Mistress of Nothing

by: Kate Pullinger
Published: January, 2011

Sally Naldrett has one very telling line toward the end of this slice-of-Victorian-life book: "I am able to focus on the task at hand."

A lady's maid in the mid-Victorian period didn't consider herself to be nearly as deprived as we might think. They were well-fed, clothed, lived in relatively nice quarters, and while they were required to dance attendance upon their "ladies," it wasn't the back-breaking labor of a scullery maid, or a house maid, for example. In fact, being a lady's maid was close to the top of the servant's food chain.

And so we find Sally Naldrett, lady's maid to the spirited, intellectual Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, who also happened to be a consumptive. Both characters are real, and Pullinger has derived her story from the published letters of Lady Duff Gorden, who is exiled to Egypt because of her failing health (it was thought the hot, dry desert air would help clear tuberculosis from the lungs).

Sally is anything but unhappy when she and "her lady" embark on their adventure, leaving Lady Duff Gordon's husband and young family back in England; rather, Pullinger invests the "spinster" (she is all of 30) maid with a fascination with Egypt, so for her, this trip is the adventure of her lifetime. In fact, between the digging of the Suez Canal, and the morbid curiosity of the Victorians about anything Egyptian, Egypt was a bit of a fad in the mid-1800s.

If Sally is disappointed in the overlay of Western culture on cities like Cairo and Alexandria, by the time she, her lady, and their hired Egyptian dragoman (a sort of man-of-all-work) arrive in Luxor, she has found the Egypt of her dreams.

Lady Duff Gordon was in fact a linguist, having published several translations, and she becomes adept at Arabic, as does Sally, through her growing relationship with the married Omar. Both Lady Duff Gordon and Sally are seduced by the languorous life on the Nile, on their dahabieh (a kind of houseboat) as they travel up and down the river with the seasons, and in their open and comfortable home in Luxor. They adopt Egyptian dress, speak Arabic, eat propped on cushions surrounding a common serving dish, and all in all, become true ex-expatriates living among their adopted people.

The story would have been a simple travelogue set in the past were it not for the single fact of Sally and Omar falling in love, and producing a baby. And therein lies the second of the book's two alluring strengths: the first is in the details of day-to-day life, both in the period, and in Egypt: what they ate, how they dressed, the processing of "cupping" a consumptive's lungs, the odd familiar-formal relationship between mistress and servant. The second is the final outcome: what each character becomes when pushed or pulled outside of his or her normal sphere of life.

Written with an understated calm where it might have been melodramatic, Pullinger has painted a vivid portrait of what might have been, in a far-off land and another time.


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