Thursday, June 9, 2011

We left Ellen on the eve of the multiple royal marriages of 1873 installed in the grand, but uncomfortable New Hotel, after being forced to pack up all her belongings herself. Despite cold and wet weather she was still touring around Cairo, lamenting the bad state of repair of repair of some exceptional mosques, visiting the site of ancient Heliopolis – where nothing remained to be seen “except the obelisk, which is on such low ground that it is not visible until you are close upon it.”

At least the view of the Pyramids from the New Hotel was some compensation. And also of course there was the excitement of the approaching marriages, as well as the rather comical attempt to photograph the harem, described earlier.

This leads to a lengthy passage in her book, in which marriages and preparations are described in detail. This, after all, was something that not only plainly interested her, but which she felt that she could write freely about, even years later, in the 1890s, in retirement. She always remained very loyal to the memory of Princess Zeinab, at least, and indeed, in the preface to her book says that she only eventually published as “there is no one left to feel aggrieved at my publication, and I have spoken ill of none.”

After all, she must have been well aware of the rather scandalous books by “Emmeline Lott”, supposedly also an English governess at the Khedival court, although her existence as such, indeed her actual gender, is open to question. She would most certainly have not wished to be regarded as a second “Emmeline Lott”, though the contents of the books and their presentation are vastly different. Indeed, I’m sure that it was no coincidence that Ellen chose an impeccably respectable and long established publishing house, William Blackwood and Sons of Edinburgh and London. Anything appearing under their imprint was certainly not likely to offend anyone, particularly those in positions of power that Ellen had moved amongst.

She may, in fact, have made a veiled reference to “Emmeline Lott” in the preface to her book, when she wrote that:

“Great displeasure was manifested when (as occasionally happened) some distinguished visitor to the harem gave her impressions to the world at large.”

Her diaries, on which the book was based, would undoubtedly have said far more. After all, she appears to have kept them in sufficient detail to record even individual conversations. In fact sometimes I get the impression of a somewhat compulsive diarist. Her method of diary keeping seems to have been direct – she describes carrying a notebook about with her, and “wrote openly in it”, “making entries” about whatever she saw, experienced and heard. Whether or not she copied these notes into a main diary, in ink, later, we can only speculate.

Her diaries would make fascinating reading now. She must also surely have had photographs and other mementos. However, what became of them – indeed of any of Ellen’s possessions, I have been unable to discover. She may have had next of kin, if only distant, and certainly had an executor who arranged for her funeral and burial with her sister Anne Lydia, at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. But so much of Ellen’s life remains enigmatic – and that, I’m sure, is how she wanted it.

Incidentally, it has not been possible to find out more from the records of her publishers, as these, together with much of her stock, was destroyed by bombing in the Second World War.

It is in her description of the marriages that we see Ellen at her best as an anthropologist, a career which, if it had been available to her, she would surely have excelled at. Even the tiniest details are recorded. But more than that, Ellen is interested in the customs and etiquette, and furthermore the reasons for the customs and etiquette. There are times when she does appear to be a true forerunner of the Egyptian social anthropologist Winifred Blackman (1872-1950), who also wrote a single book, The Fellahin of Upper Egypt (1927). The description of Winifred’s work by Al-Ahram Weekly in 2000 could apply equally to both women:

“Some of Blackman's subjects are esoteric, such as belief in magic, the evil eye and evil spirits (afarit ), while others - agriculture, industry and everyday village life - are more mundane, interweaved with topics as diverse as personal adornment and "the law of revenge." But the anthropologist was also a literary alchemist, transforming each chapter into a multi-faceted gem. Such is the abundance of detailed description, the vivid imagery, the apposite quotations or songs, the relevant anecdotes, the historical context and the fluid narration, that we are drawn into, and fascinated by, each successive chapter to the extent that we feel that we were there with her.”

( , but the link appears to now be defunct?)

Expense no object
“I had a private view of the plate and jewels for each bride,” Ellen wrote “but as they were pretty much the same in each instance, I will only particularise one… In a large saloon were thirty or forty women, all carefully arranging the jewels on crimson velvet cushions. There were tiaras, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, medallions, clasps, buckles, butterflies, earrings, and sprays, all of gold and diamonds, a massive gold circlet for the waist with an immense diamond clasp. There were other precious stones but diamonds greatly predominated, as being the most costly. Over each cushion was firmly fixed a wire-work cover which looked like lace, and while protecting the jewels allowed them to be seen.”

