Anyhow, The Mistress of Nothing is written from the perspective (and, indeed, using her as a first-person narrator) of Sally Naldrett, the lady's maid of Lady Duff Gordon, when the two women travel to Egypt for Lady Duff Gordon's health. It tells the story of Sally's gradual self-discovery ('awakening', one blurb on the back cover puts it) and the consequences thereof.
I would have liked to address one of the blurbs which praises The Mistress of Nothing for not being 'an Orientalist fantasy' while yet 'bringing 1860s Egypt to life' (at least I think that is what it says), but because my copy of the book, which is from the Ottawa Public Library, has a library bar code obscuring the blurb, I can't make out what it says to comment upon it. Not having read Edward Said's famous book Orientalism, I cannot comment on why I felt somewhat irritated by the blurb's reference to 'Orientalist fantasy' and its relation to the notion of 'Orientalism', but suffice it to say that I am, as a rule, suspicious of terms or words whose only function, it seems to me, are to serve as components in an ad hominem, or else a straw man, in argument or debate. But that is a matter for another time.
The edition of the book from which I quote was published in 2009 by McArthur & Company, a publishing house based in Toronto. I should mention that I will be going into quite a bit of detail about the plot of the book, so if you are keen to read it for yourself, I suggest you do that before turning to this marginal commentary. I believe, however, that this will be intelligible even if you do not read the book.
The chiefest difficulty with The Mistress of Nothing is its portrayal of Lady Duff Gordon, in my view. Regrettably, neither a copy of her own Letters From Eygpt, which is mentioned by Pullinger in her author's note at the end of the book, nor a copy of the biography of Lady Duff Gordon, Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt, by Katherine Frank, was easily available for me to consult. The heroine of the book, Lady Duff Gordon's lady's maid, one Sally Naldrett, is dismissed by Lady Duff Gordon after giving birth to a son, fathered by Lady Duff Gordon's dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh. Sally is given money to return to England, but stays in Egypt to be with her son.
The difficulty lies in what appears to be an implausible turn-around in Lady Duff Gordon's character, which is what I will be looking at. I should say that I found The Mistress of Nothing to be an engaging and engrossing book, well worth reading for, if nothing else, its sympathetic portrait of the people of Egypt and their religions (only Islam is explored with much detail), customs, and mores and for its insightful look at how power skews relationships.
Sally spends much of the book telling us about her Lady (she calls Lady Duff Gordon 'my Lady', even after having been sacked) and why she went to Egypt, because of her tuberculosis, or as it would have been called then, consumption - although now I think of it I don't know whether her illness is ever called explicitly by name in the book, which is one of its stylistic strengths, as it makes Lady Duff Gordon's sickness all the more threatening because unnameable, even though anyone with a smattering of knowledge will know what it is she is afflicted with.
Here is what Sally has to say about her Lady upon the introduction of Lady Duff Gordon:
People notice Lady Duff Gordon. People remember her. When she enters a room, that room is altered, the lamps shine more brightly, the fire snaps and pops and blows out sparks, ladies sit up straighter, men stand more crisply, and someone in the company always says, as though it has to be said: 'Here she is! Lucie!' My Lady is much loved, even by those she infuriates, even by those - her mother-in-law, for example - who feel that her hungry mind is too manly, that she can't possible be a good wife. [pp. 5-6] This, being one of the first descriptions of Lady Duff Gordon, indicates that she is a remarkable woman. Sally's reference to her mother-in-law has to do with Lady Duff Gordon's intellectual pursuits. Among her many and varied interests she translated several works into English. On p. 5, Sally also describes her Lady as 'robust,' 'hale,' 'learned and argumentative and adventurous and charming and entertaining and large-souled.'We get what appears to be another indication of Lady Duff Gordon's character when Sally helps a fellow maid (is that an oxymoron?) after she finds herself in a 'predicament':
Laura, a young maid, was helping me. She'd been... the subject of much gossip and speculation, the kind of talk I've spent my life avoiding ... . She was a chatty girl and I was barely listening to her.While I will quote a few more passages demonstrating Lady Duff Gordon's expansiveness, I should also quote some which show how she feels painfully the exile that her journey to Egypt effectively is.
'Aren't you frightened?'
'Hmm,' I said. 'Pardon?'
'Aren't you afraid?'
'We've travelled before, my Lady and I.'
'But not to live. Not to live in such a foreign place,' Laura said.
'I'm not afraid.'
'I wouldn't care to go.'
'You prefer your adventures,' I said, 'in the back alley.' I meant it lightly, but the girl gave me a shocked look and, much to my shame, burst into tears.
'I didn't know,' she said.
'Didn't know what?'
'It was only a bit of fun, I didn't know it would have such...' she struggled to find the right word, 'consequences.'
I put my arm around her narrow shoulders and we sat down on the bed. It was my Lady's bed, but I knew she wouldn't mind, given the circumstances. I let Laura cry and patted her on the back. 'What has happened?' I asked, but I knew already.
'I'm – oh.' She looked at me; her face was very red.
'Will he marry you?' I spared her the humiliation of asking who he was.
She shook her head. 'He's gone.'
