I am beginning this article with a question. What connects Howard Carter, Tutankhamun and my novel Nile Cat? The answer is Mary Tyssen-Amherst, always known to her friends and family as May.
Without May’s parents, William and Margaret Tyssen-Amherst of Didlington Hall in West Norfolk, it is unlikely that Howard Carter would have ever gone to Egypt. It is indeed quite possible King Tutankhamun’s tomb might still lie undiscovered under the rubble of ancient workmens’ huts in the Valley of the Kings. The connection to my novel is May’s unpublished memoir A Few Egyptian Memories. This provided the inspiration for Nile Cat, a thriller for Young Adults set in Victorian and ancient Egypt. May was my great grandmother. She died in 1919.
As a young child, I gradually became aware there was a family secret. Some disaster had hit the family many years before I was born. I never heard the details discussed, just isolated words and phrases; Howard Carter, Tutankhamun, Didlington Hall with eighty rooms, a famous library, a fabulous collection of Egyptian treasures, a crooked solicitor, a lost fortune, and even ‘a mummy’s curse.’ Intriguingly, the ‘lost fortune’ and ‘the mummy’s curse’ frequently appeared linked in one sentence. If I asked questions there was a shrug, and a sigh, followed by, ‘It was all so long ago.’ When I was young, I was easily distracted from my quest for information, but as an adult, curiosity drove me into researching these mysterious ancestors.
I had no idea what there was to find. Maybe nothing at all. The family’s home, Didlington Hall, was just a few miles from Foulden where I grew up. Despite that, I was never taken there as a child. The Hall was pulled down in the 1950s, but the park, and stables and various other buildings, including the church, remain.
When I began this research, I imagined that all the family papers would have been destroyed long ago. It soon became clear, however, that there is a wealth of Tyssen-Amherst material lying in public, and private, archives scattered not only around the United Kingdom but also around the world. I learned that Egypt fascinated my great-great-grandparents, and they frequently spent the winter months beside the Nile. They were formidable collectors as well as travellers. The museum at Didlington Hall housed one of the most important private collections of Egyptian artefacts and papyri in the country during the second half of the 19th century. All the eminent Egyptologists of the day visited the museum from Flinders Petrie, known as the father of Egyptology, to Wallis Budge of the British Museum.
I was particularly keen to discover more about the family’s relationship with Howard Carter. My research revealed Howard’s father, Samuel Carter, was a skilled animal portrait artist. He was brought up in Swaffham in Norfolk, then moved to London. While he lived and largely worked in the capital, Samuel returned home frequently. He visited local gentry to paint portraits of their favourite pets or prize-winning livestock. Samuel’s youngest son, Howard, was a sickly boy who did not thrive in London, and consequently lived with his aunts in the clean air of Swaffham, just eight miles from Didlington. In time Howard accompanied his father when he visited the Tyssen-Amhersts, where he spent many happy hours amongst the Egyptian collection, while his father worked.
Howard’s skilled draughtsmanship impressed the Tyssen-Amhersts, as did his growing interest in Egypt. In 1891 the Tyssen-Amhersts heard that the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) was looking for an artist to assist with the recording of wall paintings in Egyptian tombs. They thought Howard would be perfect for the job, and the EEF agreed. This was the start of a friendly, productive relationship between Howard and the Tyssen-Amhersts that lasted for many years. Howard was always on the lookout for objects that would fill gaps in the Didlington collection, and assisted any family members when they visited Egypt. 1892 was a good year for the family as William Tyssen-Amherst was created Lord Amherst of Hackney. Howard later wrote the following in an autobiographical preface:
‘Due to Lord and Lady Amherst of Hackney to whom I owe an immense debt of gratitude for their kindness to me during my early career – I was sent to Egypt at the age of 17½ as assistant draughtsman to the branch of the Egyptian Exploration Fund called the Archaeological Survey of Egypt. It was the Amhurst Egyptian Collection at Didlington Hall in Norfolk, perhaps the most interesting collection of its kind in England, that aroused my longing for that country.’
I was becoming ever more fascinated by the Tyssen-Amhersts and their links with Egypt. However, it was only when my brother, Hugh, unearthed A Few Egyptian Memories and forwarded it to me, that I first felt a personal connection with May. The manuscript was typed with plenty of pencilled corrections. I was thrilled to discover it was an account of May’s first trips to Egypt, with her parents, in the 1870s. She was just fourteen-years-old. This was an unusually young age to travel to Egypt, as most girls only arrived there after they were ‘out.’
