Saturday, June 11, 2011
Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
At first I was a little taken aback that this book was not written in the voice of Lady Duff Gordon, on whose letters this novel was based. I thought I might prefer the voice of the woman whose entrance into a room made the party brighter, suddenly more fashionable, very au courant. Lady Duff Gordon suffered from a malady of the lungs, which required a warm, dry climate rather than that of England at the turn of the 20th century. She left her family and moved to Egypt with her lady’s maid and spent the bulk of her time in Luxor, home of the tombs of the pharaohs and the Sphinx. She enjoyed a wide circle of friends among the local intelligentsia.
Little was recorded of her lady’s maid, Sally Naldrett, but this is a novel told in her voice—how first Lady Gordon shed her English clothing and mannerisms, and then Sally did. How they both became acclimatized to life in Egypt, learned Arabic, and how Sally felt she had shed her old, lonely maid’s life for a life both warm and passionate. How she outgrew her position of servility alone, and became a woman on her own terms. The story is lightly and quickly told, but develops an urgency in its later pages that belies the sunny outlook of its beginning.
In writing this novel, Kate Pullinger drew on biography of Gordon written by Katherine Frank, called Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1995. Pullinger reviews it here. The biography was republished in 2007 by Tauris Parke Paperbacks and is said to show the sparkling nature of the vivacious Lady Gordon. A darker side of that character is hinted at in this novel, leaving lingering questions about a widely admired woman whose family shunned her, and who shunned others, brutally and unforgivably, in return. One is eager to turn to the original materials to get to the heart of the matter. One feels sure there is still a novel in the material there, this time from the view of Lady Duff Gordon (1821-1869), whom even the Prince and Princess of Wales came to visit in Luxor when she was too ill to travel.
This is a small, pocket-sized book which can transport you to places far off and long ago, and for that, it is amply worth the time and expense of acquiring it. Later, when I was looking through Kate Pullinger's website, I came across a blogpost speaking of Ellen, Sally Naldrett's sister, who makes an appearance in the book. It gives one tingles to think that rich lives went unrecorded and unremembered until now.
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