'I don't know,' she said. 'It's too late. And now the house is closing. He won't know where to find me.'
I suppressed a shudder as I realised the extent of her predicament. Predicament is too mild a word - disaster. How will she secure a place in another household? And if she finds a place, how will she keep it once the baby comes along? How will she live? ... 'Let's go and speak to my Lady,' I said.
'Oh no,' said the girl, 'I couldn't, I—'
'You must tell Lady Duff Gordon everything. She'll help you. She won't leave you to fend for yourself. Come on.' I puller her up off the bed. 'Come with me.' I gave Laura one of my Lady's clean linen handkerchiefs and took her downstairs. [pp. 16-7] Since Sally at the very beginning describes how Lady Duff Gordon sent her packing for her misdeed (at first unnamed), even before we learn what happens to Sally this passage is dramatically ironic. Sally can confidently tell a poor, frightened young woman that '[my Lady] won't leave you to fend for yourself', when this is just what happens to Sally later. The question is, what causes Lady Duff Gordon's about-face? Incidentally, although here we do not learn of Laura's fate, later (on p. 137), we learn that Lady Duff Gordon indeed helps Laura out, and this shortly before her exile to Egypt.
It is not for me to remark upon my Lady's innermost feelings. But I can see that she is brought very low by this dispersal of her household, her family. ... Each farewell is as painful as the last, and for my Lady, the pain is physical as well as emotional; it preys on her condition, worsening her cough. [p. 15] This is straightforward, but it suggests that although Lady Duff Gordon's graciousness and generosity are real, they are threatened by the pain and sorrow she is bound to feel. And it is interesting how Lady Duff Gordon's 'innermost', say, most essential, feelings are those of sorrow and anxiety, as if, somehow, that great-heartedness is not 'really' part of who she is.Here is another passage indicating her expansiveness:
I [Sally] studied the ruins and tried my best to learn more about the culture and religion of the ancients, but I found myself continually distracted by Egypt, by the country around me that lived and breathed and did not require excavation. I was helped in this by my Lady, who was much more curious about the people, the fellahin, their mothers and sisters, fathers and uncles, where they came from, where they were going - than any number of crumbling antiquities. Even though her Arabic was still rudimentary she did not hesitate to engage anyone and everyone we met in conversation; just as in England, she was able to find out who was who in any family straight away. People always liked her, from the great and grand to the poorest, most miserable mite; my Lady had the ability to make each person she met feel as though they were of great interest to her. Everyone had a story, and my Lady wanted to hear them all. [pp. 38-9] The phrase, 'my Lady had the ability to make each person she met feel as though they were of great interest to her' perhaps suggests the omission of 'whether they were or not', but, as a handful more quotes will show, such is not likely to be the case; Lady Duff Gordon really does seem to be as expansive as this and the previous passage which I have quoted say. This passage also affords me the opportunity to make a brief detour into tourism. How much more interesting (not to say beneficent) our travels would be if, instead of focussing on the old ruins and grand marvels (or, say, theme parks) of places, we looked instead to the people who live and work in the places to which we travel, at least, if we were to do so more than we typically do. There is, after all, nothing wrong with being interested in ancient ruins and the like, but I think it is fair to say that more lasting pleasure is likely to be gained from our experience of the people whom we encounter on our travels.For all that, it remains the case that Lady Duff Gordon's stay in Egypt is an exile of sorts, as her first blue Christmas in Luxor (the village in which she and her entourage reside) attests:
Christmas came: ... My Lady presented me with a set of letter-writing papers that she had ordered specially from London. She had received a thick pile of post from England: letters from Sir Alick [her husband Lord Duff Gordon] as well as her mother, notecards and drawings from Maurice and Rainey [her two youngest children]. 'Look,' my Lady said, showing me, 'Rainey has learned to write her name.' Then she disappeared into her room for the rest of the day, having said she was not to be distured. At lunch, I placed my Lady's meal tray outside her door and knocked lightly. At supper, I did the same. ...Lady Duff Gordon is nevertheless able to replicate in remote Luxor the kind of lively, intellectual gatherings which once she hosted in England:
'Sitti Duff Gordon misses her family,' he [Omar Abu Halaweh] said.
'She does. Most keenly. Her baby girl is only four years old.'
Mr Abu Halaweh shook his head. 'Why isn't she here with the Sitti?'
I looked at our dragoman then and realised how enormous the gap was between my Lady's life and his. 'It's better for her to stay in England.' [pp. 46-7] Although Pullinger eventually states what Lady Duff Gordon's mood must be via the dialogue (of which most has been omitted) between Omar and Sally - a dialogue, incidentally, that is one step toward their eventual love affair, about which more later - one of the stylistic excellences of this passage is the way in which she notes Lady Duff Gordon's mood delicately and subtlely by means of the letters from her family and her orders not to be disturbed at meals. Glad as she must have been to receive letters, one can only imagine the sadness and disappointment she must feel at having only letters from her loved ones, and not their presence, at Christmas.