The memoir is crowded with May’s vividly described experiences. From the moment she stood on the deck of a ship, and first glimpsed Egypt on the horizon ‘all lit up in the glow of the dawn’ May fell in love with the country; to her it was the dawning of a “wonderworld”. She remembers pillow fights in the hareem of an Egyptian Princess, and her first magical journey through the recently opened Suez Canal. A favourite activity was camping beside the Sphinx where they freely explored the pyramids inside and out long after the other tourists had left. Sakkara, where much of the action takes place in Nile Cat, was another favourite campsite as the family loved its wild isolation. There were also lone ventures into the souks of Cairo, camel racing across the desert, a dramatic performance by a group of ‘Whirling Dervishes’ and a great deal more.
May’s memoir was a gift to anyone who wanted to write a novel about English girls in nineteenth century Egypt. I could not resist. Rose, through whose eyes most of Nile Cat unfolds, and her twin sister Lily, could experience Egypt much as May recalled it. As I wrote, I came to realise that there are many plot advantages to setting a story in the past. There is little technology to wrestle with, and glorious adventures, unfettered by modern politics, and Health and Safety considerations, can flourish.
Of course, Rose and Lily, have a far more exciting time in Egypt than May ever did. Rose climbs the Great Pyramid, hides in terror beneath the Sphinx, fights for survival in the tunnels deep beneath the Step Pyramid at Sakkara. Her dreams take Rose back to ancient times where she witnesses the adventures of Miut, an Egyptian temple cat, and Hori the boy who cares for her.
Bringing the past alive, however, has its own challenges and from the start it was important to me I portrayed both historical periods as accurately as possible. I am extremely grateful to Egyptologist, Pat Remler, who helped me to understand the ancient Egyptian’s belief system, an essential part of the plot. There is a good deal in May’s memoir, which did not make it into Nile Cat. I hope I will remedy that in the sequel I am now writing.
In 1885 May married Lord William Cecil and they had four sons, all of whom inherited May’s passion for Egypt. She continued to visit the country whenever she could. It amazed me to discover that during the winters of 1901/02 and 1903/04 she ran her own excavations at Aswan, encouraged by Howard Carter, who was by then the Inspector of Monuments for Upper Egypt. She excavated 32 tombs, which were for many years known as the Cecil tombs. It was quite an achievement for a woman at that time.
Financial disaster struck the Tyssen-Amhersts in 1906 when they discovered that the family solicitor, Charles Cheston, had embezzled much of the family’s fortune. The Hall and its treasures had to be sold, including the Egyptian collection. Many local people and estate workers blamed the disaster on the curse of the mummy that lay in the Didlington museum when the disaster hit. Despite this, the fascination for Egypt has remained in the family through the generations, and I am sure will continue to do so for many years to come.
Nile Cat is available to purchase from Amazon.
“A TERRIFIC YOUNG ADULT THRILLER… SET IN VICTORIAN AND ANCIENT EGYPT”
Pat Remler, Egyptologist, author of Egyptian Mythology A-Z
“The action flips between 1871 and Ancient Egypt, with memorable characters such as Miut the pregnant cat, her friend Hori and their enemy Neshi…. The baddies… are satisfyingly villainous… and each of the two settings feels authentic. It’s always difficult in historical novels to get the balance of characters right… this book manages to pull off this balancing act well.”
Shortlisted for THE INTERNATIONAL RUBERY BOOK AWARD.
NILE CAT IS A GRAND ADVENTURE THAT SWEEPS THE READERS BACK IN TIME, FIRST TO VICTORIAN-ERA EGYPT AND THEN TO THE REIGN OF KING RAMESSES II. THIS IS A GREAT INTRODUCTION FOR YOUNG READERS TO LEARN ABOUT ANCIENT EGYPT.
A Historical Novel Society ‘Editors’ Choice’ review, Aug 2021.
“SET IN EGYPT, THIS IS A COMPELLING ADVENTURE STORY FOR YOUNG ADULTS. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!”
A Wishing Shelf Book Awards Review.