Back at the end of July Litlove reviewed Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing and had an interview with the author. Along with that she gave away two copies of the book and I was one of the lucky winners.
Mistress of Nothing is the story of Sally Naldrett, lady’s maid of Lady Duff Gordon. Sally is loyal and devoted and takes her job seriously. She is treated well and often taken in to Lady Gordon’s confidence. Sally knows that a lady’s maid can never marry or have a family if she wants to keep her job so she stays clear of men and gossip.
When the doctor tells Lady Duff Gordon she must leave England for the sake of her health and her life (her illness is never named but all the symptoms say consumption). Lady Gordon decides to go to Egypt with Sally as he only companion. She leaves her husband and her two children and her busy life of salons and parties behind for she knows not what. Sally is thrilled to be going somewhere new and different. She has no family or other ties to make her miss England and she has always been fascinated by Egyptian culture.
The two women eventually settle in Luxor, the household taken in hand by Omar, the dragoman Lady Gordon hires. While Lady Gordon, very outspoken for a Victorian lady, learns Arabic from a local scholar and begins hosting salons attended by the male leaders and intellectuals of the city, Sally and Omar work side by side to run the house and cook and clean. Omar teaches Sally Arabic and their friendship grows until Sally realizes she is in love with him and he with her.
Even though Lady Gordon has relaxed the stringent rules that divide master and servant in England–Sally and Omar both share meals with their employer–the two lovers hide their relationship and Sally’s eventual pregnancy from Lady Gordon. They are held back from from revealing everything even though they spend a lot of time imagining that Lady Gordon will be happy when she finds out. Needless to say, when Lady Gordon does find out, she is not at all happy. Sally is the one who suffers most as suddenly the line between master and servant that seemed to have disappeared turned out to have been there all along.
Lady Duff Gordon, Sally and Omar were all real people but Sally’s story is an imagined account of what her life might have been like. Pullinger tells a good tale. The power relations between Sally and Lady Gordon aren’t the only ones she remarks on in the book. She pulls in the broader sweep of what was happening in Egypt at the time and how it affects not only the country as a whole but also touches Lady Gordon, Sally and Omar.
Mistress of Nothing is an enjoyable read. It almost made me want to got to Egypt. Almost. The incredible heat of the climate came off the pages in waves. I should have saved the book for winter. I bet it could melt a snowbank.