Now that we have set up camp here in Luxor, my Lady has made the acquaintance of all the more prominent men in the village, including Mustafa Agha Ayat... . They say he is the richest man in Luxor. My Lady has already created for herself the kind of salon she held so regularly in The Gordon Arms [the name bestowed upon the house in Esher], but instead of arguments in English with Mr Thackeray and Mr Carlyle, the debate takes place in Arabic with my Lady holding her own with the men[.] ...Time passes, and the holy month of Ramadan takes place during the brutal heat of the Egyptian summer. Lady Duff Gordon has a bad spell in which she takes ill and becomes homesick (p. 68), while Sally comments on the changing nature of the relationship between Lady Duff Gordon, herself, and their dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh, saying how it was becoming less rigid, extraordinarily familiar with one another (ibid.). As Ramadan comes to an end, an unknown gastro-intestinal disease begins to spread through the village of Luxor:
These men treat my Lady with great respect and courtesy, despite the fact that we are well aware of what an odd figure she is in Luxor society, if village life can warrant such a grand word: a woman - married, but with no husband present, no children with her either; an invalid who is an adventurer at the same time, possessed of an avid intelligence and a hunger for debate. ...
'Sally, come here,' my Lady calls out from time to time, summoning me to help her make a point. 'The Kings and Queens of England are not divine beings, are they?' She turns back to the men. 'They are flesh and blood, like you and me, aren't they, Sally?' she says over her shoulder.
I smile and say, 'Yes, ma'am, just like you and me,' and laugh and the men laugh, and I return to the kitchen.
Luckily for me, whenever my Lady asks me to confirm a point, something the Egyptians really cannot believe can possibly be true, or, at least, for the sake of argument, are pretending wholeheartedly not to believe, I always do agree. But then again, what kind of servant would disagree with her mistress, in front of esteemed company? [pp. 49-51] This passage demonstrates that Lady Duff Gordon is able to be both 'large-souled' (as Sally described her so much earlier in the book) and to treat Sally as, more or less, an extension of her will; perhaps more accurately, to expect without really thinking about it that Sally would, indeed could not but, confirm and agree with whatever point she is making. It also points out that this kind of expectation is part of the established relationship of the world of 'upstairs, downstairs' of nineteenth-century England in which both Lady Duff Gordon and Sally have grown up and lived all their lives. (One might say, in which they live and move and have their being.) Yet also on display is Lady Duff Gordon's formidable character, for by means of it her home, and not, say that of Mustafa Agha Ayat, becomes the centre of Luxor's social and intellectual life.
Life in the French House [the name of the house in Luxor in which Lady Duff Gordon and her entourage are living] went from calm and slow to urgent and fast-paced that day. A strange epidemic was upon the village, a gastric condition that produced as its symptoms chronic stomach pain, constricted bowels and terrible fever. Left untreated, one simply weakened, poisoned, then died. Though I went home with the sole intention of getting her medicine box, my Lady herself insisted on returning to Ahmed's house with me. [Ahmed is a boy in the employ of Lady Duff Gordon's household.] 'I've nursed my share of sick children,' she said, 'and I know the contents of this dreadful box of tricks better than anyone.' ...It is during their efforts to help the villagers of Luxor that Sally and Omar make love for the first time (pp. 79-80), launching their love affair and establishing a new dynamic in the relationship between themselves and Lady Duff Gordon. And what a change it is:
However, Omar and I spoke at the same time: 'You must stay here, my Lady, you must not—' We stopped speaking and looked at each other, shaking our heads and frowning in agreement.
My Lady folded her arms firmly. 'I want to see Ahmed. We shall go together, Sally, you and me.' ...
When the villagers heard that Ahmed was receiving treatment, they began to arrive at the door of the French House to ask my Lady to treat their own families who had been brought low by the epidemic. [pp. 76-7] Despite her own sickness, Lady Duff Gordon - and, of course, Sally and Omar - works hard to treat the people of Luxor. She could well have followed the advice of Mustafa Agha Atay who (on pp. 77-8) warns her not to help the villagers lest she fail and they curse her with the evil eye, but she chooses to take that risk and help them, an example of her great-heartedness.
