In Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress Of Nothing, we follow the true story of Lady Duff Gordon, suffering from the debiliating effects of tuberculois, and her maid Sally, as they travel to Cairo and Luxor, where Gordon seeks refuge from her illness.
Away from England, Lady Gordon and Sally together cast off the European dress that has stifled them both physically and mentally, and begin to explore the freedom that Egypt offers. Yet it is the arrival of Omar, Lady Gordon’s dragoman, who leads them further into the heart of Egypt, and forcing them to re-examine the relationship between themselves and also their European roots.
It is Sally that narrates their story and it is tinged with excitement, mystery and the heat of Egypt. You can almost feel the heat as Pullinger delves deeper into the intriguing tale and the relationship between the two women. Yet soon, and somewhat inevitably, we see that appearances can be deceptive and Lady Gordon cannot help but keep her English mentatility. Perhaps tellingly, while Lady Gordon may dress like a man and imerse herself in the culture around her, they still reside in ‘The French House’, leased from the French Consul, which remains a link to Europe and her colonial past. Without revealing too much, Sally is cruelly reminded of her position and her reliance on Lady Gordon as her maid and the remainder of her story is tinged with sadness. She is offered a glimpse of a different life for herself, only for circumstances to overtake her.
Pullinger shows us Egypt and bring it to life as it really was. The Egyptian people are kind and welcoming, happy to accept Sally and Lady Gordon for who they are and it is the British expatriates who are judgemental and critical, showing themselves to be backward and fixed in their thinking. As Anthony Sattin remarks on the book’s cover, Pullinger’s work is not “an Orientalist fantasy”; the only fantasy that remains is that of Sally and her hope that she may escape her lowly status as the mistress of nothing. With Sally as our narrator, I was somewhat expecting the blame for her situation to be placed solely at the feet of Lady Gordon, but Pullinger never quite allows this to occur. Lady Gordon blames Sally for causing her predicament but we are left looking for answers elsewhere. The blame is a product of its time, in particular the rules and conventions of English thinking and Sally’s position within her household as a lady’s maid.
Pullinger’s novel draws you in to the heartbreaking tale, providing us with a wonderful social commentary of the time amid the searing heat of Egypt. Little is documentated of Sally Naldrett, but now she has finally gained a voice after many, many years.