BookBrowse Reviews The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

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The Mistress of Nothing

A Novel

by Kate Pullinger

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2011, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2011, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Rigby

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A compelling story about the power of race, class, and love, based on the real lives of Lady Duff Gordon and her maid

Set in mid 19th century Egypt, Kate Pullinger's American debut chronicles Sally Naldrett's transformation from life as a strait-laced English maid to an independent woman perceived as having "gone native." The Mistress of Nothing raises questions of loyalty – to social hierarchies in the 1860s; to Sally's mistress, Lady Duff Gordon (a historical personage known for her belles lettres); and to her Lady's Egyptian dragoman, Mr. Omar Abu Halaweh.

When Lady Duff Gordon, suffering from tuberculosis, is advised to travel to a hot, dry climate for the sake of her health, the family's limited finances, her husband's work and her children's schooling prevent them from accompanying her. Her excursion to Egypt is fraught with tension and the awareness that she is not expected to return to England for longer than a visit. Far from home, it is understandable that Sally, the only English servant to travel with Lady Duff Gordon, gradually begins to see herself as more of a companion than as a servant and nurse, especially as the two women, with Mr. Halaweh's help, establish new household routines that blur the boundaries between employer and employee. Sally's mistake – and one of the novel's central ideas – is the assumption that roles can change with greater ease than reality has shown.

Pullinger marks the shifts in Sally's outlook in sometimes familiar ways, but freshens such moments with important additions. For example, the act of shedding her corset (one of Sally's earliest steps toward "freedom") is a familiar, symbolic gesture, but one that is nonetheless interesting because her Lady supports it. Having already preceded Sally in the switch to less formal clothing, Lady Duff Gordon is an unconventional figure who does not overly concern herself with public opinion, and who displays greater permissiveness in Egypt than she might have in England. Sally, the narrator of the story, is further encouraged to read to her employer, prompting her to comment, "If I'd written home to our old Esher household and described this scene, no one would have believed me. But here I thought nothing of it." Other changes, from addressing Mr. Halaweh by his first name, Omar, to taking greater expediency in deciding matters for herself, unfold as a series of natural steps. Any initial hesitancy about adapting to a new lifestyle in Egypt rapidly crumbles – sometimes as a concession to practical necessity, and at other times, with rationalization.

From early on it is clear that The Mistress of Nothing will focus on the three main characters. When a relationship develops between Sally and Omar, the far-reaching consequences, already alluded to in the opening pages, come as little surprise. However dramatic the events seem, Pullinger navigates them with great care, avoiding the twin pitfalls of crafting a simple morality tale or an upstairs/downstairs drama. She also sidesteps most prejudices regarding interracial relationships and, instead, considers a more original angle than just the relationship of Sally and Omar. Pullinger admirably accomplishes a tough feat – by the novel's end, readers find that they neither entirely blame Lady Duff Gordon for her position, nor do they fully empathize with Sally's. Pullinger's imagined account of these lives add depth to a challenging situation. She 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

This review was originally published in February 2011, and has been updated for the September 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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