The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Purchased at Chapters.ca

The 2009 Canadian book prize season has had two surprises — Annabel Lyon’s debut novel The Golden Mean has made all three short lists; Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing was longlisted for the Giller Prize and is shortlisted (EDIT: and has now won) for the Governor-General’s fiction award. In many ways, Pullinger’s performance is more of a surprise — she has lived in England for more than a quarter of a century and her book has no Canadian references. I was going to give this novel a pass but when it showed up on the G-G shortlist (known for a preference for edgy books), I thought I should give it a try.

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.

giller avatarThat 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.

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9 Responses to “The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger”

  1. kimbofo Says:

    Interesting that you say it would make a good movie, because even before I reached the half-way point in your review I was thinking ‘this sounds like a Merchant Ivory film’!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Right on, kimbofo. It is tailor-made for Merchant Ivory. Not a bad book at all, just not a memorable one.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Well, an excellent review Kevin, there’s more than enough there for me to make up my own mind.

    Sadly, I think I’ll be giving it a miss. Early on it sounded very intriguing, but the way it seems to fall apart I think I’d struggle to find it rewarding.

    The Golden Mean though I continue to be very interested in. When it hits paperback, I’ll pick it up.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I wish this book was better, Max — given your background and your interest and travel in Northern Africa I would love to have your opinion. On the other hand, I don’t think the book is good enough to ask for it — I’d say head to the Alexandria Quartet instead. I’m sure The Golden Mean will get to the UK eventually and is worth the time. Put a star up for The Incident Report as well — I’m not sure it will ever get there, but is my favorite of this year’s Giller entries, even if it did not make the short list. Given your day job as a lawyer, I think you would quite like some of the oddball characters that show up.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks for reminding me of The Incident Report, I’m keeping a list of books I notice on blogs that I want to pick up and I’d missed that one, I do want to give it a try.

    On another note, it likely won’t surprise you that I have Justine on my shelf waiting for my attention.

  6. Rick P Says:

    For anyone who’s ordering The Mistress of Nothing in Canada, amazon.ca estimated 4 to 6 weeks and my order is now shipping. In total, it will take about 1 week.

  7. The Breakwater House, by Pascale Quiviger « KevinfromCanada Says:

    […] born in Montreal, who now divides her time between London and Italy (think Kate Pullinger of The Mistress of Nothing fame). She publishes originally in French (think Nancy Huston on that count) but her English […]

  8. patricia wilson Says:

    I found the portral Lady Duff Gordon’s life in Luxor with her maid and dragoman became a group of people who for lack of a family in their original places had become a family group here in Egypt. It is not remarkable that Sally the lady’s maid, nurse, companion and long trusted
    servant should relax her code of behaviour while in exile with a sick woman and a personable young man who works hand in hand with Sally every day and given the familiarity, attraction and isolation they soon become lovers.
    If Lady Duff Gordon can become Egyptian in languge dress and custom could she not accept her lady’s maid becoming Egyptian in language dress and custom and fall in love with the Egyptian man that she works with daily.. I think that this book is an excellent portral of the rigid class system in England and how those at the top of the hierarchy can change the rules as they need, but cannot allow their servants to also respond
    to the changing social situation in which they find themselves. It shows the cruel brutality of this narcissistic dying woman very truthfully.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Patricia: Thanks for bringing this post back up — this is a novel that has got better in time for me. And I fully agree with you that the best part of the book is that it does expose the class system — the “Lady” can choose what to change, but the servant cannot.

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