[N]ow, for the first time in my life, I had a secret. A real secret, not just another tiny piece of informaton I kept to myself out of longing to own something, anything. And for the first time in my long years of service I did not tell the whole truth to my Lady. [p. 83] The secret Sally is keeping from Lady Duff Gordon, of course, is the nature of her relationship to Omar. She and Omar are now privileged to share something between them that Lady Duff Gordon knows nothing about.Somewhat ironically, just as Sally and Omar begin their love affair, Sally also begins to receive proposals from fathers for her hand in marriage to their sons, made, in the Egyptian fashion, by petitioning the man of the household - Lady Duff Gordon. The reactions to two different proposals are telling. After the first proposal, Lady Duff Gordon says (while the household is laughing because of the absurdity of it):
'No one is going to take you away from me, my dear,' my Lady said as she stroked my hair, 'no one is taking away my Sally.' [p. 87] While Lady Duff Gordon no doubt is expressing a heartfelt and well-meant sentiment, it is of the kind, one thinks, that is prone to the kind of possessiveness and destructiveness so well elucidated by C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves. Say, rather, that both possessiveness and affection are implied by her statement, and it is not quite clear which comes first. Certainly it suggests that Lady Duff Gordon almost views Sally as, as it were, her exclusive possession, a view Sally herself, moreover, inculcates in her Lady, for, as she tells us much earlier in the book, she rejected opportunities to make her own life. Sally has 'had offers, too many to detail. And a few were from men into whose arms I could well imagine falling. And there have been handsome men of decent means among them: George Dawson the cooper and Robert Smith from the brewery. But I turned them away. I couldn't leave her; she needs me more than they do. I couldn't leave my Lady. And if I married George Dawson and had his sweet babies, would I see the world, as I will with my Lady? [p. 18]' This kind of possessiveness extends both directions, then. Ironically, Sally would have gained much more independence by marrying, say, George Dawson and having 'his sweet babies', despite the expected restrictions of nineteenth-century English society on married women, than she ever achieves as part of Lady Duff Gordon's household, for she would have been mistress of her own.The other proposal is much more serious, and is made by Mustafa Agha on behalf of his son:
'The very idea,' my Lady said, once he had departed. She had promised him she would consider his offer carefully. She paused for a moment and looked at me. 'Would you like to marry him?' she asked abruptly. 'This is, quite possibly, the best offer you'll ever receive.'The inevitable happens. Sally becomes pregnant by Omar:
I gasped. 'No! Of course not!'
'Of course not,' my Lady agreed. 'What was I thinking? How ridiculous.' She shook her head and frowned and laughed at the same time. 'For an Englishwoman to marry an Egyptian man. Unthinkable. But still,' she said, and she studied me, 'I should not take it as read that you will be with me always.'
'Yes, you should,' I said, but my thoughts on the subject did not resemble my Lady's. ... As far as I was concerned, life would continue just as it was, until the end of all our days. [p. 88] Sally's thoughts on the subject differ from those of her Lady's, of course, because she would like to marry Omar. Omar is already married, but his taking a second wife, although uncommon, would not, in Egypt of the time, have resulted in his being ostracised or anything of the like. (Lady Duff Gordon's musing, 'unthinkable', shows us what would have been the reaction of the English to such a prospect.) The passage is interesting because it shows that Lady Duff Gordon is at least capable of conceiving Sally as making her own life apart from the Duff Gordon household: 'I should not take it as read,' she says, 'that you will be with me always.' Admittedly, she no doubt understands that Sally's life, should it lead away from her, will advance along a path well-defined by their shared culture (i.e., marriage), but she is able to have such an understanding in any case. It is Sally who cherishes the illusion that 'life would continue just as it was, until the end of all our days', despite the obvious fact that her relationship with Omar is already a great change to 'life as it always has been'.
[Omar] got up from the divan and ran his hand across my stomach. 'You are going to have a child,' he said, once again.But Sally does not grasp what Pullinger very shortly shows, which is that, for Lady Duff Gordon, all this newfound openness is (to a certain extent) only meant to be temporary, to last only so long as she is in exile in Egypt, and when a cousin of hers pays a visit, she swiftly expects things to revert to English custom (more or less):
I looked at him. Of course. My knees buckled and he caught me as I slid toward the floor.
This was it. Here I was, trapped, like a foolish girl who has let things go too far in the alley behind the big house where she works. ...
At night Omar and I lay together and discussed our plans to marry.
'We can't tell her,' I'd say.
'We must tell her,' he'd reply. ...
'We will tell her. When the time is right.'
But, of course, the time was never quite, precisely, right. Perhaps tomorrow, we'd say. We'd find the right moment on the right day.
And our secret grew more elaborate every day.
I was not used to deception and it did not come naturally to me. However, it would never occur to my Lady that Omar and I could be anything other than her loyal servants; it hadn't occurred to me before the moment it happened. And, truth be told, we remained her loyal servants; together, as apart, she was our main priority. Nothing had changed; everything revolved around our mistress. Nothing would change; nothing needed to change. At least, that's what I told myself; that's what Omar and I told each other.
I wasn't afraid. I wasn't worried about the future... . I trusted Omar absolutely. I trusted my Lady; she was my guide, my mistress, she would always stand by me. We'd find a way to tell her, and when we did, she'd pause for a moment, before moving onward, taking it in her stride. She'd find a way to help us through; our happiness would make her happy. We'd gone far beyond the normal roles of Lady, lady's maid and loyal dragoman; this was just an extra step in our journey.
... It was remarkably easy to go about my business every day as though nothing unexpected - untoward - was happening. I deceived my Lady, I know I did, and in the process I deceived myself as well. [pp. 90-2] The keeping of secrets causes systemic dysfunction in any family system (or any network of human relationships which resembles a family - something which all such networks do, to a greater or lesser extent), as authors such as Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation or Eviatar Zerubavel in The Elephant in the Room point out. Yet, as Pullinger is constrained by certain historical data (despite the many changes she notes in her afterword having made to history to suit her purposes); namely, that Sally Naldrett left the Duff Gordon household; it is impossible that she could have found a way for Sally to remain with her Lady, even if she were to have told Lady Duff Gordon what had happened. In any event, that it would only rarely occur to Lady Duff Gordon that Sally might have a life and will of her own clearly indicates the extent to which servants who held so important a position as Sally's might be said to have been viewed as, after a fashion, extensions of the wills of their masters or mistresses.
