I recently finished reading/listening to Letters from Egypt by Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon. Advised to leave England for her health, she moved to Egypt in 1862 and spent the remaining seven years of her life there before dying of tuberculosis in Cairo.
Janet Ross, her daughter, collected and published Lady Duff-Gordon's letters to her family, consisting mostly of letters to Janet, her mother Mrs. Austin, and her husband Alexander Duff-Gordon. It was fascinating to see how Lucie's letters tracked her experiences, beginning with a tourist's wonder at how the landscape and people are "just out of The Arabian Nights" and comparing what she saw to Biblical scenes to her settling in Luxor and counting her Egyptian neighbors among her dearest friends, learning Arabic and participating in the community as much as her health would allow her to. Her letters describe the daily life of her neighbors, the hardships of famine and European interference, the relations between Muslims and Copts, Egyptians and Turks and Europeans, and between different social classes. Lady Duff-Gordon demonstrates a self-awareness of her own changing attitudes towards Egypt and its people the longer she lives there.
Lady Duff-Gordon spent the last years of her life separated from her family. Her longing for them, as well as her desire to reassure them about her well being, are seen throughout her letters. Her candidness about her health resonated with me as someone living with chronic illness, and as someone who knows that Lucie died from her illness. I dreaded coming to the end of the letters, knowing that she was also coming to her end. It is a strange feeling to mourn the death of someone who died 150 years ago.
I had been hesitant to read books like Letters of Egypt, memoirs or accounts of Egypt and North Africa from the perspective of a European when I preferred to use Egyptian sources. However, local sources have proven difficult to find for a number of reasons (worth a blog post in itself). I hoped Lady Duff-Gordon's account would provide some insight into the daily lives of "regular" Egyptians in the 19th century, knowing that I would have to parse through the white, Christian gaze as I read. I did find what I was looking for, but I also got to know a woman who was determined to make the best of whatever life was left to her. I think we might have been good friends, had not the centuries and distance divided us.