On the surface, The Mistress of Nothing is about Lady Duff Gordon and is a story of the soon-to-be-declining English aristocracy set in the mid-nineteenth century. My Lady is consumptive and her only option is to leave England — and her noble family — for the arid climate of Egypt. She does and eventually settles up the Nile at Luxor, goes native in habit and dress and, in her own way, survives, at least for a while.
That story line is so strong that it is the normal description of this book, but it is most misleading in terms of what the book is really about. The Mistress of Nothing is not the story of Lady Duff Gordon, it is the story of her lady’s maid, Sally Naldrett, who accompanies My Lady to Egypt and finds in that removal her own set of opportunities and challenges:
I am Lady Duff Gordon’s maid; I am thirty years old, a very great age for a single woman. I reckon I became a spinster some years ago although the precise moment it happened passed me by. I have been in the Duff Gordon household for more than a decade, and those dozen years have been good years for me. Before then, penury. My sister Ellen and I were orphaned when we were very young; our parents, Battersea shopkeepers, were killed in a train derailment at Clapham. We were staying with our Aunt Clara in Esher at the time — our parents were on the way to fetch us home — and that is where we remained. But Aunt Clara could not afford, or was not inclined — I never knew which was more true, though I have my suspicions — to keep two extra children and we went into service, me that same year, and then Ellen one year later.
As is implied in that quote, Sally has done well by her time in service. Now, while the move to Egypt is a choice of survival for her mistress, it is a chance for Sally of adventure and experience. She is eager for the opportunity — Pullinger in a piece of foreshadowing lets us know early on that it will not turn out well.
Very early on in the Egyptian experience, the Duff Gordon party is introduced to Omar Abu Halaweh, a factotum who soon becomes an essential part of the household. Not long after (this is a spoiler but essential to the novel, so I apologize and it is hardly a surprise) he becomes Sally’s lover. She becomes pregnant and will eventually bear his child.
That plot is central to Pullinger’s novel but it is not the centrepiece of the book. Rather, the writer’s portrayal of the noble Englishwoman and the adaptation of both herself and her household to Egypt is its strength. Egypt is part of the Ottoman empire and the Pasha is transfixed by updating it — not the least by building the Suez Canal, but with a public works program that means taxes and labor demands that destroy the inidiginent economy. Lady Duff Gordon, Sally and Omar settle in Luxor to a redolent life but around them the turmoil of the Pasha’s rule reigns. While both local and foreign dignitaries visit often for My Lady’s salons (a reminder of British life deserted), they are a reminder of life that was, not what will be. My Lady adapts:
One morning I entered my Lady’s room and found her already up; we had adopted the Egyptian custom of rising before dawn long since. This morning she had dressed already.
“This is it,” my Lady said with a flourish, spinning herself around, “this is the new a la mode.”
“Lady Duff Gordon!” I said, unable to say more.
“What do you think?” she asked and spun around again. She was wearing the most extraordinary outfit I had every seen. She had on a pair of Egyptian trousers — men’s trousers, brown cotton, loose flowing, tied at the ankles — and a long white cotton tunic on top — a man’s tunic, plain — and sandals on her bare feet. That was it.
When Sally becomes pregnant, she and Omar make the mistake of assuming that Lady Duff Gordon’s “going native” has extended beyond dress. Omar is already married in the Muslim tradition and has a daughter, but it is quite legal in the Egypt of the day for him to have a second wife. Sally understands and accepts this and both she and Omar delude themselves that My Lady will also adapt, although not so sure in that decision that they actually tell her about the impending arrival.
It is at that point that Pullinger’s story begins to take on another form and, at least for this reader, unravel. For example, Sally’s adoption of Egyptian dress means that her mistress does not even realize her maid is pregnant until the baby arrives. And when it does, Lady Duff Gordon retreats into a caricature of her traditional English behavior. The last third of the book — I am afraid equally unconvincing for me — is the story of Sally’s recovery from these circumstances.
The Mistress of Nothing was an enjoyable and satisfying read, with some quite intriguing digressions on Brits hanging around Egypt in the mid-nineteenth century. It does have the elements for a very good movie with beautiful scenary — Pullinger co-write the novel for The Piano with film director Jane Campion, so it is hard to ignore that angle. Alas, it does not have much more. A very entertaining book, but not one that you are liable to be thinking a lot about in the week or two after you have finished it.