The balconied rooftop apartment in Zamalek on the island of Gezira which my father rented when we arrived in Cairo in 1947 looked over the Nile to the east and Gezira Sporting Club to the west. I learned to count to ten by timing the sunset each night, the sand in the air making the sun a scumbled, smouldering ball, dropping fast and heavily, as if overcome by its own heat. My father had gone ahead of us and been to the Mouski to buy Persian and Turkish rugs, mirrors with gilded and curly frames; brass trays engraved with paisley butis and edged in scallops; a brass coffeepot with a toucan bill for a spout; little ruby glasses, also gilded and flowery, for drinking tea; a bronze sculpture of a crane eating a snake twined round its legs. A dressing table for my mother had bulky, rounded drawers, made of some kind of heavy yellow wood the colour of camel hide; she draped it in pink spotted tulle over a heavier satin underskirt, with braiding and a frill to define the kidney-shaped contour of the tabletop. It was a piece made by hand to look machine-tooled and modern; each of the drawers was slightly different so that you had to put them back in the right order. But Esmond – my father – also shipped a drinks cabinet in walnut veneer from London, as well as decanters for port and sherry and a cunning device called a ‘tantalus’ for locking up bottles so ‘the staff can’t tipple,’ some carver chairs, and lots of bits of silver (cigarette boxes, ashtrays, candelabra, pepperpots, decanter labels): tribal stuff, to keep him moored to home ground, which figured in all the colonial residences of the British, as can be seen in photographs in memoirs like Priscilla Napier’s A Late Beginner, published in 1966, about living in Cairo as a child between the wars: her father, Sir William Goodenough Hayter, was a judge with the Anglo-Egyptian Service, a vital arm of the British Protectorate running the country from the wings.
There were many prints of Egypt in our Zamalek flat – picturesque views of the ruins and the pyramids and Old Cairo, from series that had been published in the previous century – and they fascinated me: drowned temples, dhows like drawn bows on the Nile, colossal fallen gods of stone, camel trains, the desert dotted with tiny figures of herdsmen in the shade with their animals. The picture I loved best showed a little Mameluke girl swathed from head to foot in bulky robes, gold-embroidered on pale crimson, over a blue tunic, her hands neatly clasped together, with the decorum of an adult. The towering scale of her enveloping coif, a wimple-like structure trailing behind her like a cloak, and her imperturbable look filled me with longing.
The little girl in the picture became my secret sister, my other self, the pretty child I was – inside – in spite of my stout and clumsy outside and, at times, my ugly convict skull (the remedy for lice was shaving the head). Like many children, I was a changeling – not the right shape or temperament to belong to my beautiful mother – and I wanted to be changed once more and become like the girl in the picture, a beautiful exotic doll, as if just unwrapped from tissue paper, but also a tiny person alone in her own portrait, not on anyone’s knee, or surrounded by siblings, but on her own. How old is she? Three? Four?
All my life I have thought of this little girl as Egyptian; she merged in my memory with my playmate from next door, who showed me her dolls on the fire escape outside the kitchen. But looking now, more carefully, at that adored image of my childhood, I see an insipid face, baby pink with pale blue eyes set wide apart, slightly tense in expression, in which one might read forbearance of the kind Victorian women were trained to show. She gazes out of the elaborate veiling and embroidered panels of her costume like a plump English rose trying to play the innkeeper’s wife who turns Joseph and Mary away in a school nativity play. Her role as a dream creature indifferent to the ladylike prescriptions of my upbringing, tilts into something quite other. Is that quality I took to be heroic self-possession a far more conventional, ladylike demureness, even complacency? Is there something smug and placid in those hands clasped at her waist?
What I had thought was a watercolour turns out to be a lithograph from a chalk drawing with wash, and along the bottom there’s an inscription in a delicate copperplate hand, ‘The daughter of Admiral Walker’, followed by a signature: ‘David Wilkie f-t 1840’. Near her there used to hang another portrait, of a fantastical fellow in a high tarbush with a long, dangling plume, his chest puffed out in his dress uniform, with prominent epaulettes, medals at his throat and a long scimitar cradled along his left arm above his sword belt, and all of this liberally highlit with gold. I hadn’t connected him with the little girl, but the picture is inscribed ‘Constantinople 1840’, and it isn’t after all a portrait of an Ottoman officer – not exactly – but of the child’s father. So the little girl who beckoned to me has turned into someone else: an English child in Orientalist fancy dress.
Fancy dress was a craze in Victorian times. A glance at British portraits will reveal one landowner after another taking part in cosplay, as peasants, goddesses, heroes and heroines from Shakespeare, Pope, balladry and folklore. The queen and Prince Albert held a bal costumé at Windsor in 1842, soon after they were married, and appeared as Edward III and his consort, Philippa of Hainault. They were painted in full medieval splendour by Edwin Landseer. The tradition later influenced society photographers – Madame Yevonde, Cecil Beaton – who encouraged fantasy play-acting in their subjects. Christmas cards sent from posts in the empire assemble the British colony in fancy dress – sometimes cross-dressed and sometimes dressed up as the locals. All over the pink map in the 19th and early 20th centuries, second secretaries and civil servants, army officers and other representatives of British authority guised as exotic strangers in photographs sent to loved ones back home – Aladdin, Lady Precious Stream, or the Black King at Christ’s nativity, among other Orientals. The sequence of inversions and impersonations in the scene where Mr Rochester disguises himself as a Gypsy woman and tells Jane’s fortune is dizzy-making: insider playing outsider, master subordinate, male female. But it’s one of Mr Rochester’s prerogatives to play whatever part he likes. As with labelling, as with jokes, so with costumes: it matters who is calling the names, who is putting on the pretence.
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