The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

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The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The Mistress of Nothing is based on the true story of Lady Duff Gordon but concetrates on her maid. Meticulously researched and gloriously readable it comes highly recommended by The Bookbag.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846687099

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Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon was a well-known figure in Victorian London when tuberculosis forced her to move to a hot climate. She travelled to Egypt, accompanied only by her Lady's Maid, Sally Naldrett and left her husband and children in London, not knowing if she would ever see them again. Lady Duff Gordon's story is told in The Mistress of Nothing but it's Sally Naldrett who is the focus of the book.

In the second half of the nineteenth century it was far from common for women to travel unaccompanied to Egypt but Lucie Duff Gordon was a determined woman with plenty of introductions to those who could help. The women moved from Alexandria, to Cairo and finally, in search of a hot, dry and unpolluted climate, to Luxor where they were the only Europeans. Life there was made more comfortable when they took on a dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh. The dictionary defines a dragoman as a professional interpreter, but Omar was so much more - working in the household, cooking and easing the transition from a European way of life.

Lady Duff Gordon quickly realised that European clothing was inappropriate in the hot climate and before long she was dressing like an Egyptian. Sally followed her example, abandoning her stays in favour of the loose but modest local garb. Before long she had a working knowledge of Arabic, looked sufficiently Egyptian to fool most Europeans and felt completely at home in the country. She also fell in love with Omar Abu Halaweh and he with her. The fact that Omar was already married with a young daughter was to be the least of their problems.

Sally will stay with me for a long time. I loved her enthusiasm, independence and willingness to fight for what she loved. Lady Duff Gordon is well known through her Letters from Egypt and her medical assistance to the people of Luxor during an epidemic brought her much love – but there's a less compassionate side which surfaces in her treatment of Sally. Omar was by turns strong and weak and left only an insubstantial shadow at the end of the story.

It took Kate Pullinger many years to write this book. She might have taken the occasional liberty with dates and events there's a strong basis in fact for the story and the research behind it is meticulous. It's worn lightly though and I never had the feeling that I was in the middle of a history lesson, despite coming away with a greater sense of what Egypt was like at that time. It's not just the hot and dirty capital and the barren grandeur of the outlying areas – it's the open and generous attitudes of the people despite their oppressive ruler.

The story is subtle and compelling. Towards the end I simply couldn't stop reading and I was very disappointed to finally close the book. It is though, one of the few books to which I know that I'll return.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

As I read The Mistress of Nothing I kept thinking of Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster and if one book appeals to you then I think you'll enjoy the other. For more of Egypt but some sixty years later we can recommend Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell.

Booklists.jpg The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger is in the Top Ten Books For Your Girlfriend.

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