters about the beauty of the Nile and the machinations of Ismail Pasha. Such a life is intrinsically interesting, and though Lucie Duff Gordon is not a great writer, sometimes one is lulled into thinking she might be. There are passages such as this, seemingly written from her window overlooking the Nile:

Nothing seemed to have changed in the past 500, 1,000, 6,000 years. There was the life-giving river, its banks lined with papyrus and reeds and the bullrushes where Moses had been secreted. Just beyond the river banks lay intensely green fields of beans, clover, maize and sugar-cane. In the distance, farmers followed the tracks of their ploughs; closer at hand, stolid brown oxen trudged round and round, turning the wheels which carried the Nile's water to the fields. Tall, barefoot women in black walked to the river banks, with huge clay water-jars gracefully balanced on their heads. Broad-winged egrets - so large that they looked like children's parchment kites - swooped and flew off, or stood poised, absolutely still, like birds on a Chinese screen, amidst the water reeds on the river's edge.

In fact, this is Katharine Frank's description, not Lucie Duff Gordon's, gathered from her own two-year sojourn in Luxor and written in her own particularly fluid and articulate prose. Frank never did find Lucie's grave in Cairo, despite years of intermittent searching, and writes in the epilogue that this was perhaps just as well, avoiding 'some sort of completion - a death, in fact'. This is perspicacious, when what every biographer seeks is continuity, or the illusion of it, and a gently self-critical conclusion to a biography that is peculiarly successful at raising the dead.

(Photograph omitted)

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