Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Gliding down the River Nile on a “dahabieh” would
have been an idyllic way of visiting the ancient sites
and temples of Egypt in the nineteenth century. A time
when Egypt was a popular destination for English

The sands of the desert, the summer sand-storms, the stifling
heat of the summer months and the beauty of ancient ruins and
towns are depicted so evocatively in the book “The Mistress of
Nothing” that it is almost as though the reader is there.
It is with empathy and understanding that the reader can relate to
Sally's story
which is told in the first person. Sally,
who had been indentured into
service at a young age by her aunt when she and her sister were
orphaned. Sally's story is quite poignant. At a later stage in the
book Sally does wonder about her aunt and the reasons that she
and her sister were sent into domestic service in the first place.
Sally eventually becomes a lady's maid for Lucie Duff Gordon, who because
of ill health is advised to spend the English winters abroad. Eventually
Lucie Duff Gordon settles for Egypt and adapts well to her new environment over many
years. Unfortunately, she does miss her family, mother, children and husband.

For many years
Sally was a devoted lady's maid. During the times in Egypt
when Lucie Duff Gordon's family was not visiting, over the months the
boundaries often blurred between employer, servant and dragoman (An
Egyptian servant who assisted Lucie Duff Gordon and Sally in the ways of Egypt.) They became
more as friends, did away with the formal Victorian English clothing in
the heat of Egypt and chose more comfortable Egyptian style clothing,
which was seen at first as a little scandalous by Sally, but she also finally succumbed
to more comfortable Egyptian clothing as also many of the formalities of lady
and lady's maid were disregarded by this time.

After months of travelling on the Nile River and visiting temples and ancient
ruins of great beauty and mystery Lady Duff Gordon chose to settle in Luxor at a
French House, notable for literary talent of famous people who had previously
stayed there. When diseases broke out in the towns and distant villages the house
was used as a base to dispense medicines and help the poor people overcome their illnesses.
Sally often assisted Lucie Duff Gordon in this regard.

Over time with months spent travelling with Lucie Duff Gordon and her dragoman,
Sally does eventually fall in love with Lucie Duff Gordon's dragoman. This is quite
a riveting story and extremely well written with great understanding and beauty. However,
Lucie Duff Gordon's attitude was entirely unexpected and in this regard the reader is left
with a mystery as to the reason for Lucie Duff Gordon's attitude. Sally also spent much time in
speculation regarding these matters. She certainly did have the time as she was cast adrift. However, given the social mores and customs of the time in England and the requirements of service as a lady's maid, Lucie Duff Gordon's attitude towards Sally may not have been entirely unexpected. Later,
Sally is informed by her sister, who was acting as a Lady's maid for Lucie Duff Gordon's daughter, that it was believed by members of the family, that Lucie Duff Gordon had been unnecessarily harsh on Sally.

The story is excellent for the descriptions of market places and life as it was in nineteenth
century Egypt.

The colours of the market places and towns, the beauty of the moonlit nights over the temples and ruins, the river, the palm- tree and desert scenery and authentic
depictions of the characters in the story, including English
gentry and Egyptians whom Lady Duff Gordon befriended are wonderful and make for
a descriptive and lively novel. Lady Duff Gordon enjoyed her entertaining and discussions
with her friends. Both Lady Duff Gordon and Sally became fluent in the Egyptian language
and read many novels. Sally became well versed and educated from reading so many novels
and on many levels she was indebted to Lady Duff Gordon. Lady Duff Gordon, in her turn,
was an excellent employer, provider, educator and dispenser of medicines and also
proved to be an effective mid-wife when unexpectedly required, this being over many years.

The story is based on a true story of Sally and the Dragoman who fell in love. There is a
picture of Lucie Duff Gordon on the inside cover of the book and a picture which seems
to be an early photograph of her Egyptian dragoman, Omar.

The idyllic settings and beauty of her surroundings eventually become but a distant past
for Sally, who attempts to find her way in Egypt on her own with a baby. As the title indicates,
“The Mistress of Nothing!”

All in all, a wonderful read of a novel which says so much about life and gives a sympathetic
account of Sally and Omar's love. Sally became a welcome visitor at the home of Omar's
parents and his first wife. In Egypt, the laws of marriage were different and
Omar was allowed to have two wives. Lucie Duff Gordon may not have approved of this. This may
be another reason for Lucie Duff Gordon's attitude. Sally also had not informed Lucie Duff Gordon
of her situation and had kept her pregnancy a secret from her. Sally was quite old by
nineteenth century English mores and customs. She had not married and was well past the
age of 30 by the time she eventually married Omar.

A beautiful story of endurance, hardship and love. Love also for a little baby, Abdullah, who meant so much
for Sally. A wonderful story of
nineteenth century Egypt! I loved the descriptions of life in Egypt at a time which now seems so distant from twenty-first century living today. For me this was one of the fascinating aspects of the book. The seemingly idyllic life-styles in Egypt, also the descriptions of the employer-servant relationship in England of the nineteenth century, when at the beginning of the book the story was based in England. The servants arguing amongst themselves about whose turn it was to take in the cups of tea and cakes when Lady Duff Gordon and her husband were entertaining.

A fascinating page-turner of a story with all the elements of charm, grace and beauty enlivening this novel. Wonderful summer reading!

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