I’m not a reader who returns to books; the pressure of unread books bears down on me too heavily. I reread The Great Gatsby from time to time, when I need to be reminded of how to say as much as possible in very few pages. But while writing my new novel, The Mistress of Nothing, I returned to two books so often that they are both now so tattered and annotated and stuck-up with Post-its that they are almost art objects.
I read Katherine Frank’s biography, Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt, for the first time when it came out in paperback in 1995; it was recommended by a friend who knew Frank. On the whole, I’m not attracted to biography as a genre, especially biographies of writers; I’d rather read the writer’s work. If that makes me sound rather worthy, I am not – it’s the aforementioned pressure of unread books coming into play.
Frank’s biography, which I loved, told the story of Lady Duff Gordon’s life from beginning to end. But a single paragraph, describing an incident in Egypt where Lucie lived with her maid Sally, came to dominate my life for the next 14 years. It read: “A dark, moonless night, and not a soul awake on the boat, or so Lucie thought until around midnight she heard strange, half-stifled noises coming from Sally’s cabin next door. Then Sally suddenly called out for Lucie to come to her; she was in labour and needed a midwife.”
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