The Mistress of Nothing

( 22 )

Overview

The American debut of an award-winning novel about a lady’s maid’s awakening as she journeys from the confines of Victorian England to the uncharted far reaches of Egypt’s Nile Valley

When Lady Duff Gordon, paragon of London society, departs for the hot, dry climate of Egypt to seek relief from her debilitating tuberculosis, her lady’s maid, Sally, doesn’t hesitate to leave the only world she has known in order to remain at her mistress’s side. As Sally gets farther and farther ...

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The Mistress of Nothing: A Novel

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Overview

The American debut of an award-winning novel about a lady’s maid’s awakening as she journeys from the confines of Victorian England to the uncharted far reaches of Egypt’s Nile Valley

When Lady Duff Gordon, paragon of London society, departs for the hot, dry climate of Egypt to seek relief from her debilitating tuberculosis, her lady’s maid, Sally, doesn’t hesitate to leave the only world she has known in order to remain at her mistress’s side. As Sally gets farther and farther from home, she experiences freedoms she has never known—forgoing corsets and wearing native dress, learning Arabic, and having her first taste of romance.

But freedom is a luxury that a lady’s maid can ill afford, and when Sally’s newfound passion for life causes her to forget what she is entitled to, she is brutally reminded she is mistress of nothing. Ultimately she must choose her master and a way back home—or a way to an unknown future.

Based on the real lives of Lady Duff Gordon and her maid, The Mistress of Nothing is a lush, erotic, and compelling story about the power of race, class, and love

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Tantalizing…Pullinger has done her research.…Sally’s observations…bring this lost world to life.” –The New York Times Book Review

“The book’s commitment to a historical and pragmatic voice is its true gem....A tough story of the unavoidable tragedies and celebrations that three simple, yet extraordinary, lives may yield.” -Book Page

“Explores the relationships people form across boundaries….This is a book you can’t stop thinking about.” -San Francisco Book Review

"A highly sensual evocation of place and time, Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing is a journey down the Nile that explores the subtle complexities of power, race, class and love during the Victorian era. The book, narrated by the character of the maid, Sally Naldrett, has one of the most distinctive and memorable voices in recent literature."
~Governor General’s Jury Citation

“Endowing Sally with tremendous character, Pullinger successfully imagines an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.” –Publishers Weekly

“Romance and tragedy baked in the blistering oven of British morals and prejudice.” –Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A rich, compelling novel. The story is told...so engagingly that I felt a great loss when I reached the end of the book.” –Historical Novels Review

“An interesting story, exploring relationships between mother and child, master and servant, husband and multiple wives, as well as bringing out the political climate of Egypt during the 1800s.” –The Oklahoman

“Scorchingly powerful.” Good Housekeeping

Lisa Fugard
Pullinger has done her research, and the customs and politics of the period—a visit from the Prince and Princess of Wales, the pilfering of antiquities—all make it into the novel…But it's Sally's observations—of men sleeping on the deck of a ship, "rolled up like carpets in a souk," or the feel of the Arabic language in her mouth, "full of air and full of earth at the same time"—that bring this lost world to life.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Based on the real Lady Duff Gordon's journey to Egypt with her maid in the mid-19th century, Pullinger's novel brings a broiling desert landscape to life through the eyes of the working classes. Maid Sally Naldrett jumps at the opportunity to travel to the Middle East with her lady, but her fairy tale grows even more exquisite when she falls in love with the lady's interpreter and guide, Omar. The blithe domestic scene takes a turn for the worse when Sally becomes pregnant, much to Lady Duff Gordon's disappointment. As Egypt's lower classes rise up against the tyrannical khedive, Sally's position grows tenuous, forcing her to fend for herself and her half-English, half-Egyptian child in Cairo, a budding tourist town quickly shedding its history. Incorporating actual quotes from the real Lady Duff Gordon's letters, and endowing Sally with tremendous character, Pullinger successfully imagines an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances. (Jan.)
Governor General's Literary Award Jury Citation
“A highly sensual evocation of place and time, Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing is a journey down the Nile that explores the subtle complexities of power, race, class and love during the Victorian era. The book, narrated by the character of the maid, Sally Naldrett, has one of the most distinctive and memorable voices in recent literature.”
Library Journal
When Lady Duff Gordon, forced to choose between dying a slow consumptive death in England or escaping to a dry, restorative climate, decides on Egypt, her devoted maid, Sally Naldrett, has no difficulty joining her mistress in exile. A previous unsuccessful trip to South Africa gave Sally a love of travel. Both maid and mistress fall in love with Egypt and its people as they journey down the Nile to their home base in Luxor/Thebes. By the time they settle into their house with their guide and dragoman, Omar, they have begun learning the customs and the language and are welcomed warmly by the locals. Slowly they discard their Western ways while forging deep friendships with their neighbors and, in Sally's case, an affair with her fellow servant. As proof of Egypt's magic, the prim and proper maid who scrupulously avoided any reputation-destroying entanglements at home now finds herself happily pregnant with Omar's child. This, however is one sin her ordinarily liberal and generous mistress cannot forgive, and Sally finds herself cast out and "mistress of nothing." VERDICT While the setting is lovingly and sensuously portrayed, the characters lack the depth and development that would engage the readers' interest; instead they remain somewhat unsympathetic and uninvolving. This book, which won Canada's Governor General's Literary Award, will appeal only to those interested in Egypt or the real-life Lucie Duff Gordon.—Cynthia Johnson, Cary Memorial Lib., Lexington, MA
Kirkus Reviews

British novelist Pullinger (A Little Stranger, 2008, etc.), who collaborated with Jane Campion on the novelization of the film The Piano, reimagines history in her U.S. debut.