Towards the end of April, I was opening the shutters in my Lady's bedroom one morning when I noticed a young Englishman coming up the footpath toward the house. I called my Lady to the window. Just then, he looked up and spotted us, and we both recognised her cousin. 'Arthur,' my lady cried, 'Arthur Taylor.' She ran down the stairs and out the front door of the house as though she'd never been ill and greeted the young man as though she'd been deprived of human companionship for months. Once again, I was reminded of how much my Lady missed her own family. Once again, I was reminded that, for her, life away from England was full of loss and deprivation, however brave a face she showed to the world, however wholeheartedly she threw herself into village life.There are two more brief passages worth quoting which provide us with further insight into Lady Duff Gordon's character (as determined by Kate Pullinger, that is), both of which occur during a 'road trip' the Duff Gordon household takes with Arthur Taylor and his crew up the Nile:
That night as I was preparing the salon for the evening meal, my Lady entered the room and said, 'Mr Taylor has returned to his dahabieh [a kind of boat] to get ready for supper. He and I will take it here, together, Egyptian-style.' There was a hardness to her tone that I hadn't heard in many months; it was a tone she used in Esher when speaking to servants with whom she was annoyed.
I looked up at her. 'Of course, Lady Duff Gordon,' I said. 'I wouldn't have it any other way. Omar,' I paused, and corrected myself, 'Mr Abu Halaweh is preparing a most wonderful meal.'
She smiled then and I could tell she was relieved. 'Thank you Sally,' she said.
... Mr Taylor spent much of his day with my Lady and the household ran on English rules once again; Omar and I took our meals in the kitchen and my Lady rang a little bell when we were needed. ... Mr Taylor was full of news and gossip from England and my Lady was overjoyed to discover he had seen every member of the family before he departed, less than two months previously.
'And my little Rainey,' I heard her ask, 'tell me about her again. How did she look? What did she say? Tell me everything.' [pp. 92-3] It is almost as if Lady Duff Gordon, when she speaks with the hardness in her voice, is annoyed with Sally for letting things fall so far from English custom; it is likely, I think, that she is taking out on another the irritation and even anger she feels at herself. Were it not for the fact that Pullinger pretty much sets out to make Sally a reliable narrator throughout the book, this passage could be taken as a sign that she is not as reliable as she would like to think, for her comments that her Lady greeted her cousin 'as though she'd been deprived of human companionship for months' and suggestion (in my view) that Lady Duff Gordon's 'brave face' and wholehearted participation in village life were insincere (although it is true that they are complex behaviours) strike me as having more to do with her own perception of events than with what is necessarily the case; however, as I said, there is no other evidence that Pullinger wishes us to see Sally as anything other than a reliable narrator. What is certainly true is that Lady Duff Gordon clings to the tales Arthur Taylor has to tell about her family like a drowning woman to a life preserver.
In the morning my Lady... walked down to inspect the colonnade. She sat on a rock looking up the Nile at the First Cataract, and beyond that, in the invisible distance, Nubia. When I arrived to fetch her for breakfast she said, 'We'll go further up the Nile once again, Sally, another time.'
... When we got back to the temple where Omar was preparing our breakfast, I suddenly felt a terrible sensation of dizziness - I couldn't stop myself from crying out. Omar rushed towards me and everything went blank.
I woke again after a few minutes to find I was lying in the shade on mats and cushions... . ... My Lady was seated nearby. ...
'It's the heat,' my Lady said, and the fatigue from not sleeping, and the cucumber we had for supper last night. Don't worry, Omar.' ...
