The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul – a review of a novel that brings the real woman out of the mystery of Tutankhamun’s tomb’s discovery in the 1920s

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

A woman has memories of an incredible time in her life, but those memories are fragile and are at risk. Lady Evelyn Herbert grew up in Highclere Castle (the real Downton Abbey) and yet her greatest memory is of being the first person into the tomb of Tutankhamun, possibly the richest archeological discovery of the twentieth century.  This is a fictional reworking of her life, where historical events are set in a love story that lasted for decades despite all sorts of challenges. Featuring her husband Brograve who became a wealthy man as well as an MP, this is a story that jumps between the 1970s when Eve struggles with strokes that rob her of memories, and the 1920s when the great discovery took place. From a photograph of Lord Carnarvon, Eve’s father and Howard Carter, the archeologist who was the lead in the search for a significant tomb, the third figure of a young woman is given her own story with great success, as her memories are challenged by time and ill health. Her determination, individual charm and so much more are the themes of a book which transforms our understanding of the woman who helped make history, but is seldom mentioned. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this tremendous novel.

This book opens in London, July 1972. Eve has had another stroke, and Brograve is anxiously awaiting to discover what damage has been done on this occasion. The author has gathered information about stroke rehabilitation from a physiotherapist who worked in the field pre 1980s, when scans made diagnosis very much easier. As Eve’s determination to recover her facilities means that she regains many memories of significant events and emotions in the 1920s, including her loving relationship with Brograve, so many things are challenged. Her progress is described alongside Brograve’s help, as the focus returns to 1920, when she met and made good friends, and the scene was set for the archaeological work that led to the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.Various characters appear, including her volatile mother Almina, her much loved if difficult father “Pups” and her great friend, Carter. In the background is the idea of the curse that was supposed to mean disaster for anyone entering the tomb, and was probably largely created by the media of the day. An insistent Egyptian woman who insists on questioning Eve about the discovery, Ana Mansour, provides much of the impetus for Eve to remember what really happened to some of the artifacts found in the tomb, and she is an uncomfortable character in the story throughout. 

This is a beautifully written story of a life and a relationship dominated by events in the 1920. As the author points out in the back of the book, it is about memory and the loving relationship between Eve and Brograve. I found it a completely engaging read, which not only succeeds in giving a real and vibrant life to a woman who was an active participant in a significant historical discovery but also making her a memorable character in her own right. The research in this novel is impressive, ranging from the history, the biographies of the main characters where they exist, and the medical realities of a series of what were seen as strokes in the 1970s. Despite that the narrative is never slowed by facts and evidence; it rather flows between the established time periods in an entirely intriguing way. I really enjoyed reading this book; I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Tutankhamun’s tomb and its discovery, and especially to anyone who is interested in the life of a woman who has been sidelined by history but contributed to a famous series of events in the twentieth century.