A Conversation with Kate Pullinger, author of The Mistress of Nothing
This Q&A contains plot spoilers
In your Author's Note, you mention that this story is inspired by real people and events. How far does the novel deviate from actual happenings? Where did you choose to embellish or change things to suit your authorial needs?
I was inspired to write the story of Sally Naldrett after reading Katherine Frank's wonderful biography, Lucie Duff Gordon. The episode with Sally is a tiny part of Lucie's eventful and fascinating life. But Sally struck me as a strong character herself and I knew right away that I wanted to try to tell her side of the story. The novel sticks very close to the established facts up to the moment that Sally leaves Lucie's household; for instance, she really did give birth on the Nile on Christmas Eve, she and Omar did marry subsequently, despite Lucie's objections. However, no further records remain of Sally, apart from the fact that she did return once to ask Lucie for money. So from that point onward I was free to imagine Sally's life; since there is no record of her death in England, I felt I could assume that she stayed in Egypt. And that led me into imagining how it might be possible for a woman like Sally to survive on her own in Cairo. This is a novel though, not a work of nonfiction or biography, and all the detail in the novel about Sally and Omar, their affair, how they spoke and acted with one another - the emotional content and context of Sally's life - is the work of my imagination.
You also indicate that you did a large amount of research in Egypt. What was traveling the Nile like? Is the political unrest still palpable in today's climate?
For me one of the great pleasures of writing this novel was the research on Egypt and I had a great time reading everything I could get my hands on about this period, as well as lots of Egyptian fiction in translation. I spent nearly a month travelling in Egypt when I was twenty but while writing the novel I was only able to return to the country once; I went to Luxor for four days. I stayed in the oldest hotel in Luxor, built a few years after Lucie's death, near to where the French House would have been. These days most tourists stay on boats so at night Luxor empties of people and returns to the sleepy village Sally and Lucie knew so well. Despite the fact that I could not travel to 1860s Luxor, these few days and nights in Luxor gave me a strong sense of what the village might have been like - the hills across the Nile remain the same, the sky at night remains the same, the awesome presence of the ancient civilization remains the same.
Egyptian politics are very complex and I worked hard to try to understand the situation both in the 1860s and in the present day. However, despite whatever is going on, both then and now, life continues as it always has done and people go about their business, falling in love, having children, working toward a better life.
Do you think Lady Duff Gordon's treatment of Sally is a product of feeling betrayed, or borne of some sense of propriety? Did you intend to write it to seem one way or the other?
I felt that Lucie's treatment of Sally - which is all based on fact - must have come from a hugely complicated web of emotions that she herself didn't understand and couldn't control. I did not intend to portray Lucie as monstrous; she must have been very frightened, facing prolonged illness and death, so far from her own family. Her near complete isolation from her own family is hard for us to understand in our world of telephone calls and e-mail. The betrayal of her lady's maid pushed her too far, in a direction she wasn't willing to go, and that was why she acted as she did. At least, that's my theory!
I also think that, at the end of the day, you can't really underestimate the gulf between classes in Britain at that time; the aristocracy has not survived for as long as it has by being fair-minded!
Though Sally is the primary narrator, Lady Duff Gordon is a charismatic, eccentric character that jumps off the page. Which did you feel more comfortable writing? Which are you more similar to?
I found writing about Lucie very problematic, largely because she was a writer herself, and her own writing is so vivid and compelling. It took me ages to figure out whether or not to use extracts from her letters, whether or not to write about her writing, whether or not to try to replicate her voice. I was more comfortable writing about Sally, and the novel only really began to work once I took the decision to write the whole thing from Sally's point of view. Also, in terms of class and background and my place in the world, I have much more in common with Sally, though I admire hugely Lucie's ability to bring people together, her passion for life, her intellect. Sally's an outsider, and like many writers, I feel an outsider myself (something that is reinforced by the fact that I'm a Canadian living in London
Did Sally simply continue her split between hotel work and visiting Abdullah in the four year jump at the story's end? Are we to infer that Abdullah still considers her his mother?
Ah, that's for you to imagine! I very much wanted the novel to have a kind of happy ending, and for me that final section confirms that Sally has found a way to survive, and that she has managed to maintain her relationship with Abdullah. It breaks my heart to think of all the different fates she might have met in reality, and I'm rather fond of the idea that she finds a kind of power in her work at the hotel, that she is good at it, and valued for it, like she once was in the Duff Gordon household.
Sally, even at Lady Duff Gordon's funeral, keeps her composure and respect for hierarchy. Was there ever a moment when you wanted to have her "break free" and rebel against the world around her?
In a way, Sally's relationship with Omar is a profound rebellion, even though she does not see it that way herself. It seems to me that to be able to survive in the post of lady's maid for as long as she did, leaving England, giving everything up for Lucie, Sally would have to be a very buttoned-up person in the first place, someone in complete control of themselves at all times. So the fact that she allows herself to embark on loving Omar in the first place is hugely significant. For me the moment when she returns to Lucie's boat in Cairo, defying Omar, and asking Lucie for money, is also very profound, and she would have had to go against all her instincts to carry that through. So I really do view her whole life, from the first time she kisses Omar onward, as a series of steps toward breaking free of the constraints of class, race, and servitude that bind her.
Were there any key books that helped in your research for the novel?
So many books! Katherine Frank's biography, of course, and also Lucie's own Letters from Egypt - my copies of these are truly dog-eared and when I give talks about the book I often get these out and wave them around in the hope that if you enjoyed my novel you will read these two books as well. Lucie's book Letters from Egypt has been in print almost continually since it came out in the 1860s and is easy to find online, as is Katherine Frank's biography. I also read a lot of Egyptian fiction in translation; for me the most useful of the novels was the Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. Though these novels are set more than forty years after The Mistress of Nothing, I drew a great deal of inspiration from Mahfouz's detailed descriptions of an Egyptian household and family, especially in terms of what it might have been like to be a woman in that society, venturing forth from your father or husband's house only rarely.
Do you speak Arabic?
During the writing of the novel I spent six months having one to one Arabic lessons from an Egyptian tutor. Oh my. What can I say? Arabic is incredibly difficult! When it comes to speaking, there are so many unfamiliar sounds! When it comes to reading and writing, you think you've learned the alphabet then you find out that the letters change shape entirely depending where they are in the word! And the vowels! Vowels get left out for reasons that are beyond me! I'll stop with the exclamation marks, but while I found that hour per week with the tutor completely fascinating, I have retained next to nothing of what I learned. But it was very, very useful at the time!
Are you working on another novel? If so, will Egypt play a part?
I'm only at the very beginning of thinking about my next book. At the moment, I don't think Egypt will play a part in it, but Islam will - one of the main characters is from Pakistan. With The Mistress of Nothing I really enjoyed learning about Islam through quizzing my Muslim friends and reading. One of my ongoing interests is in the perception of Islam and Muslims in the west, and I feel that The Mistress of Nothing participates in this discussion, and that my next novel will continue to explore this theme.