Omar fussed and both my Lady and I were annoyed by his attentions; I was out of sorts with the world and myself and I could see that she was annoyed at not being the centre of attention, and even more annoyed with herself for feeling that way. Of course I should have been afraid that she would guess at my condition, but I was not. I had come to rely on the fact that she trusted me. But now I knew I would need to be more careful. [pp. 99-100]
The sailors had grabbed hold of the Copt and were half-strangling him already when my Lady, still in the water at the side of the dahabieh, raised her voice in protest: 'He does not deserve to die for this...' she paused, 'trivial crime.' [The Copt in question is a tailor whom Arthur Taylor retained to be his dragoman; he was caught by Omar peeping at Lady Duff Gordon as she bathed in the river.] Omar shouted out his protest, but she raised her voice once again: 'In the scope of things, this is unimportant.' And, in fact, to my amazement, I could hear she was struggling not to laugh. When I asked her why later, she said, 'So audacious. The little tailor. Who'd have thought he'd have it in him to peep at me that way?' But at the time she allowed the crew to lead the tailor away. Omar helped her out of the water, his dignity as well as hers restored. [p. 101] Both of these passages point out that Lady Duff Gordon enjoys, indeed, expects, to be the centre of attention. It is fair to say that she does not do so wholly out of pride, for as a woman of noble birth accustomed to having her every need looked after (and having the opportunity to choose when and how she will 'rough it out'), even under such circumstances as her exile in Egypt, she cannot but behave according to such an expectation, for it would be habitual of her to do so. Indeed, in an earlier passage (pp. 12-3), Sally describes how pleased her Lady was by the portrait of her by Mr Henry Phillips. Here, strange as it may seem, Lady Duff Gordon is pleased that someone finds her desirable enough to want to peep at her, especially given her condition; not that she would countenance any romantic relationship with an Egyptian, of course (least of all a mere tailor), but she has been separated from her husband for a long time, and at their leave-taking the previous year Sally reports how 'there was a part of Sir Alick that still expected her to return to her extravagant old self any day... [a]nd when she didn't get better, ... [he] reacted with a kind of subdued and baffled horror [p. 19]. And she is discomposed by Omar's attention toward Sally, but at least part of her grasps that she ought to be concerned for her most loyal lady's maid, and indeed, she does show genuine concern, too.The point at which Lady Duff Gordon's alienation from her family and from the English world (despite her appeal to it when her cousin pays a visit), due to her long stay in Egypt, results in what amounts to disaster occurs when Sir Alick, Lord Duff Gordon, at last visits his wife and her household in Cairo:
[T]here he was, disembarking from the steamer, my Lady's beloved Alick, looking the same as always, tall and straight-backed, wearing glasses and the type of hat common to English travellers in Egypt. 'Too hot,' my Lady said, taking it off his head and putting it onto her own, and laughing, 'too serious. We'll take you to the bazaar my dear, and we'll kit you out, like an Egyptian - won't we, Omar,' she said over her shoulder as she led her husband away, her arm through his.As I have said, I found the depiction of Lady Duff Gordon's behaviour in the second and third parts of the book (although she is mostly absent by the third part) to be, at least in part, out of character with how she has been depicted in the first. Almost immediately, Lady Duff Gordon refuses to allow Sally or the baby to appear in her sight and dismisses her from her position in the household (pp. 129-30; cf. p. 136). She instructs that once the baby is old enough, he will be sent to live with Omar's first wife, and Sally will be sent back to England (p. 132). Pullinger has Sally muse on whether it would have been better had she and Omar told Lady Duff Gordon earlier:
But I had seen how Sir Alick had paused when he found his wife in the crowd, paused and taken in her appearance. He paused and, in that pause, he did not smile; a moment passed, a moment as long as a heartbeat, a moment as long as the year and months he had spent wondering if he would ever see his wife again, and here she was, and she was so utterly changed. Then he drew a deep breath and opened his arms and let her remove his hat and smiled a great warm happy smile and I felt myself hoping, hope against hope, that everything was going to be fine for my Lady, and yet thinking it might not be.
... We spent a happy week[.] ... Sir Alick... praised our Arabic and our knowledge of Islam, and marvelled at the wonders of the city.
But then the temperature dropped one night as November drew on and I overheard my Lady saying to Sir Alick that perhaps it was time they travelled to Luxor, there was so much she wanted him to see up the Nile, and the French House - the French House! - how he would love Luxor, and how the people of Luxor would greet him as one of their own and—
Sir Alick interrupted his wife. 'I don't think I'll travel with you to Luxor after all, my dear.'
I was moving down the corridor away from the room where Sir Alick and my Lady were talking. I stopped.
'Janet has made plans; we've been invited to visit Suez, where they are building the canal, in a party led by de Lesseps himself. And, after viewing the construction, we'll hunt gazelle in the desert. Janet has it all set up - we leave in a few days.'
I couldn't move.
It was a few moments before my Lady spoke, and then her voice was low and hoarse. 'I'm not well enough for that kind of expedition.'
'Oh no, my dear, we weren't expecting you to come.'
I moved away, not wanting to hear any more.
Omar had set mint tea and sweetmeats on a tray. I stopped him from interrupting my Lady and Sir Alick. After ten minutes had passed, I took the tea tray into the room myself. Sir Alick was on his feet, looking through the wooden screen that shaded the window. My Lady was sitting at her writing table, clutching a handkerchief, but looking entirely composed. 'Thank you, Sally,' she said, when I put down the tray. 'I'll ring if we need anything.' ...
My Lady, Omar and I were left behind in Cairo. She decided we would stay put and wait for Sir Alick to return; she didn't say why, but I knew it was because she hoped her husband would change his mind about Luxor after he'd been hunting[.] ... The temperature continued to drop and my Lady's health faltered once more. The days seemed endless, and it was not a joyful time; we were caught between missing our Luxor life and hoping Sir Alick would return early. ...
The days were hard for me; my Lady's spirits were so low she was not good company and, what's more, she did not want to be kept company but preferred to pass her time on her own, which was highly unusual, if not unprecedented. ...
And when Sir Alick did return it transpired that he had been unwell during the expedition. ... My Lady and Sir Alick spent many hours behind closed doors, their voices low, talking[.] ... I could see that Sir Alick's curiosity about Egypt and the life his wife had adopted here had turned to distate[.] ...
Another week, and he was on his way back to England. When they said farewell, no one said what was plainly on everyone's mind: this might be the last time husband and wife would meet. ... They made their goodbyes lightly and turned away from each other as if they would meet again in a few days, not as if it might be the end of what had been, in better times, a loving marriage.
