Monday, April 4, 2011

Staff Pick : The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger was the winner of the 2009 Governor General's Award for Fiction.

Lady Lucie Duff Gordon was a writer and an intellectual who suffered terribly from tuberculosis. In an effort to prolong her life, she and her devoted maid, Sally Naldrett, set out for Egypt in the 1860's. Duff Gorden set up home in Cairo and in Luxor with the help of Omar, their guide and dragoman. Away from England and family life, Sally becomes more than a mere lady's maid. She becomes nurse, doctor, confidante and companion. When Lady Duff Gordon unties her stays and adopts native dress, she symbolically casts off her previous existence. Sally follows suit, only to discover that she does not have her mistress's freedom of choice.

Perhaps inevitably in this intimate existence, Omar and Sally fall in love and conceive a child. Duff Gordon considers this an absolute betrayal and blames Sally for leading Omar astray. If Omar is to retain his position, the child must be sent to his family and Sally back to England. Sally is powerless and continually reminded that she is the mistress of nothing. Although she is the physically and emotionally stronger person, she has no power.

This is a beautiful historical / biographical novel. It is entirely believable that events could have unfolded as Pullilnger surmised. Pullinger read Katherine Frank's Lucie Duff Gordon: a passage to Egypt and was inspired by Sally's story. From this book she learned that during their time in Egypt Sally became pregnant with an Arab's baby and she and the baby were separated, and Sally sent back to England. She was so struck by this story she was compelled to fill in the pieces.

The book ended in the only way it could, but it is one of those novels you wish could just go on a little longer. If you enjoy richly drawn characters and settings evocative of another place and time, this is certainly not a book you will want to miss.

The Mistress of Nothing brought to mind Lady's Maid by Margaret Forster. "This is an intimate and complex look at the relations between the classes in the mid-nineteenth century. Women of all classes had far fewer choices in lifestyle than women do today; however, if you were the "Lady's Maid", as Lily was to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, your choices were limited by your class to an even greater extent, and therein lies the subtle tragedy of this book.This is a thought provoking and well wrought novel. The truth is that the freedom that feminists have won for today's women is far more real for women of the middle and upper classes than for working class or poor women. The legacy lives on. " - publisher

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - "As boys, George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, living in shabby genteel Edinburgh, find themselves in a vast and complex world at the heart of the British Empire. Years later—one struggling with his identity in a world hostile to his ancestry, the other creating the world’s most famous detective while in love with a woman who is not his wife–their fates become inextricably connected. In Arthur & George, Julian Barnes explores the grand tapestry of late-Victorian Britain to create his most intriguing and engrossing novel yet." - publisher

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier - "On the windswept, fossil-strewn beaches of the English coast, poor and uneducated Mary Anning learns that she has a unique gift: "the eye" to spot fossils no one else can see. When she uncovers an unusual fossilized skeleton in the cliffs near her home, she sets the religious community on edge, the townspeople to gossip, and the scientific world alight. After enduring bitter cold, thunderstorms, and landslips, her challenges only grow when she falls in love with an impossible man.

Mary soon finds an unlikely champion in prickly Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class spinster who shares her passion for scouring the beaches. Their relationship strikes a delicate balance between fierce loyalty, mutual appreciation, and barely suppressed envy, but ultimately turns out to be their greatest asset." - publisher

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