The Mistress of Nothing, By Kate Pullinger

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The Independent Culture

In 1862, almost certain to die of consumption if she remained in England, Lucie Duff- Gordon, one of a far from rare breed of enterprising Victorian women traveller, set off for the salving heat of the country that would yield her best-selling Letters from Egypt (1865), accompanied by her maid, Sally Naldrett. Her family, including a toddler, were left behind, but she was advised to acquire that indispensable tool of a Middle Eastern traveller, a dragoman: Omar Abu Halaweh. Duff Gordon's biographer mentions an affair in the steamy night of Luxor between Omar and Sally that resulted in a pregnancy, but nothing is known about Naldrett.

Enter Kate Pullinger, who has invented a character and a story for the lady's maid. The novel is written in Sally's voice but Pullinger wisely avoids a cod-Victorian idiom. Sally is intensely loyal, performing intimate ministrations such as "cupping", but her dedication is not rewarded when her mistress discovers the pregnancy and refuses to speak to the maid-companion with whom she had learnt fluent Arabic. Sally, though Omar married her and took the baby to live with his family, was banished to England, because her husband was forbidden by his mistress to permit his new wife to live in his home. Against all odds, Sally challenges this destiny.

Pullinger's narrative flows as smoothly as the Nile whose density and odour she seductively evokes. This is an absorbing and gripping tale, however puzzling Duff Gordon's motives. Outrage at a menial's misbehaviour? Sexual jealousy? Perhaps the maid has the one thing her mistress does not have: life.

Egypt gave her mistress seven extra years, Sally reflects: "But at what cost? It was as though she died when she first crossed the Mediterranean". Duff Gordon defended the fellahin, victims of the oppressive Osmanli Khedive, but her savage reaction to the plight of someone with whom she had shared a life, when even her husband appears to have deserted her, is ultimately inexplicable except as the triumph of caste over common humanity.