In a renowned series of letters still in print today, Lady Duff Gordon recorded her independent travels abroad, highly unusual for a woman of mid-19th-century England; Pullinger recounts her version of Lady Duff Gordon's stay in Egypt through the eyes of her maid Sally, who receives brief mention in the letters. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lady Duff Gordon traveled on her doctor's recommendation to Egypt in 1862, reluctantly leaving behind her husband and young children. Thirty-year-old Sally has served her mistress devotedly for a decade by the time they depart England. In Alexandria, Lady Duff Gordon hires as her dragoman—a combination of "an interpreter, a guide, a factotum"—Omar, a young Egyptian also mentioned in the actual letters. With Omar, the ladies set off down the Nile to Luxor, where they settle. Lady Duff Gordon is remarkably open to studying the people of Egypt as well as its antiquities. Soon she and Sally are dressing "native" without the stays so symbolic of Victorian England's restrictiveness. The Upstairs/Downstairs mentality is abandoned when Lady Duff Gordon invites Sally and Omar to share her meals. But if mistress and maidservant are soon besotted with Egypt, Sally is also secretly besotted with Omar. Never mind that he's married and a father. When Sally realizes she is pregnant, Omar promises to make her his second wife, legal in Egypt. Unfortunately, no one informs Lady Duff Gordon until she's called to help Sally deliver her baby. Afterward, Lady Duff Gordon keeps Omar in her employ while demanding Sally return to England and hand her child over to Omar's wife. Pullinger portrays Sally's ultimate rebellion as a courageous act of independence and Lady Duff Gordon as an unforgiving puritan and snob.

Putting 21st-century political correctness aside, compared to Lady Duff Gordon's courage and complexity, Sally comes off as a self-delusional, whiny adulteress.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781439195055
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 8/23/2011
  • Edition description: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 379,164
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Kate Pullinger is the author of several novels and collections of short stories and collaborated with Jane Campion on the novelization of the film The Piano. The Mistress of Nothing, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, was her American debut. She lives in London. Visit her website at KatePullinger.com.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 22 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 3, 2011

    Excellent-- couldn't put it down

    Based on a true story, set in the 1860s, this novel is a very different kind of historical fiction. The heroine, Sally, is a very proper English maid who serves Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, an acclaimed writer and personality who travels with Sally to Egypt in the hope that the hot, dry climate will improve her health. Sally is the perfect servant and companion to her lady, and is treated, at times, almost like an equal. But when Sally falls in love with Omar, the handsome Egyptian dragoman who also serves Lady Duff Gordon, everything changes.

    This is a beautifully written, heart wrenching story that rings true.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 29, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I thought, flipping through this book, that it would not hold my

    I thought, flipping through this book, that it would not hold my attention. I was wrong. I was riveted. It had a most unusual plot, and was not formulaic, like so many novels are. I loved reading about Egypt, through the vision of a late Victorian Englishwoman/lady's maid. I loved the multi-layers and believability of the protagonists. I could barely put the book down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2012

    Didn't love it

    I found it hard to get into and could not relate to it. Just didn't love it.

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  • Posted June 16, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Takes you someplace far away and long ago

    At first I was a little taken aback that this book was not written in the voice of Lady Duff Gordon, on whose letters this novel was based. I thought I might prefer the voice of the woman whose entrance into a room made the party brighter, suddenly more fashionable, very 'au courant.' Lady Duff Gordon suffered from a malady of the lungs, which required a warm, dry climate rather than that of England at the turn of the 20th century. She left her family and moved to Egypt with her lady's maid and spent the bulk of her time in Luxor, home of the tombs of the pharaohs and the Sphinx. She enjoyed a wide circle of friends among the local intelligentsia. Little was recorded of her lady's maid, Sally Naldrett, but this is a book told in her voice-how first Lady Gordon shed her English clothing and mannerisms, and then Sally did. How they both became acclimatized to life in Egypt, learned Arabic, and how Sally felt she had shed her old, lonely maid's life for a life both warm and passionate. How she outgrew her position of servility alone, and became a woman on her own terms. The story is lightly and quickly told, but develops an urgency in its later pages that belies the sunny outlook of its beginning. In writing this novel, Kate Pullinger drew on biography of Gordon written by Katherine Frank, called Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt, published in 1995. It was republished in 2007 by Tauris Parke Paperbacks and is said to show the sparkling nature of the vivacious Lady Gordon. A darker side of that character is hinted at in this novel, leaving lingering questions about a widely admired woman whose family shunned her, and who shunned others, brutally and unforgivably, in return. One is eager to turn to the original materials to get to the heart of the matter. One feels sure there is still a novel in the material there, this time from the view of Lady Duff Gordon (1821-1869), whom even the Prince and Princess of Wales came to visit in Luxor when she was too ill to travel. This is a small, pocket-sized book which can transport you to places far off and long ago, and for that, it is amply worth the time and expense of acquiring it. Later, when I was looking through Kate Pullinger's website, I came across a blogpost speaking of Ellen, Sally Naldrett's sister, who makes an appearance in the book. It gives one tingles to think that rich lives went unrecorded and unremembered until now.

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  • Posted March 24, 2011

    You feel like you're there!

    Well written and interesting read. It would make a good film or TV special and would be visually beautiful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2011

    highly recommended

    This one of those books that it is hard to put down.

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    Posted February 26, 2012

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