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.
By the time of their marriage in 1840, when she was not yet twenty, she had already translated German historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr's "Greek Legends", though the work appeared under her mother's name. After her marriage, she continued translating, introducing several writers in English.
She contracted tuberculosis in her forties and spent most of her final seven years overseas, briefly in South Africa and then in Egypt where it was hoped the hot, dry climate would alleviate her symptoms. Kate Pullinger's novel compresses the years 1863-65, during which many of the letters that would comprise Lady Duff Gordon's best-known work, Letters from Egypt, were penned. Of special interest to readers of The Mistress of Nothing are passages mentioning Omar, upon whom Mr. Abu Omar Halaweh is based, and occasional remarks about Sally. Although there is no reference to any relationship between Omar and Sally in her letters, it is interesting to note that Lady Duff Gordon refers to Omar throughout her correspondence but references to Sally stop quite suddenly, after which she is not mentioned again. Pullinger credits Katherine Frank's Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt (1994) for her interest in Omar and Sally.
Lady Duff Gordon died on July 14, 1869. Her letters were first edited by her mother and gathered for publication by Messrs. Macmillan and Co. in 1865. Later editions of Letters from Egypt restored a few additional letters; and her daughter, Janet Ross, wrote a brief memoir that appears in the 1902 revised edition.
This article was originally published in February 2011, and has been updated for the
September 2011 paperback release.
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