IN the mid-19th century, an English woman known for her salons that hosted the likes of Tennyson, travelled to Egypt in an attempt to cure her increasingly debilitating tuberculosis. It was hoped that the dry, warm air of Egypt would stall or perhaps even cure Lady Duff Gordon’s disease, and so she relocated to Luxor with her lady’s maid, Sally Naldrett.

Lady Gordon’s letters were compiled and her travels and interests were recorded in a biography. However, it was not her life that interested novelist Kate Pullinger when she wrote The Mistress of Nothing, but that of her maid, a woman about whom little is known, other than her affair with her Lady’s dragoman, an Egyptian called Omar.

Pullinger’s Sally is the perfect lady’s maid — she has little family of her own, has no plans of marriage and her entire life has been devoted to, and controlled by, the woman she works for. Sally has nowhere else to go, and nothing else to do but to take care of her lady.

While in England Sally is reserved and in Egypt she begins to be treated casually and almost as an equal by her employer and so she begins to open up.

Both Sally and her lady begin to relax in the warm, welcoming climate of Luxor. Tellingly, they remove their stays, adopting Egyptian dress alongside many other local customs. And as Sally’s interest in her new life and surroundings increases each day, she lowers her guard to the possibilities of friendship and love.

Pullinger seems to be aware that many contemporary readers may not have the patience for detailed and long-drawn historical fiction. She is careful not to delve too far into the stylised narrative that often leads to the branding of historical fiction by many as boring, and she artfully creates the background needed to set her story in motion.

Egyptian history is very much a part of this book — the politics, lifestyles, culture and food. Pullinger distributes her information evenly and Lady Gordon is increasingly interested in the socio-politics of the region, immersing herself in debate and conversation with informed people. While these conversations help the reader understand some of the background to the story, it is still Sally’s narrative that brings the place to life.

Her wonder at the artifacts of ancient Egypt, her sensuous understanding of Arabic, “full of air and full of earth”, and her constant quest to assimilate into this new world fills the narrative with longing and belonging.

But The Mistress is Nothing is more than just a story of two Englishwomen adopting the ways of their new home. It is really about the relationship between Lady Gordon and her maid, and the power that one holds over the other.

Sally’s entire world is that of her lady’s but she is certain that she herself is irreplaceable — not only does she act as servant, companion, seamstress, cook, she is also Lady Gordon’s medic, able to soothe her when her “consumption” strikes, and her only truly loyal friend.

But with the revelation of her affair with Omar, Sally’s presumed friendship with her employer is tested, and the novel emerges as an astute look at power relationships and the abuse of authority. Sally is seemingly left at the mercy of her employer, who is lonely, jealous and more than anything, simply astounded that her only friend could keep such a secret from her.

The reviewer has studied English Literature and film and hosts a radio programme on books and films

The Mistress of Nothing (NOVEL) By Kate Pullinger McArthur & Co., Canada ISBN 9781552787984 256pp. Cdn$24.95


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