Book: The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger (Org. publ. 2009; NEW U. S. paperback edition)
A tour of the Nile River to Luxor sounds pretty exotic even in the 21st century. But just imagine the adventure and hardship of such travel in the 19th century. The historical travel novel [amazon_link id=”B00509CPW2″ target=”_blank” ]The Mistress of Nothing[/amazon_link] lets us see vividly what life is like for the maid of a prominent English woman when they live in Egypt from 1862 to 1864.
It was not at all rare for upper-class Englishmen to set off on adventures in remote corners of the world in the 1800’s. Even the wealthy and well-born women sometimes ventured abroad. These well-heeled travelers turned out whole libraries of travel memoirs, reports, letters and narratives. Lucie Duff-Gordon‘s traveling, forced on her by illness, was nevertheless embraced enthusiastically. I’ll talk more about Duff Gordon and her [amazon_link id=”0759653933″ target=”_blank” ]Letters From Egypt[/amazon_link] on another day, but this novel, The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger focuses not on the upper class traveler, but instead on the Lady’s faithful maid and Egyptian servants.
Sally Nesbett is mentioned in passing in Lady Duff Gordon’s collected letters, but Kate Pullinger imagined most of Sally’s life and that of the Egyptian dragoman, Omar. The events are real, but amended with conversation and telescoped in time.
The Mistress of Nothing is dependably accurate when it comes to descriptions of the landscape and everyday life in both Cairo and the small village of Luxor where Sally lived with her mistress most of their time in Egypt. They settled into what was known as The French House, a historic residence that was later destroyed. (See this April 2010 article about modern-day changes to the village of Luxor where they lived.) The two Englishwomen seem to become more equal in status as they struggle to learn Arabic and survive the searing heat of summer. And as they slip into a new routine, they both seem to relax their adherence to English formality.
Duff Gordon gives up the many-layered, heavy English clothing and appears one day in “the most extraordinary outfit I had ever seen.” says Sally. She had donned cotton flowing trousers and a long white tunic–the costume of Egyptian men. Sally is shocked. “We had given up our stockings and underskirts while we traveled up the Nile, but it would never have occurred to me to go any further, no matter how high the temperature rose.” But most shocking of all to Sally…her lady had taken off her stays–the contraption of stiff bones and muslin that squeezed her midsection– went into storage.
This article of clothing becomes the central metaphor for this book about a person’s right to live their own life in the way they wish–and about the shedding of one culture and acceptance of another. “My lady cast off her English clothes and it was as though at that moment our relationship shifted as well...” says Sally.
But now that my lady had cast aside her European clothes, I longed to do the same….I took off my layers of undergarments. I unlaced my stays. Like my Lady’s they had remained remarkably intact, as thought they were a form of indestructible armour.”
Lady Duff Gordon, as intellectually curious and convention-flouting as she is, ultimately withdraws support from the faithful Sally. In the end, Lady Duff Gordon’s interest in change appears superficial next to the life-changing events that Sally lives through. Although the privileged woman wants freedom to flaunt convention, her servant lady is expected to stay in her place.
The Mistress of Nothing is a satisfying addition to the traveler’s library for many reasons.
- The author describes life in Egypt nearly 150 years ago, including beliefs and customs that have not appreciably changed.
- The book deals with a period of political unrest and the way Egyptians traditionally handle oppression, which echoes recent events. Sally says it is a mistake to follow too far in the reasoning that Egyptian fortunes will forever rise and fall like the Nile, patiently accepting and enduring. “Instead, they lie in wait, like a scorpion on a rock, like a crocodile among the reeds, and from time to time they rise up and they bite.”
- The book illuminates the change in attitude about the treatment of archaeological sites. Sally and her Lady camp out in the cool confines of an ancient temple and foreigners routinely break off pieces of art and hieroglyphics to take back to their own countries without raising eyebrows.
- And finally, The Mistress of Nothing tells an interesting and thought-provoking story about the servant of an aristocrat and their intersection with Egyptian culture.
For the Sphinx and the Alabaster Mosque photographs, I am indebted to Donna L. Hull. Donna recently returned from a visit to Egypt and gives us a modern woman’s viewpoint at My Itchy Travel Feet.
The picture of “The French House,” at the top of this page shows where the main action of this book takes place. It is a drawing by another English woman traveler who wrote about Egypt, Amelia Blanford Edwards in her travel memoir A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. That photo and the book cover come from the University of Pennsylvania Library on line. Edwards explains in a footnote that she sketched the French House before it was swept away. Her book was published in 1890.
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HEY, READERS! Can you share a story about a cultural a-ha! moment, when you may have realized that your own way was not the ONLY way to do things? Did you, figuratively, take off your stays??