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VINE VOICEon 20 July 2004
It becomes clear from the first page of Ellis's book that it is only her exotic subject matter, and not her writing style, that won her a contract with a publisher. The majority of her descriptions are insipidly dotted with weak-legged adjectives such as 'nice' and 'pretty'. Erratically, she chooses to describe the palace's unremarkable kitchen table but does not once attempt to paint portraits of those she lived with. Yes, we know you are not allowed to photograph Princess Abtah, but how does she look? What is her face like?
I have lived in Saudi Arabia for the past seventeen years, and each factual flaw that I stumbled across made me wince. The author incorrectly claims that 'Islamic law forbids women to show their faces in public' and that 'women can't travel in taxis'. When in public, a Muslim woman is permitted to show her face and her hands. I cannot believe that Ellis did not know this fact, as a.) she claims to have read Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood's book 'Islam' (Maqsood devotes a whole chapter to the subject of female dress) and b.) one of the photos that illustrate the book shows her camel-riding unveiled on the Jeddah Cornice. I suspect that she deliberately slipped in these little errors to 'spice up' her book - this is nothing more than a sordid effort to squeeze money out of the unusual position in which she found herself.
Ellis also handles her material with staggering arrogance. Whilst declaring that 'Arabic is far too difficult for me to learn', she still tries to convince the reader that she has touched Saudi women's lives. How can she have done so, when she herself admits that she could not understand their conversations and could only sometimes find a translator? There is a saying: "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," and Phyllis's inability to learn even basic Arabic fetters both herself and her readers. Her English is equally abysmal - misused punctuation and poor grammar made me want to attack the text with red ballpoint. A thoroughly bad read.
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on 12 July 2004
I was really looking forward to reading this book. I have always been fascinated with the Middle East, and in view of the privileged vantage point of the author - who spent about a year working as governess for the young Saudi Prince and Princess - I really thought this could well be a great read. But I was wrong. Promising as the premises are, the writer is simply not up to the job. The superficiality of many commets made me cringe, and some of her remarks so arrogant! I ended up really disliking the author by the end of the book. I kept going, hoping the book would get better, but - unbelievably! - it actually does get worse, and it touches rock-bottom when the author decides to plunge into poetry... Terrible, believe me, this bookis just terrible!!!!!!
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on 16 February 2008
What a pity! I was really looking forward to receiving this book and can't describe how disappointed I was when I started reading. Could this be one of the most boring books I have ever read? Great subject matter but poorly written. Don't waste your money!
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on 13 January 2003
An interesting account of life within the palace walls of Saudi Arabia. However, having lived in the Middle East for a number of years, and having visited Saudi Arabia, I felt that while describing the frustrations of the closeted life, the author is holding back on some of the seedier details of womens' life behind the veil. Readers should try Jean Sasson's books, of which 'Princess' is the first, and then attempt to reconcile the two very different accounts. I'd certainly be interested in people's comments.
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on 20 February 2001
Recently widowed Phyllis Ellis answered an advertisement for an English Governess for a Saudi Prince and two Princesses. She found herself a near-prisoner in a luxurious Marble Palace. Phyllis Ellis describes her life among women, vivid as butterflies in their own quarters, who turn into anonymous black crows when they venture out. She, too, had to be masked and shrouded from head to toe when she left the Palace grounds. Her description of life behind the veil is so vivid I had to leave the book and go outside ankles uncovered and barefaced - just to prove to myself that I could. Leaving the Palace for any reason was difficult. Permission had to be given and a driver and chaperone found. Even finding a stamp for a letter home was an ordeal. For this, too, women are dependent on men - yet another means of control.
Guardians of the strict moral and religious rules are on patrol and failure to keep the rules is severely punished. An unmasked moment could be dangerous.
Inside the Palace the days passed slowly. There was a great deal of near-ritual sitting around. Phyllis knew that her every move was watched. This intensely private society seems not to allow for personal privacy.