After that, my Lady wanted to get back to Luxor straight away... 'Home,' she said, and I heard my mistress trying to convince herself that there was such a place for her now. ... It was as though she was attempting to slough off and forget all the hopes she had had for Sir Alick's visit as we moved further and further south, away from Cairo. [pp. 115-21] This is the end of the first part of The Mistress of Nothing, and we have enough of an experience of Lady Duff Gordon's character to conclude, justly, I think, that her behaviour in the second and third parts of the book, when she compels Sally to leave her household because of her child and eventual marriage to Omar and does not permit her to become part of Omar's household in Cairo, is uncharacteristic of her. That is to say, in my view, what Lady Duff Gordon is depicted by Pullinger as doing and decreeing in the latter half of the book does not follow from what we learn of her character in the former. First, although Lady Duff Gordon does behave, on the whole, without much insight into why she acts the way she does, she nevertheless has some idea that her Sally has her own life, as we have seen. This does not mean that Lady Duff Gordon would not have decided to sack Sally following the 'disgrace' of her becoming pregnant by an Egyptian (for, while I have no hope of finding corroborating evidence that this is the reason why Sally left the Duff Gordon household, it would appear that such was indeed the case), for that is what, in the event, she did; but, as we shall see, it does make her later cruel behaviour implausible. True, Sir Alick's abandonment of his wife cannot be seen as anything but the heaviest blow, but Lucie Duff Gordon had been struggling for over a year (in the book, her actual stay in Egypt was longer) with 'loss and deprivation', with the feeling of being an exile, with the prospect of never being able to see her family, and yet roused herself from the melancholy attendant upon those thoughts without falling into cruelty inspired by despair. We shall set aside the question as to whether it is even plausible that so intelligent and sharp a woman as Lucie Duff Gordon should have failed to notice that her lady's maid and dragoman were lovers, or Sally's pregnancy; Pullinger is careful to ascribe this to the systemic taking for granted of one's closest servitors. It may be said that Lady Duff Gordon has at last cracked under the strain, but in my view such a claim is not insightful psychologically; realistically, if she were going to crack under the strains caused by disappointment, exile, and sickness, she would have already done so, and would have done so more than once. Perhaps her episodes of melancholy (such as the one at Christmas, noted above) are how she displays such faltering, but they are a far cry from the viciousness she displays in the second half of the book (of which one example, to be quoted later, should be enough for you to see what I mean). The latter parts of the book have their own strengths, including an indirect and cutting exploration of the tensions that come with being a servant to someone with so much power over one's future when this comes into conflict with one's other legitimate obligations. I will have more to say about all this once I have looked briefly at how Pullinger depicts Lady Duff Gordon following her discovery of Sally's relationship with Omar and her son by him.
I sometimes wonder now if things would have turned out differently if we had told her about the child early on, from the beginning. Perhaps then she would have had time to become accustomed to the idea, to find a way to reconcile herself to the situation. If Omar and I had married early on, and not kept our secret, perhaps the disaster could have been averted and, as the months passed, my Lady could have joined us in our happy anticipation. Perhaps then she would have come round, she could have been part of our conspiracy, instead of feeling conspired against. Abdullah's birth came at the worst possible moment, a lonely Christmas-less Christmas Eve on the Nile, just days after my Lady had made her farewell to Sir Alick. But it seems likely to me now that her reaction would have been the same, no matter when she discovered the truth of my - our - situation. And if we had told her then, in the spring, our time together might have been cut even more cruelly short, and Omar might not have been nearby at the time of the birth of his child. That was why we never did find a way to tell her; we knew inside our hearts that the risk was very great. So we deceived her, and now the consequences were ours - mine - to bear. [p. 140] For several pages preceding this passage, Sally describes how she imagines her Lady coming to view her and Omar's secret as a betrayal. It must be said that, at this point, Lady Duff Gordon's behaviour, though harsh, is not altogether out of character. Given that she had the wool pulled over her eyes by Sally and Omar the whole time, it is little wonder that she would be infuriated by their dishonesty. Sally is right to point out that her Lady is accustomed to being confided in, and even expects the confidences of others, demands the opportunity to help them out, you might say. That her own lady's maid would be in a love affair with a married man and bear his child without her knowing would be something she would take badly. Yet Sally's reasoning as to why neither she nor Omar confided in their Lady has the feel of post hoc fallacy: she is, in effect, saying, 'based on our Lady's reaction now, we knew all along how she would have reacted then', when, in fact, Lady Duff Gordon's reaction could not have been predicted. To be fair, as I have said, Pullinger was constrained by the historical fact that Sally left the household, and, despite the many other changes to the historical record that she makes to suit her purposes, she would have gone beyond the pale had she arranged it so that Sally reconciled with Lady Duff Gordon and stayed put. To be fairer still, Sally is a lady's maid, not a logician. ('Dammit, my Lady, I'm a maid, not a philosopher.')Lady Duff Gordon's behaviour with respect to Sally and her son deteriorates; meanwhile, she also stakes more of a claim on Omar Abu Halaweh; despite the fact that he is (as it were) as guilty as Sally in their complicity to hide their affair and the baby from Lady Duff Gordon, she begins to consider him as she once considered Sally, although with a few additional demands. It is plausible and possible that Lady Duff Gordon would dismiss Sally, as indeed she does, but her behaviour becomes increasingly uncharacteristic. It is already too much, in my view, that she would become, let us say, paranoid, and tell Omar that he has been hoodwinked by Sally (p. 143), although her decision not to let Sally come into her sight (pp. 142-3) more or less follows on her decision to dismiss her, harsh though it may be. It also seems uncharacteristic of Lady Duff Gordon to be intemperate about the baby, as when she complains whenever she hears the infant crying (p. 150; when she hears the baby she says things like, 'What is that caterwauling? Will someone please restore my quiet?'). Sally muses that the disease afflicting Lady Duff Gordon is in part to blame for her behaviour (p. 150), but as I have gone to great lengths to show, that is implausible. Meanwhile, Lady Duff Gordon has Omar sleep on a mat outside her door, so that he is there when she needs him, and she begins to need him to tend her more frequently (p. 149). When she does see the baby, she pronounces it 'ugly' and wonders if it is even Omar's (p. 151), and then her paranoia increases so that she openly voices her suspicion that Sally is trying to dupe Omar into divorce his first wife (ibid.).
