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Friday, July 29, 2011

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Title: The Mistress of Nothing
Author: Kate Pullinger
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Profile Books, 2010
ISBN: 978184668711

A lushly evocative period novel.

Synopsis: Lady Duff Gordon is the toast of Victorian London until her debilitating tuberculosis means exile to warmer, drier climes , and she and her devoted lady's maid, Sally , set sail for Egypt.

 It is Sally who describes, with a mixture of wonder and trepidation, the odd menage marshalled by the resourceful Omar, which travels down the Nile to a new life in Luxor. As Lady Duff Gordon undoes her stays and takes to native dress, throwing herself into weekly salons, language lessons and excursions to the tombs, Sally too adapts to a new world, affording her heady and heartfelt freedoms never known before. 

But freedom is a luxury that a maid can ill-afford, and when Sally grasps more than her status entitles her to, she is brutally reminded that she is mistress of nothing.

My thoughts:. I liked the wonderful way the author describes Egypt and she obviously is very familiar with the
country. The heat, the river journey from Cairo to Luxor, the people and the culture, the historical issues and changes that were happening at the time make a superb background to the central story. Although I've read many books about Ancient Egypt I was woefully ignorant of 19th century events and I found the history most interesting.

Lady Duff Gordon was certainly not the usual stereotype of a Victorian upper class woman and initially I loved the way she allowed herself to cast off the rules and restrictions of the society she knew as easily as she shed her corset . Nor did she create a little English 'home away from home' but took every opportunity to become a part of Egyptian life.She encourages Sally to follow her lead and gradually the strict lady/servant barriers dissolve, as do those of gender and race between the two woman and Omar. Eventually the three develop a relationship that is more a friendship between equals.

Until, in her mistress's eyes, Sally goes one step too far and discovers that beneath the surface nothing has changed at all.  

I would like to have seen the author's notes at the front of the book rather than the back as I think there will be readers who , like me, will not realize the three main characters did actually exist. The book is based on Lady Duff Gordon's "Letters from Egypt" - it's part fact, part fiction and it's not always easy to tell where one ends and the other begins.  

Overall it's a book I really enjoyed - well-written historical fiction which is a nice mix of history, romance and social commentary.

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dolleygurl said...

Thanks for this review - I have it on my wait list for audio book. I too haven't read anything set in semi-recent Egyptian history so this should be interesting. I find that I tend to seek out the author note first and decide in the first sentences whether I should read it first or last.

Cat said...

I hope you'll enjoy it, dolleygurl.