The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
Clare Clark feels the heat of 19th-century Egypt in the story of an English lady and her servant
The Mistress of Nothing draws its inspiration from the life of Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon, Victorian writer, traveller and highly unconventional intellectual, whose celebrated salons were attended by Tennyson, Thackeray and George Meredith. In 1862, at the age of 40, creeping tuberculosis led Duff Gordon to leave her beloved husband and children in England and travel to Egypt, where it was hoped that the hot, dry climate would speed her recovery.
The Duff Gordons, though well connected, were not wealthy, and Lucie was able to travel with only one servant, her maid Sally Naldrett. Turning her back on the English community, she settled in Luxor, where she cut her hair, exchanged her corsets for native male dress, and learned to speak and write Arabic. Though she was not always able to pay her servants properly, Lucie allowed them equally uncommon levels of freedom. However, when the unmarried Sally presumed to break one of the 19th century's strictest taboos, Lucie exhibited none of her habitual broadmindedness. Furious and implacable, she demanded that Sally leave the household and return, penniless and without references, to England.
Lucie's letters from Egypt, later published, sparkled with her wit, passion and considerable rage at the abuses of the ruling Ottoman dynasty, giving the lie to the cliché of the decorous and submissive Victorian wife. They also provide irresistible provender for the novelist, though Pullinger claims to have been acutely aware of the difficulties inherent in tackling such a project. The Mistress of Nothing, her fourth novel, has been more than 10 years in the writing, one of those years apparently yielding only a single page. According to Pullinger, her endeavours were hampered by an aversion to historical fiction generally; she worried in particular about the clumsy deployment of research and the dangers of pastiche.
There is little cause for concern on either of these fronts. Pullinger quotes from Duff Gordon's letters on several occasions, but Lucie herself is not the centre of this tale. Instead the story is told from the point of view of Sally, who finds herself caught between her devotion to her mistress and her desire for a life of her own in a country that she has come to love. Sally is no intellectual and certainly no politician; Lucie's perspectives and preoccupations are not hers.
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