Amelia Edwards: A Victorian Trailblazer

Amelia Edwards was a fascinating woman who popped her head above the parapet of  convention and made a real impact in her own lifetime. And this was an era when women were supposed to stay at home and not be noticed. Not only did she support herself with her writing, both as a novelist and  journalist, but she fell in love with Egypt and the consequences were absolutely wonderful.

Inclement weather during a hiking holiday in France, and a pioneering spirit, led Amelia to Egypt in the autumn of 1873. Mere chance, but it changed her life completely. Already an experienced travel writer, she took to the land of the pharaohs with a passion and wrote about her experiences in A Thousand Miles Up the Nile.

I came across the book by chance while undertaking research for my second Lucy Lawrence novel, Footprints in the Sand. I was astonished when I first read the book for it could have been written today. There was none of the stilted dryness you would expect from a Victorian writer but humour and a fascinating insight into Egypt’s heritage and its people. For anyone with an interest in Victorian women (who broke the mould!) or indeed Egyptology, I highly recommend investing in a copy. She even did the wonderful illustrations in the book (example below)!

Amelia was born in London in 1831, daughter of an ex-army officer and an Irish mother. She was educated at home and soon showed a talent for the written word. She produced her first full length novel in 1855 – My Brother’s Wife. Her poetry, stories and articles were published in magazines including Chamber’s Journal, Household Words and the Saturday Review and Morning Post. Her many novels proved popular.

By the time Amelia was 30, both her parents had passed away. Against the conventions of the time, she decided to go travelling (without the proper male escort!) and had the funds to do it because of her writing success. With a female companion, Lucy Renshawe, she set off, only hiring male servants or guides as required. Her first trip was to Belgium in 1862 and in June 1872 the pair explored the Dolomite Region of Northern Italy (Untrodden Peaks and Unfrequented Valleys).

Credit: Amelia Edwards

But over the winter of 1873-74, Amelia and Lucy sailed up the Nile to Abu Simbel. Unlike most travellers who saw Egypt as another pleasure-ground, Amelia was keenly aware of the underlying political and cultural problems of the country. To her shock, she witnessed the results of the highly lucrative and extensive illegal trade in antiquities. Sites were being pillaged and destroyed by all and sundry. All of this was happening in an unstable political climate with rivalry and tension between French and English explorers added to the mix. Saddened and disturbed by what she saw as the desecration of Egypt’s heritage, she returned to England determined to do something about it.

Flinders Petrie

Amelia was convinced a more scientific approach was needed to preserve Egypt’s treasurers. She studied Egyptology and formed lasting friendships with the likes of Gaston Maspero, who would later become director general of excavations and antiquities for the Egyptian government, and one of the greatest Egyptologists, Flinders Petrie. Amelia promoted the founding of an Egyptological society, culminating in its first meeting in 1880 at the British Museum. Two years’ later, it became the Egypt Exploration Fund, its main purpose to study, conserve and protect ancient sites in Egypt. Amelia’s campaigning paid off, and soon they were able to fund the exploration work of Flinders Petrie in Egypt.

Subsequently, Amelia undertook grueling lecture tours and even gave up her successful novel writing to concentrate on all matters Egyptological. Eventually, her work earned her honorary degrees from several American universities and in honour of her work, she received an English civil list pension for “her services to literature and archaeology”.

In the early 1890s, Amelia’s health began to deteriorate, and in January 1892, Lucy Renshawe, the woman who had travelled with her and shared her home for nearly thirty years, died. A few months later, Amelia succumbed to influenza. She is buried at St. Mary the Virgin, Henbury, Bristol.

Amelia left a library and collection of Egyptian antiquities to University College London and a bequest to established the first English Chair in Egyptology. Fittingly, Flinders Petrie was the first appointed to the Edwards Chair in UCL.

I cannot deny that the Egypt described by Amelia in her book presented countless possibilities for mischief to a mystery writer. Her descriptions of Cairo and the many sites she visited, transported me back to Victorian Egypt like no dry contemporary source could do. My heroine, Lucy Lawrence, shared some of Miss Edwards’ qualities of curiosity and determination and so Footprints in the Sand quickly transformed from a vague plot idea to a novel.

Cairo, Autumn 1887: A melting pot of jealousy, lust and revenge. Who will pay the ultimate price?

Lucy Lawrence throws caution to the wind and embarks on a journey of self-discovery in the land of the pharaohs.

Travelling to Cairo as the patron of the charming French Egyptologist, Armand Moreau, Lucy discovers a city teeming with professional rivalries, and a thriving black market in antiquities which threatens Egypt’s precious heritage.

When the Egyptian Museum is burgled, Lucy is determined to solve the case, much to the annoyance of the local inspector of police, and the alarm of Mary, her maid. But when an archaeologist is found murdered in the Great Pyramid, Lucy is catapulted into the resulting maelstrom. Can she keep her wits about her to avoid meeting a similar fate?

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