There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a book that transports you. The Mistress Of Nothing manages to do that in location, time and (for most of us, I should think) circumstance, offering a rich mix of escapism and realism.
The book offers an intriguing blend of historical romance coupled with a clear-eyed examination of human nature that’s as relevant to us today as to Kate Pullinger’s 19th century characters.
The creamy pages draw you in and deposit you in the vibrant landscape of colonial Egypt. Sitti Duff Gordon is an adventurous English Lady whose poor health drives her to leave her home in Esher, Surrey, to seek the dry climate of Upper Egypt, accompanied by her maid Sally and dragoman Omar.
The book tracks Sally’s gradual, potentially perilous transformation from English to almost-Egyptian and servant to almost-equal: “I felt as far from Esher as it was possible to be; it was as though not only did I inhabit a different land, but I inhabited a different body.”Sally’s innocence, coupled with her hunger for new experiences, makes her viewpoint particularly rich, as Kate Pullinger entices us with layers of glorious descriptions. Almost every page presents a sentence or paragraph so visual it’s almost cinematic:
“In Esher I would never have had time to sit and stare up at the blue blue sky, to pause and pinch the fragrant fading blossom from the jasmine that grew up over the garden wall, to pull a lemon from the lemon tree, rolling it between my palms to release the scent.”
The seduction of the country is only half the story, however, as Sally and Omar grow increasingly entranced by one another. Omar’s marriage is less of an issue than Sally’s fragile status as a 30-year-old spinster maid, and when the endless languid days lull her into letting down the shields that kept her integrity intact in England, it’s clear she’s in for trouble. Kate gently nudges us along, allowing Sally’s naivety to keep the full horror of her situation at bay until the last possible moment, with just occasional hints allowing the chill of realisation to descend.
This era of class and etiquette means that Sally and Omar are utterly under Lady Duff Gordon’s power, however friendly the threesome becomes they will never be more than servants and mistress. As ‘My Lady’s’ health teeters on a knife’s edge, so does Sally and Omar’s future together.
The Mistress Of Nothing is divided into three sections: Life, Death and Afterlife, which are aptly named according to Sally’s state of mind. While her spirit soars in section one, it becomes smothered by her lack of power in section two, as the imagery of Egypt slips away and we readers lose the miscellany of sounds, sights and even smells – shut away with Sally in disgrace at the behest of ‘My Lady’. Thankfully, in the final part of the book Sally’s voice regains its strength, if in a rather darker tone as she accepts her mistress’s cold-hearted betrayal and transforms a lifelong loyalty into anger. “I hated her beautifully: my hatred was polished and hard and shiny and, truth be told, at times it sustained me.”
This evolution of their relationship seems to me the crucial point of the book, far more important than the love affair between Sally and Omar, reminding us that human emotions are often least understood by those who feel them, regardless of their place in society. The fact that Kate Pullinger’s fictional story was based on the events that befell real people makes this message all the more unsettling.