The Mistress of Nothing

by Kate Pullinger

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger Based on a true story, The Mistress of Nothing is about Lucie Duff Gordon's lady's maid, Sally Naldrett, who traveled to Egypt with her mistress in 1862. Lady Gordon was dying of tuberculosis. Her doctors hoped the hot, dry climate would improve her health. Although family members visited her in Egypt, only Sally stayed. After Sally had an affair with an Egyptian man and bore his child, Lady Gordon allowed her to accept his marriage offer - according to Egyptian law, his existing marriage did not bar him from taking a second wife. Lady Gordon dismissed Sally from her employ, however, insisting that she leave the baby with her husband's first wife and return to England. From this sketchy outline, Pullinger imagines the life for Sally which history fails to supply.

In The Mistress of Nothing, Egypt itself is a seducer. "The night was very bright and when I looked up, I gasped out loud, then covered my mouth, hoping no one had heard. The moon was high over the Theban hills and the sky was blue and black and indigo, pricked out with stars.... I had never seen such beauty." In the intense, curative heat, Lady Gordon adopts Egyptian men's clothes. She gifts Sally, too, with loose, flowing Egyptian robes. "I ... looked at the gorgeous pile of fabric on the floor at my feet and, unable to speak, made a kind of involuntary noise in the back of my throat and, to my horror, began to cry."

In places, the story seems almost prophetic of current events. The two Englishwomen discover that Egyptians live under an oppressive government. Though the people "endure, like the Nile itself ... they lie in wait, like ... a crocodile among the reeds, and from time to time they rise up and they bite." This is Sally's story, though. She, like Egypt, learns to do more than simply endure. (2009; 250 pages, including an Author's Note briefly discussing the history behind the novel)

More about The Mistress of Nothing at Powell's Books or

Other novels about Englishwomen in Egypt:

Winter on the Nile by Anthony Sattin (2010), about 29-year-old Florence Nightingale's 1849 trip to Egypt, where she found the courage to decide on a career in nursing and met the young future author Gustave Flaubert. More info

The Levant Trilogy by Olivia Manning (1977), about an English couple living in Egypt during World War II. More info

Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (1975), a mystery featuring a spinster who uses her inheritance to travel in Egypt; #1 in the Amelia Peabody mystery series. Review or more info at Powell's Books

Nonfiction about Lady Duff Gordon and 19th Century Egypt:

Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt by Katherine Frank (1994). More info

Letters from Egypt by Lucie Duff Gordon (1866). More info or read online at Google Books

Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt by Judith E. Tucker (1985). More info


Review of Katherine Frank's Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt at The Independent

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