The Mistress of Nothing

Written by Kate Pullinger
Review by Trudi E. Jacobson

Sally Naldrett is lady’s maid to Lady Duff Gordon, who suffers from terrible fits of coughing. Sally and her mistress spend the winter of 1860 on the Isle of Wight, on the doctor’s recommendation. It is not a success, so the following year they sail for the southern tip of Africa, seeking drier air for Lady Duff Gordon’s lungs. Sally had never expected to see so much of the world; prior to this, her biggest expeditions were to London where she would visit the British Museum to indulge her fascination with Egyptian antiquities.

When Lady Duff Gordon makes the wrenching decision to leave her family once more in an attempt to improve her health, this time for Egypt, Sally is delighted. She and Lady Duff Gordon are initially shocked at what they find upon their arrival, and are fairly helpless at obtaining the necessities of life. But once Omar Abu Halaweh is hired as cook, shopper, and arranger of all sorts of things, the situation improves. Sally and Lady Duff Gordon thrive in Egypt, throwing off English proprieties, learning the language, and adopting the dress of the natives. The two women become companions more than mistress and servant. But when Sally, lulled by the change in their relationship, tries to take more control of her own life, she finds, as the book’s title says, that she is not even mistress of that.

The author has embellished the truth of Lady Duff Gordon’s trip to Egypt to create a rich, compelling novel. The story is told by Sally, who tells readers “I am a plain-speaking woman and I’ll tell my story plainly.” Plainly, perhaps, but also so engagingly that I felt a great loss when I reached the end of the book.