THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING
By Kate Pullinger
Based on the memoirs of Lady Duff Gordon, who exiled herself to Egypt in the 1860s when suffering from consumption, leaving behind her children and husband, THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING is one of those "it could have been great" books. The novel focuses on her maid, Sally Naldrett, who was as enamored of Egypt as her mistress.
But Sally apparently forgot her station, falling in love with an Egyptian man, bearing his child and refusing to follow her former employer's demands once she was discovered. The story then devolves into melodrama.
What one person can mean to another should have been at the heart of this novel, which strangely won Canada's Governor General's Award. But the storytelling is all what might have been, and not realized. The opening sets up expectations that action and introspection will provide a full-bodied reading experience. Sally looks back at the events about to be revealed. There is regret that she is no longer loved by her mistress, although the way events are described it's hard to see that she ever was so regarded. There is acknowledgement that she was never thought of as a human being but, at best, a beloved pet dog. Even using 19th century sensibilities, employer-personal servant politics and feelings could have led to a fascinating novel. Tied to real, documented lives perhaps made this next to impossible.
It is difficult to keep disbelief suspended because Pullinger quotes Lady Duff Gordon's own Letters from Egypt but does not reconcile this letter writer with the character in her novel, who becomes the villian. The woman who tells her dragoman that she feels more Arab than European turns all haughty lady of the manor when her employee, her servant, the person who belongs to her, is discovered to have a secret life of her own. And although this is not the point of the novel, it would have been wonderful had there been something of Egypt and its people in the novel to not only make the admiration of Sally and her mistress more understandable, it also may have helped shed a bit of light on current events as that nation undergoes turmoil. Instead, this is a typical white person in a different land with bits of "aren't we wonderful to help them with medicine and education" tale.
Sally was abandoned once before. When her parents died, she and her sister went to live with their aunt. Auntie got them jobs right off to work and live in service. Still hurting over that incident and newly rejected by the woman who has been her all for years, Sally's character wonders why there are so many people who think it's all right to "dispense" with other people as they wish. Combine these events in one character's life and show, don't tell, the ramifications, and that's strong storytelling that is missing here.
Instead, Sally steps back from thinking those thoughts and resolves to soldier on. Like she is Mrs. Miniver or something. The narrative drive has been halted and the connections not developed.
Between having a major secondary character who is used but unexplained as both object of esteem and villian, and the continued resolve to step back from a rich exploration of feelings and life-changing experiences in a world controlled by societal rules, THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING ends up being about very little.
© 2011 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission