In England in 1862, there was little cure for the racking, bloody crawl of tuberculosis. When Lady Duff Gordon faces death as her lungs collapse beneath consumption, she has no choice but to escape the chill of London. Her maid Sally Naldrett, whose loyalty edges on childlike adoration, follows her Lady in her descent into Egypt, where the two women find themselves completely out of touch with their surroundings. The Lady hires a dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh, to help them acclimate to their new foreign home.
It is not long before the three characters fall into familiar rhythms. The women shed their heavy British garb for the lighter clothing worn by Egyptian men, gain very dark tans and learn Arabic. They become more like friends than lady and servant, and soon neither woman can be recognized as her former self. Most of all, both women experience a type of freedom that they had not previously encountered—Lady Duff Gordon with her condemnation of the Egyptian community leaders, and Sally with her sudden discovery of love and all its freedoms. Their glowing little world cannot remain, however, and a mistake could cost Sally everything she ever had—or could dream of having.
Winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award, The Mistress of Nothing is inspired by the true story of Sally and Omar, whose lives were hidden between the lines of Lucie Duff Gordon’s book Letters from Egypt. There is little known about Lady Duff Gordon’s maid and dragoman, and Kate Pullinger illuminates these blank spaces to create serpentine connections between the three characters. Pullinger offers them neither judgment nor amnesty, and the book’s commitment to a historical and pragmatic voice is its true gem. Even with its soft voice, The Mistress of Nothing is a tough story of the unavoidable tragedies and celebrations that three simple, yet extraordinary, lives may yield.