The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul: A multi-layered and enthralling journey into a compelling slice of history - book review -
When archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon entered the long-lost tomb of Tutankhamun in November of 1922, their names were immortalised and they achieved instant fame.
But there was another person who made history that day and, like many women from the past, her identity has been airbrushed from a remarkable 20th century discovery that still has the power to capture imaginations across the world.
So to put the record straight – and to lift her out of the shadows of time – historical novelist Gill Paul brings us a sweeping and utterly compelling account of the part played by Carnarvon’s daughter, Lady Evelyn (Eve) Herbert, a spirited young woman who may well have been the first person of modern times to enter the magnificent resting place of the renowned Egyptian boy king.
Harnessing a huge amount of research and her imaginative powers, Paul blends fact and fiction to shed a fresh and fascinating spotlight on the little-known Eve who grew up at Highclere Castle – the stunning backdrop to ITV’s hit series Downton Abbey – and nurtured her own lifetime love of Egyptology.
Full of the wonder of that century-old discovery in the heat and dust of the Valley of the Kings, and the warmth of the happy marriage that was the bedrock of Eve’s life, but also capturing the tantalising air of mystery that still surrounds the legendary ‘curse’ of Tutankhamen, The Collector’s Daughter weaves seamlessly between two timelines 50 years apart.
Young Evelyn Herbert first visited Egypt with her father, George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon, in 1919, when she was eighteen and immediately fell in love with both the place and its unforgettable history.
After an isolated childhood at Highclere Castle and with a mother whose only ambition is to find a ‘suitable’ husband for her daughter, Eve’s dreams of returning to Luxor and being part of the search for the lost tomb of Tutankhamun are realised three years later.
Alongside her father and Howard Carter, a family friend and the archaeologist leading the dig, an excited Eve will be present when the tomb is finally opened and searched. But what the authorities don’t know is that on the night before the official opening, Eve joined Carnarvon and Carter and became the first person to step inside and discover some of the 3,000-year-old treasures inside.
It was the ‘Great Moment’ of Eve’s life as ‘giddy, exhilarated and nervous,’ she took in air that had not been breathed for three millennia. But the months after the discovery are marred by tragedy, when Eve’s father dies suddenly and her family is torn in two.
Desperate to put the past behind her, Eve retreats into her private life and finds the greatest happiness with her new husband, Sir Brograve Beauchamp, a man who makes her feel as if she is only just starting to live and helps her ‘find out who I am along the way.’
However, a serious car accident in 1935 leads to her suffering a series of strokes over the coming years and she is still harbouring a dark secret about what really happened in Egypt. And when a young woman from the university in Cairo comes asking questions shortly after she suffers another stroke in 1972, the happiness Eve has finally found is threatened yet again.
Paul doesn’t put a foot wrong in this richly detailed and atmospheric reimagining of the forgotten woman who can be seen peering out from the shade of her wide-brimmed hat as she posed for photographs with her father and Howard Carter at the tomb entrance in 1922.
The enduring romance between the diminutive, lively Eve and her tall, charismatic ex-cavalry officer husband Brograve lies at the heart of this absorbing and evocative story but the author also uses her own family member’s experience of stroke to sensitively explore the fragility of memory and how the loss of shared remembrances might impact on close relationships.
Emotionally resonant, and sometimes heartbreaking, The Collector’s Daughter has old mysteries and rumours of a curse from Egypt rippling through the snapshots of Eve’s life as we share her secrets and her glorious adventures alongside the pains and ignominies of a cruel series of strokes.
A multi-layered and enthralling journey into a compelling slice of history…
(Avon, paperback, £8.99)