The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
I think this is the first book I’ve read under the influence. And by influence, I mean the influence of the stomach flu from hell, which pinned me to the floor of my childhood bedroom for several days and took my laptop with it. But while grappling with what felt like the next villain in a Doctor Who special in my belly, I did manage to pick up and, in a morning, finish The Mistress of Nothing. I’ve long been a fan of Egypt, so I thought it might be the perfect thing to distract me.
The Mistress of Nothing tells the story of Sally Naldrett, the lady’s maid of Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon. In the 1860s, the unconventional Lady Duff-Gordon suffers from poor health and, after a few trips to improve her health, she decides to settle in Luxor, Egypt. Sally, naturally, comes with her, delighted at the opportunity to experience Egypt. Once there, the two lose their English ways and become closer, but Sally’s relationship and, later, pregnancy, with their dragoman, Omar, threatens Lady Duff-Gordon, and causes a rift between the two women that will never heal.
Prior to this, I had never heard of Lady Duff-Gordon, and now, I’m kind of in love. A middle-aged woman moving to Luxor, Egypt, in the 1860s, traipsing around town in androgynous kit, holding salons, and generally being awesome? Her Letters From Egypt are now on my reading list, and I highly look forward to them. But Pullinger’s focus is on Sally, not Lady Duff-Gordon, on whom the historical record is, obviously, much more scant. A quick Google search tells me that Sally’s pregnancy and her subsequent treatment by Lady Duff-Gordon is real, but that’s pretty much it. Pullinger has a lot of room to play around with here, and the anchor of her carefully researched Egypt would lend authenticity to almost anything.
Initially, the novel seems off to a good start, after some wonkiness about tense usage (the opening chapter implies this is a flashback, but present tense is used in the rest of the novel); Sally’s voice is thoughtful and easy to read. Sally introduces herself as highly guarded against men, even the nice ones that have proposed to her throughout the years, because she’s so devoted to Lady Duff-Gordon. I was hoping much would be made of her relationship with Lady Duff-Gordon, and almost enough is. It’s delightful to watch the two of them try to learn Arabic together, Lady Duff-Gordon playing Sultana to cheer up the fact that she needs Sally to read to her, and throw off stays together. (Well, I’m sick of the presentation of corsets and stays as inherently painful and oppressive, because they’re support garments that are meant to support. If it hurts, they’re either the wrong size or you’re wearing them wrong. Excuse me, I digress.) But where the novel loses me is when it tries to construct the romance between Sally and Omar. While Sally does, upon meeting Omar for the first time, blush at his resemblance to a certain statue she’s seen that she finds attractive, there doesn’t seem to be any real motivation for the leap between “it’s an adventure of self-discovery! Whee!” and “LET’S MAKE OUT”. Foz Meadows has written something about slash fandom have some grounding in the fact that mainstream texts assume all interaction between attractive menfolk and womenfolk of the right age is romantically and sexually charged (whether or not it actually is), so fans merely take that reading and apply it to characters they like. I thought of it while reading The Mistress of Nothing, especially since Omar and Sally’s relationship seems to be wholly sexual—every moment they spend together, they seem to be having sex instead of, perhaps, for a change of pace, merely enjoying each other’s company without everyone breathing down their necks. It feels like Pullinger is assuming the reader is going to provide a lot of the romantic subtext themselves, and I just spent most of mine on Star Trek: The Original Series, so I am fresh out.
And compounding that problem is the ephemeral nature of Sally’s character. While I was introduced to a devoted, adventurous lady’s maid, by the time she and Omar get involved, she seems to dissolve. Historical record dictates that she hide the pregnancy from Lady Duff-Gordon (who didn’t know until the night of the delivery), but she seems almost childish in her refusal to tell Lady Duff-Gordon, and becomes self-righteous when Lady Duff-Gordon won’t see the child, as if she didn’t grow up in a culture where adultery, premarital sex, and babies out of wedlock are frowned upon. I would have been interested to see Sally struggle to accept what’s happened to her and work through it, instead of magically being okay with it (I’m getting whiffs of too-modern feminism here). Plus, given the way Lady Duff-Gordon is characterized—at one point, she cheekily winks at a man who steals a look at her in the bath—her reaction comes out of left field. If she’d remained progressive but conservative on women’s issues, that would have been interesting. Plus, since I like Lady Duff-Gordon much more than Sally, I’m tempted to look at it through her eyes, not Sally’s self-righteous ones. There’s some beautiful language in here to be sure, but the plot feels too forced for it to be truly worth it.
Bottom line: Some beautiful language and the well-researched setting can’t save a weirdly lacking love story and the poor characterization of both Sally and, late in the novel, Lady Duff-Gordon. Eh.
I rented this book from the public library.