Travel to Egypt Changes Lives

The French House, Luxor (1890)
The French House, Luxor (1890)

Destination: Egypt

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 Sphinx, Giza Egypt
The Sphinx, Giza Egypt. See the article that goes with this picture at My Itchy Travel Feet.

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.

Courtyard of Alabaster Mosque, Cairo
Courtyard of Alabaster Mosque, Cairo

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.

Book cover, 1000 Miles Up the Nile
Book cover, 1000 Miles Up the Nile

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.

Links from book titles in this article lead to Amazon for your convenience, if you shop on line.  Although it costs you nothing extra, A Traveler’s Library shows a small profit whenever you shop through our links. So thanks!

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??


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Travel to Egypt Changes Lives

  1. Thanks for this recommendation. Reminds me of the beginning of the English patient, the clothing of the Englishman and woman, so incongruous in the sandstorm.

  2. That article on the “renovation” of Luxor was so depressing – such a shame that those in charge don’t value the city’s architectural heritage.

  3. I suspect that Egypt are about to go through another very challenging period where their beliefs and ways of life. It will be interesting to see if the author’s premises are accurate. Sounds a wonderful read.

  4. Wish I had read this book BEFORE I visited Cairo. Although I’m not sure I agree with this quote about the Egyptian population:

    “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.”

    From my experience talking with the locals in Cairo, they’ve been a patient people who suffered under a very corrupt government, including losing the personal freedom to say what they thought. During my time there, I got the impression that this was not about one religion over another, or one political way of thinking over another, it was an overwhelming desire to have a democracy – although it might not be one that is exactly like the democracy that we know.

    After last week’s riots between the Coptic Christians and the military government, I found myself wishing that I could talk once again with our local guides. The picture we get from the news in our country is many times out of balance with the reality of what is really going on.

  5. I LOVE books like this that step back in time and give us a glimpse of life in another era. Thanks for the rec, and also for including Donna’s beautiful photos.

  6. This sounds like a fascinating book. It’s so easy to read about aristocrats’ lives and forget the servants who made their lives possible. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

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