Monday, August 22, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon (1821-1869) was apparently an extraordinary real-life Englishwoman. Well-bred and well-educated, she knew several languages and translated a number of books. She was known to be an outstanding hostess, running a sort of salon, bringing together English elite for rousing conversations. She was generous, politically progressive, and widely admired. Unfortunately, she contracted tuberculosis. As her health failed, her doctors and her husband reached the conclusion she could not remain in cold, damp England. And so, she set off with a single lady’s maid to make a new home in hot, dry Egypt. She is remembered primarily for her book, Letters from Egypt, a compilation of her correspondence to her husband and mother. The life she led in the city of Luxor was even more triumphant than that she had led at home, and certainly more exotic. Except for the fact that she was dying.

Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger is the story of Lady Duff Gordon’s maid, Sally Naldrett. Why tell Lucie’s story this way? Here is this brilliant woman, facing death, refusing to give up, traveling to Egypt to bravely tackle new challenges. She learns a new language and adapts to new customs, takes up a new cause, suffers more heartbreak– why tell this thrilling story through the eyes of what might be considered a minor character?

If that was all Pullinger had done, the book would not be such a success. But this is not Lucie’s story seen through Sally’s eyes. This is Sally’s story. And it works.

In the hands of a storyteller as skilled as Pullinger, we get a much richer tale. We do view Lucie’s life peripherally through the eyes of a woman who has devoted her life to her Lady. Sally defines herself by her role. She exists to serve Lady Duff Gordon. It’s a life that is extraordinarily secure – there are very set boundaries that Sally has no intention of ever crossing and in exchange her plum position is guaranteed. But at the same time, Sallie’s life is exciting. As the favored maid, she is the one who gets to travel when Lady Duff Gordon’s health requires it.

Sally has no external ties beyond a sister to whom she is fairly loosely bound. Sally cannot even imagine having a man in her life because it would interfere with her duty. When she is called to follow her Lady to Egypt, she is perfectly happy to do so. She is eager to see Egypt. She wants to leave England behind. Sally, much more than Lucie, is able to be completely transformed by this new experience- although her transformation is a gradual and unanticipated process.

In Egypt, at first they are fish out of water. An acquaintance recommends they hire a dragoman. They acquire Mr. Omar Abu Halaweh. Omar is extraordinarily competent and efficient at all necessary tasks. He smooths their path as they sight-see and eventually choose the city where they will settle– Luxor.

The further they travel into Egypt, the further they leave England and its customs behind. The careful mistress-servant relationship between Lucie and Sallie undergoes a subtle shift. The relationship between Sallie and Omar undergoes a more drastic change. What Sallie doesn’t understand, not at first, is how heavily Lucie relies upon her two servants for utter devotion. When Lucie discovers that her servants have lives and loves of their own, the consequences are immense.

This is a beautifully moving story. The setting is richly described. There was just enough of the politics of the time to flavor the book without slowing down the narrative. The characterizations were spot on. Sallie was naive at times but forgiveably so. Omar was wonderful in many ways, yet weak when it counted most. And yet, when I looked at his choices I’m not sure I can fault him for the decision he made. And Lucie? This once vibrant, generous woman turned so cruel? I can only think of how miserable she must ultimately have been.

If you’re looking around for a bit of well-written, character-driven, historical fiction, have a look at The Mistress of Nothing.

I've finished the goal I set for the historical fiction challenge. That doesn't mean I'm done reading historical fiction for the year, but it does mean I'm going to turn some attention to my other challenges.


  1. Nice review, Susan. I read this one a couple of years back and enjoyed it.

  2. I loved this one too. I liked how even far away from England and adopting new customs, class still mattered. Great review!

    Here's a link to my review of the book: