A new novel that might be of interest to readers of this site is The Visitors by Sally Beauman. It’s set in Egypt in 1922, where a young English girl has been sent in care of a chaperone to recover from the typhoid that killed her mother. The opening chapters largely play out in the salons and on the terrace of Shepheard’s in Cairo, which is beautifully brought to life. The supporting cast of characters include familiar names such as Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Herbert, Arthur Mace, Harry Burton, Pierre Lacau, James Breasted, Arthur Weigall and a host of other real-life people, all of whom were involved in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the event that provides the novel’s dramatic backdrop. Beauman does a good job of putting flesh on the biographical bones of her historical cast and succeeds in bringing the characters to life. How accurate and fair she is, I can’t say – it would take someone better read in Egyptology than me to comment. Her descriptions of Shepheard’s and Winter Palace are generally spot on though, right down to describing the bathrooms of the former as being vast and echoing, like mausoleums – one 19th century journalist said sitting in one of them was like being in a chamber at the centre of a pyramid. If I were being picky I might mention that the Continental hotel isn’t across the Ezbekiya Gardens from Shepheard’s but just up the street, and the Winter Palace is not designed in a Baroque style – far from it – but that’s minor stuff. A bigger problem, I found, is the voice of the protagonist, Lucy, whose inner thoughts run to things like, “In the fustian Cambridge circles in which I’d grown up, divorce equaled disgrace”. She’s supposed to be eleven years old, for god’s sake. I found this such a problem I gave up on the book a quarter of the way in. Now I’ll never know whether Howard Carter found that tomb or not.
Filed under Book reviews
One Response to The Visitors
I read your review of Sally Beauman’s The Visitors and decided to give it a go and loved it. I have spent the last twenty years living with all the people in the book first in my job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and now at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston where Lythgoe and most of the others started out. I feel almost like I was related to them all, and was fascinated by the author taking the perspective of Frances and Lucy. Lucy is very closely modeled on Mace’s daughter Margaret Orr who also lost her hair to typhoid. Lucy’s backstory is, of course, pure fiction but everything else is accurate down to the inch. I even learned something more from looking at her sources and will be visiting Frances’ grave next time I go to Mt. Auburn cemetery in Cambridge (MA). If you are interested, there was an exhibition some year’s ago and a companion volume about Margaret Orr called The Grand Piano Came by Camel.