Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
While there are many books that I have passionately hated and many which I have equally passionately loved, there are a few that just inspired absolutely no emotion in me. In some ways, these books are even more disappointing than the ones I hated since they were just absolutely meaningless in the end. Unfortunately, I am sorry to add Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing to the list of emotionless books.
Broadly, Mistress of Nothing tells the story of Lady Duff Gordon’s lady’s maid. Lady Duff Gordon was a real Victorian woman who came down with a bad case of consumption and moved to Egypt, leaving behind her beloved husband and wee children, “for the cure.” She hoped that the climate would dry out her lungs, but, while Egypt probably prolonged her life, she was never well enough to return to England and eventually died in Luxor. It’s a great life story and Lady Duff Gordon herself is an interestingly vivacious woman.
But Mistress of Nothing isn’t about her. It’s about her maid, Sally. And class and race relations in mid-nineteenth century Egypt. And love. Oh, and politics, too. And feminism! And…and…and…! Feel free to add any other thing you can think of as being remotely relevant to nineteenth century Egypt and Ms. Pullinger probably mentions it at least once. Perhaps this need to tie everything together is what made Mistress so unfulfilling for me. There is always something to be said for historical accuracy (said the historian), but if it is at the cost of bloating your narrative with tidbits to make things feel “real,” I’d just as soon you made something shorter up.
I was lured into the book via Egypt, as per usual with any semi-trashy books I read. And while I appreciate that Ms. Pullinger did clearly go through her historic research paces, the book can’t be redeemed by thorough background information: the premise is ridiculous (by the end there is a love-child, let me leave it at that) and her language is just lifeless. Characters interact. Things happen. Some other things happen as a result. The events themselves aren’t necessarily predictable, but Ms. Pullinger’s prose fails to make any of them interesting. The entire book just felt like a prologue even as so many things happened to the characters. It was all written in some kind of slow, introductory style that utterly failed to bring any excitement to the narrative.
So was Mistress of Nothing a bad book? Not per se. But it wasn’t a good book either. It was just a book and one that can be read fairly quickly at that, although it will quickly fade from your memory. Much like Kate Mosse’s Sepulchre, Mistress of Nothing is a fluffy, painless read. It is intelligent enough and fills the time, but in the end will not inspire much emotion in its readers.
My advice? Read Lady Duff Gordon’s Letters from Egypt instead. While it may not have Mistress‘s contrived romantic intrigues, it does have all the other good stuff: interesting contemporary commentary on mid-century Egypt from the rare European who bothered to get to know her Egyptian neighbors. And if you’re really dying for some historical fiction about Brits in Egypt, in my opinion you can’t do better than the early books in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series. And then you’ll get those contrived romantic intrigues back, too!