The least believable incident, in my view, is (in the event) the most emotional, and worth quoting (if not in full, than the greater part of it):
One night Omar stays on in my bed a little longer than usual, and falls asleep. I curl against him, and am soon asleep myself. In her room on the other side of the French House, my Lady stirs. Her lungs are heavy once again, and the pain in her side is worsening, she knows the signs all too well. She calls out for Omar. She needs a drink, hot tea laced with herbs and honey to soothe the pain. There is no reply. She calls more loudly this time, 'Omar.' Still no reply. She sits up in her bed and reaches for her shawl, wraps it around her shoulders. Outside her room the sleeping mat is bare, as she knew it would be. She walks slowly towards the kitchen; though it is still dark, Omar could well have risen to begin work already, but the room is empty, the oven cold. She makes her way to the salon, where she opens the shutters to let in more light - since first waking she has known where Omar is, but she goes through the motions of looking for him, of allowing him to be anywhere apart from where she knows he will be. Down the corridor, to the other room, the room she now thinks of as belonging to 'that woman and her child'. ... She pushes the door open slowly... and there we are, laid out before her in the moonlight like a tableau, like a painting of a Bible scene, man, woman, child. What my Lady sees is this: Englishwoman, Egyptian man, and between them, their little half-breed.So much, then for my exploration of the character of Lady Duff Gordon as she is depicted in Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing.
She makes a low noise, she doesn't know where it comes from, it's a growl, the beginning of a roar, a howl. She moves forward and, before she knows what is happening, she is on us, scratching, screeching, pulling off the cover, revealing the tangle of limbs, my long hair loose and splayed, both of us entirely naked. Omar wakes and shouts with alarm, and I cry out with fear, and we scramble for our clothes, our dignity, and Abdullah [their boy] himself wakes and begins to cry. My Lady, as though driven mad by what she sees, screams at me, 'What have you done to him? Why have you brought all this into my house? Why have you destroyed our peace?' before pulling back suddenly, shocked into silence by her own behaviour. She falls into incoherent sobbing, ashamed and righteous and vindicated all at the same time, blustering, gesticulating, choking. She gives me a look of such pure hatred that I gasp and turn away. [pp. 168-9] I am not critical of Pullinger's decision to have Lady Duff Gordon feel betrayed by Sally or decide to dismiss her (since, after all, Sally left her employ while in Egypt, I presume because she became pregnant by Omar; significantly, however, such research as I have been able to do gives no clear reason for her departure from the Duff Gordon household). It would not be the first time some 'great-souled' person revealed that there are others whom she (as in this case) treats as nothing more than an extension of herself, and over whom she has power (as Lady Duff Gordon certainly does with respect to Sally). It would not be the first time that an otherwise generous person displays hardness of heart when it comes to those under her power. Indeed, such is the nature of power that, I am certain, such behaviour is typical of those who are masters and mistresses of households when confronted by the plain fact that their most devoted servants are independent beings and not extensions of their own wills. Even so, after all we have seen of Lady Duff Gordon in the first half of the book, Pullinger's transformation of her character to that of a paranoid, a malicious and spiteful woman, and a wreck prone to what can only be described as hysteria seems incredible. I am sure that a more plausible depiction of how someone as 'large-souled' as Lady Duff Gordon would abuse her power over her servants could have been written, and I am sure that Pullinger could have written it, because The Mistress of Nothing displays her good style and her ability to delicately and subtlely approach a wide variety of themes, such as the role of women in society, the viciousness of unspoken but widely shared expectations, the nature of relationships between master and servant, and more, few of which are handled clumsily. Yet because of her failure to handle Lady Duff Gordon's character well, who is, after all, one of the three most important characters of the book and whose decisions and reach extend throughout, the book as a whole is somewhat of a disappointment. That said, I enjoyed reading it, and I would recommend it to anyone: a noble failure, such as The Mistress of Nothing, is better than a mediocre success.