The Mistress of Nothing
By Kate Pullinger
A Touchstone Book
Simon & Schuster
I love historical fiction and the longer the better which is why I was surprised by this little book and how much I did like it even if I did feel as though there could have been more in terms of the historical. In the end, it was about the characters more than the place and I came to terms with that over the course of 250+ pages.
When Lady Duff Gordon makes the decision to move to Egypt permanently for the sake of her health, her maid, Sally Naldrett, is excited, joyous even at the prospect of a new life. Always a woman of low means, Sally is happy with the idea of being her Lady’s mistress but when they finally arrive at their destination in Luxor, the formalness of England begins to dissipate and she finds herself more a friend and confident than a servant. Her relationship with Lady Duff Gordon is not the only thing in her life to dramatically change — she falls in love with Omar Abu Halaweh, the dragoman brought on to assist Lady Duff Gordon. Unfortunately, he is already married with children. Their relationship becomes too much for Lady Duff Gordon and Sally finds herself alone and abandoned in a country not her own but one she loves as if it were.
As I said, this is a very short book and oddly, when I finished, I found myself furious. Lady Duff Gordon ruins Sally for what she considers a betrayal. But the irony in that is she has helped servants in the past who have been in the same position as Sally so after being fascinated by this person and the way she defined her role as woman, mother, and wife, I found her intolerance towards Sally hateful. I want to say she ruined the story for me but she didn’t (although I would have liked to have seen more about Egypt itself and what was happening at the time — it’s hinted at but not discussed). These two women, how their lives changed and how they were in many ways forced to not only accept but manufacture their own endings is really what this story is. My annoyance with Lady Duff Gordon quickly turned to a sort of understanding. I say sort because her treatment of Sally was truly hateful and a way to transfer her pain to another without having to deal with it.
Lady Duff Gordon was a real person and while I know nothing of her, she was an interesting person to revolve this story around. What it also gave me was an interest in more historical fiction about Egypt which I will be looking for in the near future.