Celebration Edition #390:
"Days and Nights in the East:
from the original notes of a recent traveller through Egypt, Arabia-Petra, Syria, Turkey and Greece."
By a Recent [Male] Traveller,
Edited by Matilda Plumley, fl. 1845.
London: T. C. Newby, 1845.
It seems particularly fitting to release an edition of "Days and Nights in the East" for April Fool's Day. Despite the fact that Matilda Plumley states in both title and preface that the book is based on someone else's notes, people persist in believing that she herself was the traveller in question. One can only assume that they have not read the book, or not paid attention.
The title itself states clearly that the book is "from the original notes of a recent traveller". The preface reiterates that "For the notes, from which the facts in the following volume are drawn, I am indebted to another; but, for the remarks, reflections, or opinions, arising out of the subject, I alone am responsible". Where the original notes end, and her remarks begin, we generally have no way of knowing. But in one location, introducing the lone poem in the book, she states "description of this particular evening suggested the above lines to the Authoress" (i.e. she only heard it described; she herself did not see it.)
It seems unlikely that Matilda Plumley lounged in the men's bathhouses of Egypt, or plunged into various local rivers and lakes to bathe while travelling. But the clearest indication of the traveller's gender, in the action of the text, comes from a visit to a bazaar: "I bought some otto of roes of an old fellow, who applied the cork of the bottle to my whiskers and mustachios with such a liberal hand, that I carried a violently perceptible sweet odour with me." The traveller's interest in attar of roses might suggest a woman, but the "whiskers and mustachios" most certainly contradict that interpretation.
Beyond the book itself, I've found little or no information about Matilda Plumley and her unknown correspondent. A letter from Matilda Plumley of 42 Elbury Street, Eaton Square, London to Samuel Stutchbury of Bristol "Requests sale of fifty copies of a journal not yet 'published by subscription' outlined in enclosed prospectus." ca. 1841. But there is nothing to confirm that "Days and Nights" is the book in question.
I'm happy to include Matilda Plumley in the Celebration of Women Writers nonetheless. She deserves credit, if not for participating in the adventures described, then for editing them and getting them published so that we can share them.
The traveller too remains mysterious. There are faint hints in the book: he tells the locals at one point that he is not a military man, however he toasts the "great captain" on the anniversary of Waterloo, and displays considerable interest and knowledge in ships, fleets, etc. He also displays considerable knowledge of architecture. His interest in religious sites, and his liking for shooting things (crocodiles, birds, etc.) are not unusual for an Englishman of his time. One could wish he was a little more aware of cause and effect in that regard:
"we observed a party of crocodiles, to the number of 8 or 10 on a bank, and regretted that we could not have a shot at them, … they were the first we had seen; indeed, they are now never met with lower than Mineyeh, though ancient historians speak of them at the river's mouth."
On tomb-exploring, he notes: "We passed through a great many passages and small chambers filled with the remains of human mummies and sarcophaghi, many of the latter quite perfect." He also recommends "I would advise all persons exploring places like these, to provide themselves with more than one candle; for the prospect of groping our way out was anything but cheering, and our success I thought somewhat problematical."
The appeal of spectacle, whether of the slave-markets or of a fire in the Jewish quarter, is strong. "The alarm of fire was given, which proved to be raging in the Jews' quarter; we ran down to the Golden Horn, and getting into a caique, rowed in that direction, and a more splendid sight could not be imagined than the queenly city illuminated by the raging flame, and reflected in the smooth still sea."
Though not, perhaps, particularly sympathetic to the plight of people or animals, he is moved by stone and building: "At 7 A.M., I started before breakfast, attended by only one of the tribe, to take a last long look at El Khasné. I gazed on it with extreme delight, heightened, perhaps, by the knowledge that I should never have another opportunity; it appeared more lovely and brilliant than ever. Of the local colour of the stone I have more than once spoken: it is no exaggeration to call it rosy; it is literally of a pink rose tint, varying only in its hue, which is in some places deep, in others, only a faint blush: fancy this material wrought into a temple of exquisite beauty, and garlanded with the verdant gifts with which nature loves to decorate the ruin: fancy this, and beyond this, temple, tomb, and heaped rock, glowing in the light of an eastern sun, and you may have some idea of the spot on which I now looked an adieu, which I doubt not is eternal."
I myself feel the appeal of imagining Matilda Plumley to have been an intrepid woman traveller rather than a man: exploring Egyptian tombs with a single candle, lurching on a camel across the sands with fierce desert tribesmen, and riding neck-or-nothing to the river Jordan with thousands of pilgrims in Easter week.
But I draw the line at the mustachios.