When Lady Duff Gordon, paragon of London society, departs for the hot, dry climate of Egypt to seek relief from her debilitating tuberculosis, her lady's maid, Sally, doesn't hesitate to leave the only world she has known in order to remain at her mistress's side. As Sally gets farther and farther from home, she experiences freedoms she has never known - forgoing corsets and wearing native dress, learning Arabic, and having her first taste of romance.
But freedom is a luxury that a lady's maid can ill afford, and when Sally's new-found passion for life causes her to forget what she is entitled to, she is brutally reminded she is mistress of nothing. Ultimately she must choose her master and a way back home - or a way to an unknown future.
Based on the real lives of Lady Duff Gordon and her maid, The Mistress of Nothing is a lush, erotic, and compelling story about the power of race, class, and love.
The truth is that, to her, I was not fully human.
I was not a complete person and it was this thought, or rather, this lack of thought, that compelled her, allowed her, to act as she did. She loved me, there's no question of that, and I knew it and had felt secure in it, but it transpired that she loved me like a favored household pet. I was part of the background, the scenery; when she entertained, I was a useful stage prop. She treated her staff well and I was the closest to her; I did everything for her in those last years. I was chosen to accompany her on her final, long journey. But I was not a real person to her, not a true soul with all the potential for grace and failure that implies. My error was to not recognize this, to not understand this from the very beginning. When I did wrong, I was dismissed, I was no longer of use to her. No, worse than that - I was excised, cut out, as though I'd become part of her dreadful disease, a rotting, malignant supernumerary limb that...
Pullinger's imagined account, inspired by the real lives of Lady Duff Gordon and her maid, reveals fascinating strengths as well as weaknesses in both women, positing neither as being "right" or "wrong," but asking readers to consider the delicate differences between kindness and cruelty, honor and respect. Steeped as it is in Victorian sensibilities, the novel is a shaded, well-considered portrait of emotional betrayal, revealing what happens when a trusted person thinks too little – or too much – of someone else.
(Reviewed by Karen Rigby).
Full Review (998 words).
Born on June 24, 1821, Lucie Duff Gordon was the daughter of John Austin, a former army man and legal scholar, and Sarah Austin (daughter of John Taylor of Norwich), a respected translator. Lucie was schooled in Germany during her early years, and demonstrated an aptitude for languages. As an only child, she was frequently in the presence of her parents' literary friends, and regarded John Stuart Mill (the future philosopher), whom her father tutored, as family. When she was fifteen her father was posted to Malta and she was sent to an English boarding school. Two years later her parents returned to England and Lucie, now almost eighteen, started to move about in society, meeting Sir Alexander Duff Gordon soon after.
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