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Book Review: The Mistress of Nothing: A Novel by Kate Pullinger

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Sally Naldrett is lady’s maid to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, who is suffering from tuberculosis. She gets one day off a month and usually spends it going to London to see Egyptian artifacts at the museum. She avoids all male advances, even multiple proposals of marriage, because she feels dedicated to “My Lady” as she calls her employer, but it is clear as one reads The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger that Sally enjoys her situation.

Many opportunities are available to her, uncommon to someone in her position in 1862. She travels with Lady Duff Gordon and has a certain amount of autonomy in her mistress’s household. Sally’s dreams really come true when Lady Duff Gordon’s condition worsens and she is ordered to leave England for two years for the warmer climes of Egypt. They travel up the Nile, visiting ancient temples, but Sally and Lady Duff Gordon (and Pullinger) seem more interested in the people of Egypt than its antiquities. They soon settle into The French House, in Luxor.

[The ‘French House, Luxor, from A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, by Amelia B. Edwards, 1890. p 452.]
  

“My lady had come to Egypt to evade death, but in Egypt I found life.” 

Sally has been in service since the death of her parents in a railway accident when she was very young. She wears hand-me-down clothes from Lady Duff Gordon and lives at her beck and call. She cares for her employer and is worried about her health, but she is also thrilled at the prospect of taking the trip of her dreams. She can barely believe her luck.

The Mistress of Nothing is told from her perspective, in the first person. As their travels progress, Sally gradually becomes more of a companion and nurse to Lady Duff Gordon than lady’s maid, with the two women, on the surface at least, becoming closer, relaxing the class separations between them while living in a strange country. They both discard their restrictive European clothing, especially their stays and tight voluminous dresses in heavy fabrics, in favor of lighter, looser, Egyptian garments more suited to the climate.

Pullinger, a Canadian author who lives in London, writes well. The Mistress of Nothing won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award (Canada). 1860s Egypt is described quite lovingly by her protagonist. It is hard not to get caught up in Sally’s excitement as they begin their journey, even when plot turns are obvious from the first few lines in the introduction — Sally, a spinster of 30, will fall in love and have a falling out with her employer. The Mistress of Nothing is a love story, but less between Sally and her beloved, Lady Duff Gordon’s dragoman Omar Abu Halaweh, than between Sally and Egypt.

[Omar Abu Halaweh, from Wonders and Marvels]

To complicate matters, Omar already has a wife, Mabrouka, and a little girl. He explains to Sally that he is allowed to have more than one wife and she accepts this quickly, calmly, meekly. She seems to have easily abandoned her English upbringing, viewpoint, and any cautions she may have had towards men. When Sally and Omar not only have an affair they conceal from their employer, but a baby, all hell breaks loose.

“I’m not surprised Sally Naldrett, to find you capable of this.”

Lady Duff Gordon is cast as a villain-of-sorts in the latter part of the book. She helps deliver Sally’s baby with Omar, but afterward wants to see neither her nor the baby. Omar she just gathers closer to her, having him fill in for Sally as well as continue with everything he was doing previously. She insists that Sally is to blame for the affair and that she must give the child up to be raised by Omar’s parents and his Egyptian wife and be sent back to England in disgrace, with no references. It is extremely hard-hearted, surely, but how could Sally be so naive of the time she lived in, her place in society, and Lady Duff Gordon’s ideas of propriety to be surprised at this outcome? But a good many pages are devoted to her lamenting being shunned and her continued disbelief in her situation.

[Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon by Henry Wyndham Phillips, oil on canvas, 1851, National Portrait Gallery, London]

Lady Duff Gordon’s drama — she has had to leave her home and her family, including a three year-old daughter, to die — is a poignant one. It is always there, in the story, hovering in the background, but when Sally is deep in the throes of her love affair and subsequent birth of her baby, she suddenly seems incapable of seeing anything from her employer’s perspective.

Lady Duff Gordon may never see her family again. Her husband has drifted away, trying to distance himself from her illness and impending death. And there is Sally, in love and with a baby, just starting out. It’s too much for her. And to make matters worse, Sally has lied to her, concealing her affair and her pregnancy. For someone like Lady Duff Gordon, who prides herself so highly on her own intelligence, she feels duped. Lady Duff Gordon was an aristocrat, but not rich. There may also be a financial aspect to her dilemma that Sally hasn’t contemplated.

Omar’s wife Mabrouka is offstage for the first part of the novel, living with his parents in Cairo. Since the story is being told from Sally’s perspective, Mabrouka is not exactly a villain, but she is a presented as a negative character. But then we meet her. Not only is she sympathetic to Sally and her predicament, but she is a well-rounded enough character to be portrayed as jealous and competitive for her husband’s attention.

Pullinger had a great chance to really run with a story of unlikely female solidarity. Sally could have healed herself with such a friendship, especially after her illusions of shared intimacy with Lady Duff Gordon have been so shattered. Instead of pursuing this plot thread, Pullinger lets Omar make the rules, but never with any good reason why he will not support Sally, except that he doesn’t want to lose such a great position with Lady Duff Gordon. Sally and everyone else in his life go along with him, even when he is essentially a weak character.

When I was traveling in Egypt in 1993 I bought a book, Khul-Khaal, Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, a collection that focused on five contemporary (’70s-’80s) Egyptian women. The stories featured women who lived both in villages and cities, and how they dealt with women’s issues such as motherhood, sex, the after-effects of female circumcision, leaving home to make a career. It was clear in all of the stories that even in the most dire circumstances other women in their lives were able to help them get through whatever challenges they faced. The Mistress of Nothing would have been a far better story if Pullinger let Sally and Mabrouka raise their children together, with neither the “permission” of Lady Duff Gordon nor their shared husband Omar. Sally does make a life for herself in Egypt, but she is still buffeted by circumstance, as she has been all her life.

Sally, Omar, and Lady Duff Gordon were all real people. Pullinger has incorporated quotes from Lady Duff Gordon’s letters (which she obviously read very closely), and which are still available to be read today, Letters from Egypt:

“Omar took Sally sightseeing all day while I was away, into several mosques; in one he begged her to wait a minute while he said a prayer. They compare notes about their respective countries and are great friends; but he is put out at my not having provided her with a husband long ago, as is one’s duty towards a ‘female servant,’ which almost always here means a slave.”

Sally disappears from the letters mid-June 1864 (to deal with her child?), and Pullinger exercises her artistic license in her version of their lives. But after traveling up and down the Nile with the trio through the compact book, there is no afterword or notes telling what happened to anyone. In Sally’s case, no one is quite sure, but Omar did stay in Lady Duff Gordon’s employment, as he is mentioned throughout her letters. What became of him after she eventually died? What about Lady Duff Gordon’s family in England?

The story, and the book, peters out at the end. As disappointing as the last third of The Mistress of Nothing may be, it is still worth a read, if just for a glimpse of mid-19th century Egypt, and to awaken interest in the real Lady Duff Gordon and her travels in Egypt and Africa.

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