Three Women in a Boat

Hotel Mena-House et pyramides: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At sunset on Wednesday, 9 November 1904, one day into the month of Ramadan, three tourists arrived at the famous Mena House Hotel, five miles west of Cairo in Egypt, then under British control. Behind them stretched the route of the parallel railway and road which had brought them and their luggage by train and cart from the city, threading an avenue of acacia trees, with the floodwater of the Nile on both sides, a journey which seemed to one of them ‘like crossing a long straight bridge over a lake of liquid light’. In another direction the pyramids of Giza glowed in the desert against a sky of amber and gold.

On the way to the Pyramids: Newberry Library Collection

The hotel was a popular destination for British visitors (previous guests had included the late Prince Albert Victor, King Edward VII’s eldest son, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), but this party was, though not unique, a little unusual, consisting as it did of women who had made the journey from England without male companions and who were about to embark on a nine-week expedition down the Nile and back over the desert. The members of the party were Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, soon to be one the leaders of the suffragette movement, her sister Marie, a medical officer, and their cousin Henrietta (Hetty) Lawes, an artist and archaeologist, and their travels are described in a series of letters, mainly by Emmeline, images and transcripts of which are now on the Library’s online catalogue of modern manuscripts (PETH 7/147–164).

The travellers were all women whose family circumstances and personal efforts had obtained for them an unusual degree of independence of mind and activity. Emmeline Pethick had left a comfortable middle-class life in Weston-super-Mare to embark on social work in the East End of London. After four years at the West London Mission she and her friend Mary Neal established the Espérance Club, the aim of which was to give working-class girls and young women the chance to enjoy dance and drama, go on annual holidays, and earn a living wage through a dressmaking cooperative. It was while engaged in this work that Emmeline met Fred Lawrence, an alumnus of Trinity involved in university settlement work in Canning Town, and after much earnest consideration of their political compatibility the couple married, combining their surnames. The Pethick-Lawrences shared a combination of practical activism and wide-ranging mysticism – a mysticism which, for Emmeline, was shaped by natural phenomena and religious contacts of all kinds, as well as by music and literature. Her expectations of and response to Egypt were no doubt shaped by her reading, notably Robert Hichens’ recent romantic bestseller The Garden of Allah.

Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, c.1908: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Emmeline was 37 when she set off for Egypt. Her sister Marie, who was 29, had studied at the London School of Medicine and become a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries. After a short period as a clinical assistant at the Menston Asylum, a lunatic asylum for paupers in Yorkshire, she had joined the Pethick-Lawrences in the East End as an assistant medical officer at the Canning Town Medical Mission Hospital. Like Emmeline and at least two of her other sisters she was later an active participant in the suffrage movement.

Hetty Lawes, the oldest of the party at 43, was the daughter of a prosperous miller of Caversham, near Reading. Little is known of her life before her late twenties, when she began to study drawing and painting, first at the Reading School of Science and Art and later at the University of Reading Extension College. Her family’s connection with Egypt was established by 1894, when her sister Josephine was married at Cairo to Frederick Sturge Plunkett of the Military School there, and in 1898–9 Hetty herself went to Egypt for several months to take part in excavations being conducted at Diospolis Parva by Flinders and Hilda Petrie. She returned home with an unbounded enthusiasm for the country and its inhabitants, a knowledge of Arabic, and memories of many new acquaintances, including the suffragist Sarah Amos, with whom she visited Abydos, and Abdul Enani Khattab, a Bedouin sheikh and tour guide who went so far as to invite her to become the queen of his tribe. It was Hetty who proposed the 1904 expedition to her cousins, and it was she who took responsibility for managing their affairs on the way.

Egyptian artefacts presented by Henrietta Lawes to the Ure Museum: Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

The sisters fell in love with the country instantly. Filled with the enchantment of the Mena House Hotel and its surroundings Emmeline declared, ‘from this moment the fascination of the country deepens & deepens upon us. … Something unnameable & undescribable takes possession of our spirit, filling us with happiness & excitement, a sort of fulness & overflow of life.’ ‘I never saw Marie look like she looks now,’ she added, ‘her eyes shining with radiant happiness & excitement.’

The women spent the next morning in the shadow of Chephren’s pyramid, chatting with the young souvenir-sellers, learning about their observance of Ramadan and reading for them the letters they had received from English clients. Hetty had sent word of her arrival to her friend Abdul Enani Khattab, and presently he made his appearance, striding and then running over the desert – a tall man in flowing robes and a turban of rich Damascus silk, as Emmeline describes him, touching his brow, lips, and heart in greeting, and smiling broadly. Shortly afterwards Hetty’s sister Josephine and her children also arrived and they spent a day together, at the end of which Emmeline felt that she could ‘sit still for hours wrapt in a garment of joy. Every sense satisfied to the uttermost’.

Within two days the party had engaged Abdul Enani (the contract is transcribed in one of the letters) to take them in a dahabiyeh or passenger-boat as far as Luxor, 400 miles to the south, and back to Cairo by train and by camel. Fred Pethick-Lawrence was to join them for the return journey.

A Dahabiyeh on the Nile, 1890: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Emmeline’s letters refer to various aspects of her experiences in Egypt – the landscape, weather, cities, and archaeological sites, but most of all they dwell on the friendly interaction between the women and their Egyptian crew, especially Abdul Enani, with his lordly bearing, his taste for the finest cigarettes and the most magnificent clothes, his ‘boxful of stories’ from the Koran and elsewhere, and the conversations in which he and the women puzzle over the differences between their cultures. The warmth and devotion of the Egyptians was no doubt partly a matter of good business, and Emmeline, perhaps naively, takes no account of this in her frequent praise of their eagerness to be of service, but it was clearly, too, both the hallmark of an hospitable culture and a response to the women’s openness and their sympathetic interest in the Egyptians’ language, religion, and customs.

The beginning of Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence’s first letter from Egypt

They found that their attitude was not shared by all British people. As Emmeline wrote to her husband:

‘I think you will like Josephine Plunkett very much. I don’t want you to meet her husband – he stands for everything we are fighting against – an honorable & upright man, but his outlook on life comprises everything we hate. Some of her ideas Josephine gets from him – her contempt & fear of the Arabs. … She cannot understand Hetty’s relationship with them at all. She besought me to buy a revolver & have it loaded under my pillow! I said I would rather spend the money on a good [camera] filter!’

The travellers’ enjoyment never faltered, and as they awaited their final departure from Egypt back at the Mena House Hotel they still went every evening into the desert, determined to preserve its atmosphere in their memories. Emmeline’s last letter ends on a typically positive note: ‘On the night before we leave for England – the moon is wrapt away in thick clouds & the rain is falling, but the face of the Sphinx is lifted expectantly towards the new Day.’

A Street in Cairo: Newberry Library Collection

The details of the descriptive passages above are mainly taken from PETH 7/148, 7/149, 7/156, and 7/157. The long quotation is from PETH 7/162. For more information about the Pethick-Lawrences see the Library’s 2016 exhibition ‘The Pethick-Lawrences: A Radical Partnership’.

Grateful thanks are offered to Dr Amara Thornton and Dr Amy Smith for help and advice. Further information about Hetty Lawes’s archaeological work can be found on the websites of the Ure Museum and the Reading Museum.

Adam C. Green

Senior Assistant Archivist

Trinity College Library

3 thoughts on “Three Women in a Boat

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