Travel is my number one obsession. When I can’t travel, my next favourite is to read, preferably stories that take me to faraway places. Egypt is such a country. The allure of pyramids, Ramses II, desert landscapes, the Nile, Cleopatra and exotic food makes it a place that I have wanted to visit since I was a kid and read about the pharaohs.
The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger is a book that makes you and me want to travel to Egypt.
The Mistress of Nothing – a book review by Vanessa Chiasson
Kate Pullinger’s award-winning The Mistress of Nothing is set primarily in Egypt in the late-1800s – a unique time and place for a novel. The story is based loosely on the real-life story of English socialite, author, and translator Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon. But in an intriguing twist, it’s told from the point of view of her lady’s maid, Sally.
Travel to Egypt
Sally’s life has been marked by her devotion to service and dedication to the Duff Gordon family. The idea of having any other kind of life or career is seemingly unthinkable, and her commitment is absolute. And thus, when Lady Duff Gordon travels to Egypt to treat her tuberculosis, Sally naturally accompanies her. Together, Lady Duff Gordon and Sally throw themselves into Egyptian life – sailing the Nile, learning Arabic, adopting local customs. What was originally a brief sojourn soon becomes a new home for the two women.
Under these unconventional conditions, Sally thrives, pursuing passions previously unknown to her in life as an English servant. Lucie’s non-conformist life means that Sally is not always paid regularly, but she is afforded a level of freedom and independence that she could have never imagined. Sally is treated more like a friend or a travelling companion than a servant in many regards. Together, Sally and Lucie defy nearly every expectation held of proper Victorian ladies – until Sally steps out just too far and Lucie brings the full force of Victorian morality down upon her.
Everyday life in Egypt
I absolutely enjoyed this book. It is well written and well researched, and I can appreciate the author’s creativity in writing a well-known story from a different point of view. Pullinger spent years researching Sally and Lucie’s time in Egypt, combing through the latter’s letters, book, and diaries. The reader is rewarded with a book that overflows with rich details. Sally comes across as such a vivid, sympathetic character that you feel like you know her at the end of the book – even though very little is known about her.
Does this book make me want to travel to Egypt? Yes! It is transparent and honest about Egypt’s political and social realities in the mid to late 1800s. While not every city is painted positively, you can get a sense of the different characters in Alexandria, Cairo, and Luxor. It’s a beautiful mix of nostalgia, romanticism, and pragmatic realism. It draws you into everyday life and makes ordinary details feel extraordinary. I would highly recommend it to anyone planning extended travel in Egypt or a trip down the Nile.