Saturday, 30 April 2011

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

The Mistress of Nothing is all about snobbery, class and convention.  Lady Duff Gordon (a real historical figure) suffers with tuberculosis and is advised to winter in Egypt for her health.  She takes her lady's maid, Sally, with her and it is through Sally's eyes that we witness Egypt as Europeans rediscovered it in the nineteenth century.  Lady Duff Gordon soon hires Omar to assist them in this new country and Sally feels the hierarchy and restrictions of England beginning to soften.  But she must soon realise that this was all an illusion, that class and convention is as powerful in this new country as in the old, and suffer the consequences.

This was a slow-burning kind of book.  It started with languid descriptions about floating on the river Nile, visiting the ancient monuments and casting off heavy English clothes for Egyptian dress.  I felt as though I was in baking Egypt, made tired and languid by the sun myself.  We also witness the slow process of Lady Duff Gordon and Sally leaving behind the shackles of the rigid conventions of English life - they begin to take meals together, learn Arabic together, and entertain the local villagers as well as visiting Europeans.  The reader can feel Sally getting swept up in all of this, getting carried away by it into thinking that Lady Duff Gordon has become a friend as well as an employer.

Without revealing what happens in the middle of the story (although it isn't hard to guess), Sally is soon dramatically reminded that it's not that easy to rid yourself of snobbery.  The book changes pace dramatically, and this was cleverly done by Pullinger as it really captures Sally's shock.  Even in Egypt, Lady Duff Gordon still holds all of the power and is capable of making Sally's life a misery.  And once Sally is cast-out, we see a different kind of Egypt, one full of seedy hotels for seedy European tourists, and with as many restrictions and hierarchies as England.

I really enjoyed reading this one.  I liked that it didn't have a completely happy ending (that would have been unrealistic), and I liked how Pullinger played on the inner snob inside of all of us.  I definitely enjoyed the historical setting, the three dimensional characters, and I'll be reading Lady Duff Gordon's original letters home from Egypt soon.

Verdict: A slow burner, but with a sting at the end.
Score: 4 out of 5


  1. Great review of the book!I like a book that kind of takes you to another world specifically the ones in 19th century.I like how an author put a spin on things.

  2. @F.a.Ellis
    I agree, that's why I enjoy historical fiction so much :)

  3. This sounds brilliant, I love reading about English expatriates at that time of history, and set in Egypt is particularly enticing. Just added it to the list!

  4. Thanks for the great review of this really gave me a feel for the book. I love historical fiction, and this is sort of unique in that it combines the English with the Egyptian setting. I just read something that combined the English/Indian worlds, and I'm up for something else along those lines.

    I saw your reply about The Disappearing Spoon. I reviewed it on my blog last year; by now it should probably be out in paperback.

  5. Great review, I really like the sound of this one! I will put it on my TBR, it sounds like a read that I would like.

  6. I have so much fun learning history through fiction. This one historical figure I never knew yet. Thanks for the great review.

    And hope you're enjoying The Heretic's Daughter =)

  7. @Mummazappa - Hope you enjoy it!

    @TheBookGirl - I agree, I also enjoy books that are about clashes and combinations of different cultures. I'll definitely check out The Disappearing Spoon.

    @Willa - Hope you like it!

    @Playing Librarian - I have a soft spot for historical fiction too. I loved The Heretic's Daughter :)

  8. Great review. I loved how well Pullinger puts the reader into Sally's head. Even as appalled as I was by Lady Duff Gordon's actions, I still got the feeling that Sally tried to empathize with her--tried to understand her, even when she most hated her. The characters were very realistically portrayed.