Eve in Egypt by Stella Tennyson Jesse

I’ve mentioned in the past on the Ramblings (and elsewhere!) how highly I think of F. Tennyson Jesse’s remarkable novel “A Pin to see the Peepshow”; one of my favourite ever Virago books, it fictionalises the story of the Thompson-Bywaters murder case, turning it into compelling fiction as well as making a very strong case against capital punishment. So when Michael Walmer kindly offered me a review copy of FTJ’s sister Stella’s only novel, “Eve in Egypt” I was intrigued, to say the least…

Stella was the older of the two sisters, and made her name as a stage actress; notably appearing in plays by her brother-in-law H.M. Harwood (FTJ’s husband). “Eve..” was her only novel and it has an interesting genesis. Based on a trip up the Nile which Stella took in 1926/7 in the company of her sister, brother-in-law and a bachelor uncle, the book was apparently written as a result of a £10 bet between the Harwoods and Stella (or so Mike Walmer tells me!) Whatever caused the book to be written is an intriguing and enjoyable work, and I had a blast reading it.

Our titular heroine, Eve Wentworth, is young and beautiful and awash with suitors. Harold and Hubert have asked for her hand in marriage but tellingly she is incapable of deciding between them. While she havers about trying to make up her mind, her sister Serena and brother-in-law Hugh receive a timely invite for the three of them to join a family friend on a tour of the Nile. This is the perfect escape for Eve, but alas things are not so simple; the family friend is Jeremy, known to Eve since they were both young, and as the trip progresses Eve realises she has feelings about her erstwhile playmate. To complicate things further, whilst travelling the group encounter a rich American woman, Isobel Page, who seems to attract Jeremy’s attention; and Isobel’s brother Tony makes the plot even thicker! Is Eve about to have her heart broken? Will she be left to choose between the two Hs? Will the scenery and location be enough to distract her from her heartache? Or can we expect a happy ending? 🙂

By New York Public Library (Sphynx et la grande pyramide.) [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

This could of course be just another frothy, enjoyable 1920s romance (which is no bad thing) with the usual misunderstandings, potentially broken hears, witty dialogue and hilarious camel rides (OK, that latter bit doesn’t usually turn up in this type of book, but it *was* very funny). However, what lifts the book above the norm is the clever way it blends travelogue and novel. There are many, many photographs featured throughout the book of the various locations described, all taken by Stella and they give a wonderful insight into the Egypt of that era. Of course, the country was very much in vogue at the time, following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922, and it’s a place which had an endless fascination for the British during the first part of the twentieth century (Agatha Christie’s novels being a good case in point). I imagine that modern Egypt is a very different place from that of the 1920s so I really enjoyed the window on that world that the book gave. The book is laced with the history and mythology of the country and the Pharaohs, yet never in a way which feels out of place or burdensome, and I really sensed Stella’s love of the place.

I can’t think, to be honest, why this book has been out of print for so long. It’s an entertaining and enjoyable read, with the lovely added extra elements of the narrative which deal with the setting, and these give an extra frisson to the book. I have to be honest and say that of course it isn’t on the same level as FTJ’s great novel, but nevertheless “Eve in Egypt” is a work that deserves much more attention than it’s had; its lovely blending of fact and fiction make for an unusual and unexpected read, and kudos to Michael Walmer for republishing it!

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