Lady Duff Gordon has been told that another winter in England will kill her. Seeking a cure for the deadly tuberculosis, she sets out for Egypt with her maid, Sally Naldrett. For Sally, it is a dream come true; a secret longing for mystery and adventure that is finally going to be fulfilled. Although their first few days in Egypt prove to be difficult, Sally and Lady Duff Gordon immediately take to Egypt, eventually adopting even the dress of the locals. Egypt allows Sally freedom to open up, which she does with heady abandon. When an Egyptian man, Omar, is hired on as interpreter and guide, Sally’s story begins. As their relationship deepens from colleague to lover, Sally grasps more than her status allows her. When she has Omar’s child and becomes his second wife, Sally is cast out of the household and told to leave the child with Omar’s first wife and return to England. But Sally does not want to return to the dour England and leave behind all that she loves, even if staying means being the Mistress of Nothing.
The Mistress of Nothing is the winner of the GG’s award. A work of historical fiction, Kate Pullinger took actual events of Lady Duff Gordon’s travels through Egypt from Lady Duff’s letters sent back to England. She got the idea of writing a book about Lady Duff’s maid Sally from Katherine Frank’s biography, Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt. In the biography, Katherine Frank mentions Sally’s disgrace and eventual dismissal. After that event, all mention of Sally ceases in Lady Duff’s letters, begging the question… what happened to Sally? It is this question that Kate Pullinger has asked for over 14 years.
The mixture of loose fact and downright fiction makes for interesting reading. The entire novel up to where Sally breaks free of Lady Duff is like a mystery waiting to be solved. You’ll find yourself asking, “Did that really happen?”, on more than one occasion. If you’re like me, you’ll want to go to the Project Gutenberg site to read Lady Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt to see if you can piece together Sally’s story up to the end of her pregnancy. After that, put away the letters and begin to enjoy the real grit of the book. Kate Pullinger makes Sally’s struggle to live in Cairo and make a life for herself and her child breathtakingly realistic. I would have to say that this is the part of the book that I enjoyed the most. As an afternoon read, I would highly recommend it.