Within the tight framework of restrictions this is also a book full of colour and life. The pages buzz with excitement at the wedding of a Saudi Princess. The women go to great lengths to beautify themselves with coiffures, jewels and designer clothes. They dance the night away. Men only appear at the end of the evening when they come with the groom to collect his bride.
Where there is complete segregation of the sexes and everything is forbidden, the slightest encounter becomes erotic ... and dangerous.
Phyllis Ellis has written a book full of compassion for the women she met, and affection for the family who employed her. She makes no judgements about the world she found herself in. The facts are so strange to us that comment is unnecessary. Phyllis Ellis was an alien in a world of ritual and routine - a place where there is no room for doubt. Her courage and humanity stood her in good stead.
The narrative, full of fascinating insights, bowls along. You do have to keep reading.
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on 28 September 2014
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on 22 November 2000
These completely authentic and unique memoirs are set within the genre of eastern romantic fiction. Phyllis Ellis' personal journey struck me as a truly thought provoking and humbling tale, touched by firmly classisist roots in its connection to the musical 'The King and I'. Despite a clear theme of solitude, this text conveys 'romance' in its most original form, combining adventure, surreality and remoteness.
Ellis' fluid prose are formed around the worlds of being and doing, discussing both practical and reflexive issues. She has carefully structured her book in a manner that best lets the reader, 'in on the act', with the constructive premis that all has been written in the hope of gaining a 'better understanding of the country, culture, Muslim beliefs and ways of the people.' As the chapters unfold, we are introduced to the exceptional role which Phyllis was required to play as a quintessentially English lady working in the tradition of an English governess abroad for the Saudi Royal family. Although there is a ring of the quixotic to this statement, it does not appear unnatural when the biography and character of the author develops, nor is there a sense of invasion or judgement as the 'hidden' life of the ladies of the palace is affectionately documented.
There is a great deal of perceptive observation surrounding the exotic and alien nature of Saudi Arabian culture within this text. Descriptive passages are interwoven with vivid encapsulations of defining moments of beauty. 'The Desert Farm' reveals a narrative punctuated by loss and silence, conveying the message of Balzac who spoke of the 'vast, awesome space' of the desert as a place inhabited by 'God without man'. There are undoubtedly profound and personal qualities to this book, but priority is given to humanism and honesty. Phyllis Ellis' own background of appreciation for the richness of traditional literature such as Shaw and Shakespeare combined with the practice of alternative therapies has undoubtedly proven influential in enabling her to adapt and to disclose her experiences so candidly. Indeed, perhaps 'Desert Governess' is closer to modernism than any other textual form whilst avoiding its potential for styalised density. These prose certainly fulfil a commitment to draw from, 'every feeling, thought; every quality of brain and spirit', sentiments expressed in TLS, April 1919; revised as 'Modern Fiction' for The Common Reader (1925).
I found this book to be a thorough social and cultural education. The readability was certainly in part concerned with the juxta posing of essential human social and psychological dilemmas captured through a series of conflictual themes. Perhaps the most central is the familiarity of home and the family to which Phyllis eventually returns, versus the allure of the exotic and alien surroundings of the grand marble palace of the Saudi Royal family. There is a sense in which the security of English life and the intimacy of family needed to be temporarily broken for the benefit of self-development, resilience and appreciation of alternative philosophies. A sense of isolaton within palace life symbolised by the vast desert is lessened by a sympathetic warmth offered by Princess Abtah and the Muslim 'sisters' whom Phyllis encounters. The spectacle of the enchanting royal wedding is truly fantastic and demonstrates a strength in female solidarity. The theme of nature and freedom versus prohibition within Muslim law and culture lends an edge of claustrophobia to the atmosphere. Finally, redemption and rescue, the basis to a conclusion in romance do play a part in this journey when there is a return back to English soil and reality. This is a turn of fate created by Phyllis herself, a 'great escape' the details of which you can discover and ponder. The text ends with a verse to reinforce a message of independence summarising the feminist mood. There is no doubt that 'Desert Governess' provides for the reader some thoroughly regal memories from an extraordinary personal odyssey.
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