And there was much more:

“I was then taken to two other rooms which were kept locked, and were full of stands on which were arranged the different articles of gold and silver plate for the new ménage. There were about sixty stands, on which were dishes, plates, looking-glasses (of silver or gold), the little jewelled filigree gold cups for coffee, amber mouthpieces for pipes, &c., &c. The plate was, like the jewels, secured by wire covers which allowed them to be seen.”

This, remember, was for only one of the brides, Princess Fatma, Ishmail’s second daughter. It’s little surprise, then, that Ishmail is still described in some works as “Egypt’s spendthrift khedive” (Colonialism: an international social, cultural and political encyclopedia (2003) Ed. Melvin E. Page, Santa Barbara [California]: ABC-CLIO Inc.

Ishmail may, or may not, have judged public opinion correctly by displaying this vast wealth. However, he did so:

“The trousseau for each wedding was on a certain day carried through the town under an escort of soldiers. The streets through which it passed, and the balconies to the houses and hotels, were lined with people to witness the spectacle, which the fine wire covers guarded but did not conceal.”

Ellen then describes the marriage traditions, which took place n 26 January 1873:

“No ceremony, either religious or civil, is performed in [the] presence of both the contracting parties. A large party of relations and friends on both sides are assembled in the house of the parents of the bride. The gentlemen are in the selamlik, the ladies in the harem. The bridgeroom signs the contract in the presence of witnesses, and two or three of the most influential persons (generally relatives) go into the harem to obtain from the bride’s own lips authority to sign the contract in her name. These gentlemen are preceded by a couple of eunuchs crying “Dustoor!” which signifies “Get out of the way, attend to Mahometan [sic] customs,” and all women hide themselves as the gentlemen approach. The bride is in an inner room, surrounded by her nearest relations and friends; the door is ajar, but a thick curtain is drawn before it. The gentlemen stop outside, and one of them asks the important question, “N, wilt thou have this man to be thy wedded husband?” There is a dead silence, for, willing or unwilling, it is not etiquette for the lady to be so easily won. After a pause the question is repeated, and again there is no response.

“Now I have been told that if there is no reply to the third time of asking, there is an end to the business, and the parties all go home again without any marriage taking place I don’t suppose this often occurs, but there is a long pause between the second and third times of asking, to give time for the ladies to work on the bride, and induce her to pronounce the equivalent to “I will.” At last it is said, and then the gentlemen go back to the selamlik, and the contract is signed. In each of the weddings I am about to describe, a royal salute in each case announced the accomplishment of the signature.”

Whatever the mutterings in the back streets of Cairo, in Ellen’s book the day was full only of brightness and entertainment.

“There was plenty of movement in the streets on this day, gay harem carriages flitting about, their occupants distinctly visible in their gleaming yashmaks and bright coloured feridjees… It happened that the annual races began on this day, and… the hotels are always filled with Alexandrians coming to see them. I was told that Sir George Chetwynd sent a horse to run on this occasion, but it was beaten easily – I suppose from the difference of ground and of temperature.”

One of the races was “a dromedary race… very attractive from its novelty to Europeans.”

The Sir George Chetwynd mentioned was the 4th Baronet (1849-1917), of Brocton Hall, Staffordshire, notable in his day as a racehorse breeder and competitor, and author of Racing reminscences and experiences of the turf (1891). Presumably the Cairo races were not amongst his most agreeable reminiscences. His interest in an Egyptian race is indicative of the growing interest in, and involvement with, Egypt by wealthy Europeans, that in the end was to be Ishmail’s downfall.

But for the moment, the House of Muhammad Ali looked, from the outside at least, to be secure. Following the races, on 18 January 1873, came “the anniversary of the Khédive’s accession, and a ball is usually given in honour of it.

“It is held at Gezireh, in the State apartments occupied by the Empress of the French [Empress Eugenie, 1826-1920, deposed 1870] .during her visit to Egypt in 1869 at the opening of the Suez Canal.

“They are magnificent apartments, and the position of the palace on the Nile, with the beautiful gardens all illuminated, combine to make a ball there a sort of realisation of fairyland. Invitations are ardently coveted, and liberally given – on this occasion almost too liberally, for some persons complained of being crowded.”

Ellen roundly scolded the complainers: “There is plenty of space, but of course if everyone will rush to the ball-room, it may become rather too full for comfort.”

Next: the marriage ceremonies begin, described at length by Ellen.

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