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Letters from Egypt by Duff Gordon, Lucie, Lady, 1821-1869

Letters from Egypt by Duff Gordon, Lucie, Lady, 1821-1869

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Lady Duff Gordon\u2019s Letters from Egypt
Revised Edition with Memoir by Her Daughter Janet Ross
New Introduction by George Meredith
second impression
LONDON: R. BRIMLEY JOHNSON
1902
INTRODUCTION

The letters of Lady Duff Gordon are an introduction to her in person. She wrote as she talked, and that is not
always the note of private correspondence, the pen being such an official instrument. Readers growing
familiar with her voice will soon have assurance that, addressing the public, she would not have blotted a
passage or affected a tone for the applause of all Europe. Yet she could own to a liking for flattery, and say of
the consequent vanity, that an insensibility to it is inhuman. Her humour was a mouthpiece of nature. She

Lady Duff Gordon\u2019s Letters from Egypt
1

inherited from her father the judicial mind, and her fine conscience brought it to bear on herself as well as on
the world, so that she would ask, \u2018Are we so much better?\ue000 when someone supremely erratic was dangled
before the popular eye. She had not studied her Goethe to no purpose. Nor did the very ridiculous creature
who is commonly the outcast of all compassion miss having the tolerant word from her, however much she
might be of necessity in the laugh, for Moli\u00e8re also was of her repertory. Hers was the charity which is
perceptive and embracing: we may feel certain that she was never a dupe of the poor souls, Christian and
Muslim, whose tales of simple misery or injustice moved her to friendly service. Egyptians, consule Junio,
would have met the human interpreter in her, for a picture to set beside that of the vexed Satirist. She saw
clearly into the later Nile products, though her view of them was affectionate; but had they been exponents of
original sin, her charitableness would have found the philosophical word on their behalf, for the reason that
they were not in the place of vantage. The service she did to them was a greater service done to her country,
by giving these quivering creatures of the baked land proof that a Christian Englishwoman could be
companionable, tender, beneficently motherly with them, despite the reputed insurmountable barriers of alien
race and religion. Sympathy was quick in her breast for all the diverse victims of mischance; a shade of it,
that was not indulgence, but knowledge of the roots of evil, for malefactors and for the fool. Against the
cruelty of despotic rulers and the harshness of society she was openly at war, at a time when championship of
the lowly or the fallen was not common. Still, in this, as in everything controversial, it was the \u00b5\u03b7\u03b4\u03b5\u03bd \u03b1y\ue001\ue002 with her.
That singular union of the balanced intellect with the lively heart arrested even in advocacy the floods
pressing for pathos. Her aim was at practical measures of help; she doubted the uses of sentimentality in
moving tyrants or multitudes to do the thing needed. Moreover, she distrusted eloquence, Parliamentary,
forensic, literary; thinking that the plain facts are the persuasive speakers in a good cause, and that rhetoric is
to be suspected as the flourish over a weak one. Does it soften the obdurate, kindle the tardily inflammable?
Only for a day, and only in cases of extreme urgency, is an appeal to emotion of value for the gain of a day.
Thus it was that she never forced her voice, though her feelings might be at heat and she possessed the literary
art.

She writes from her home on the Upper Nile: \ue003In this country one gets to see how much more beautiful a
perfectly natural expression is than any degree of the mystical expression of the best painters.\ue004 It is by her
banishing of literary colouring matter that she brings the Arab and Copt home to us as none other has done, by
her unlaboured pleading that she touches to the heart. She was not one to \ue005spread gold-leaf over her
acquaintances and make them shine,\ue006 as Horace Walpole says of Madame de S\u00e9vign\u00e9; they would have been
set shining from within, perhaps with a mild lustre; sensibly to the observant, more credibly of the golden
sort. Her dislike of superlatives, when the marked effect had to be produced, and it was not the literary
performance she could relish as well as any of us, renders hard the task of portraying a woman whose
character calls them forth. To him knowing her, they would not fit; her individuality passes between epithets.
The reading of a sentence of panegyric (commonly a thing of extension) deadened her countenance, if it failed
to quicken the corners of her lips; the distended truth in it exhibited the comic shadow on the wall behind.
That haunting demon of human eulogy is quashed by the manner she adopted, from instinct and training. Of
her it was known to all intimate with her that she could not speak falsely in praise, nor unkindly in
depreciation, however much the constant play of her humour might tempt her to exalt or diminish beyond the
bounds. But when, for the dispersion of nonsense about men or things, and daintiness held up the veil against
rational eyesight, the gros mot was demanded, she could utter it, as from the Bench, with a like authority and
composure.

In her youth she was radiantly beautiful, with dark brows on a brilliant complexion, the head of a Roman man,
and features of Grecian line, save for the classic Greek wall of the nose off the forehead. Women, not
enthusiasts, inclined rather to criticize, and to criticize so independent a member of their sex particularly, have
said that her entry into a ballroom took the breath. Poetical comparisons run under heavy weights in prose;
but it would seem in truth, from the reports of her, that wherever she appeared she could be likened to a
Selene breaking through cloud; and, further, the splendid vessel was richly freighted. Trained by a scholar,
much in the society of scholarly men, having an innate bent to exactitude, and with a ready tongue docile to

Letters from Egypt
INTRODUCTION
2

the curb, she stepped into the world armed to be a match for it. She cut her way through the accustomed
troops of adorers, like what you will that is buoyant and swims gallantly. Her quality of the philosophical
humour carried her easily over the shoals or the deeps in the way of a woman claiming her right to an
independent judgement upon the minor rules of conduct, as well as upon matters of the mind. An illustrious
foreigner, en t\u00eate-\u00e0-t\u00eate with her over some abstract theme, drops abruptly on a knee to protest, overpowered;
and in that posture he is patted on the head, while the subject of conversation is continued by the benevolent
lady, until the form of ointment she administers for his beseeching expression and his pain compels him to
rise and resume his allotted part with a mouth of acknowledging laughter. Humour, as a beautiful woman\ue007s
defensive weapon, is probably the best that can be called in aid for the bringing of suppliant men to their
senses. And so manageable are they when the idea of comedy and the chord of chivalry are made to vibrate,
that they (supposing them of the impressionable race which is overpowered by Aphrodite\ue008s favourites) will be
withdrawn from their great aims, and transformed into happy crust-munching devotees\u2014in other words, fast
friends. Lady Duff Gordon had many, and the truest, and of all lands. She had, on the other hand, her number
of detractors, whom she excused. What woman is without them, if she offends the conventions, is a step in
advance of her day, and, in this instance, never hesitates upon the needed occasion to dub things with their
right names? She could appreciate their disapproval of her in giving herself the airs of a man, pronouncing
verdicts on affairs in the style of a man, preferring association with men. So it was; and, besides, she
smoked. Her physician had hinted at the soothing for an irritated throat that might come of some whiffs of
tobacco. She tried a cigar, and liked it, and smoked from that day, in her library chair and on horseback.
Where she saw no harm in an act, opinion had no greater effect on her than summer flies to one with a fan.
The country people, sorely tried by the spectacle at first, remembered the gentle deeds and homely chat of an
eccentric lady, and pardoned her, who was often to be seen discoursing familiarly with the tramp on the road,
incapable of denying her house-door to the lost dog attached by some instinct to her heels. In the circles
named \ue009upper\ue00a there was mention of women unsexing themselves. She preferred the society of men, on the
plain ground that they discuss matters of weight, and are\ue00bthe pick of them\ue00cof open speech, more liberal,
more genial, better comrades. Was it wonderful to hear them, knowing her as they did, unite in calling her

c\u0153ur d\u2019or? And women could say it of her, for the reasons known to women. Her intimate friendships were
with women as with men. The closest friend of this most manfully-minded of women was one of her sex,
little resembling her, except in downright truthfulness, lovingness, and heroic fortitude.

The hospitable house at Esher gave its welcome not merely to men and women of distinction; the humble
undistinguished were made joyous guests there, whether commonplace or counting among the hopeful. Their
hostess knew how to shelter the sensitively silent at table, if they were unable to take encouragement and join
the flow. Their faces at least responded to her bright look on one or the other of them when something worthy
of memory sparkled flying. She had the laugh that rocks the frame, but it was usually with a triumphant smile
that she greeted things good to the ear; and her own manner of telling was concise, on the lines of the running
subject, to carry it along, not to produce an effect\ue00dwhich is like the horrid gap in air after a blast of powder.
Quotation came when it sprang to the lips and was native. She was shrewd and cogent, invariably calm in
argument, sitting over it, not making it a duel, as the argumentative are prone to do; and a strong point scored
against her received the honours due to a noble enemy. No pose as mistress of a salon shuffling the guests
marked her treatment of them; she was their comrade, one of the pack. This can be the case only when a
governing lady is at all points their equal, more than a player of trump cards. In England, in her day, while
health was with her, there was one house where men and women conversed. When that house perforce was
closed, a light had gone out in our country.

The fatal brilliancy of skin indicated the fell disease which ultimately drove her into exile, to die in exile.
Lucie Duff Gordon was of the order of women of whom a man of many years may say that their like is to be
met but once or twice in a lifetime.

Letters from Egypt
INTRODUCTION
3

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