I’ll tell you about my holiday in another post, but first, I’m behind in reviewing Kate Pullinger’s excellent novel, Mistress of Nothing, for her blog tour. So let me tell you all about that first.
Mistress of Nothing is the fictionalized story of Sally Naldrett, real life lady’s maid to the eminent Victorian, Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, whose translation of French and German texts won her a place in the heart of intellectual society. But when this novel begins, Sally’s mistress is suffering from life-threatening tuberculosis, and immediate exile from her beloved family and the poor climate of England is strenuously advised. To save her life, Lady Duff Gordon agrees to renounce all her ties and to travel to the heat and dust of Egypt for at least two years, taking Sally as her only companion. Whilst many servants would dread such a transition, Sally welcomes it. She longs to see the world and is a natural traveler, independent, curious and bored with gossipy, narrow-minded English life. Embarking on a lengthy, dangerous voyage to the other side of the world is a prospect she relishes.
Lady Duff Gordon settles in Luxor, in a small household consisting of Sally and the resourceful Egyptian dragoman they found they needed to deal with the intricacies of a different culture. Omar Abu Halaweh is charming, devoted and highly efficient and the two women come to depend on him utterly. Despite finding isolation from her husband and children hard to bear, Lady Duff Gordon throws herself wholeheartedly into Egyptian society, learning to speak and write in Arabic, and involving herself in the political plight of the Egypt workers, cruelly and unjustly treated by their tyrannical leader. Enjoying an unprecedented degree of freedom for an English servant, Sally follows her lead, learning the language, helping Omar in his tasks and eventually casting off her stays and her formal English clothes in favour of native dress. Sally, Omar and their mistress become an intimate, unusual household as their English constraints fall away, and a new mode of living brings them all peace and contentment.
But inevitably trouble comes to paradise. Sally and Omar fall in love and the intricate patterns of their loyalties, along with the strength of their new freedoms, are put to the test. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but this is a gripping narrative that combines a multi-cultural love affair with deeper questions about the strength of cultural attachments, the possibilities open to women in the Victorian era and the strange but binding ties between master and slave. I haven’t mentioned her very much so far, but for me the most intriguing character in this three-hander is Lady Duff Gordon herself. Capable of great generosity and flexibility of mind, intellectually enlightened and fiercely committed to the cause of justice, she nevertheless reveals herself to be limited in her close, personal relationships, needing to be the one who is looked after, fêted, admired and cosseted. But perhaps the greatest character in the novel is Egypt itself. This is a beautifully written book, pitch perfect in its historical tone and almost incandescent with the white heat of the Nile. It transports the reader effortlessly and seamlessly into another land and time, bringing the reality of living in an exotic, hostile climate vividly to life. Social comment is cleverly, delicately interwoven into the rich pattern of the narrative, so that the reader understands perfectly the deadlock that grips Sally and Omar when their loyalties are divided between their mistress and their child. All in all, this is a classy read, a historical novel that shimmers vibrantly on the page and lingers long in the mind.
And guess what: I have two review copies to give away! Leave a comment if you’d like your name to be put into the draw.
Also, the author, Kate Pullinger, was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for her:
1. I’m impressed by the range of contexts and situations that your novels span. The Mistress of Nothing is your first historical fiction – what drew you to this particular period and interested you in your subject?
My novel ‘The Last Time I Saw Jane’ had three different time frames in it, and with one set in the 19th century, in Canada and what was then British Guyana. So I had done some historical research for that, and cut my teeth on getting to grips with the main problem, as I see it, of historical fiction, which is figuring out how to absorb the research and create fiction out of it. My interest in the subject matter of ‘The Mistress of Nothing’ sprang directly from Katherine Frank’s wonderful biography, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon’, which I first read in 1995. The story of Sally struck me forcefully then. As well as this, I had been to Egypt once, including spending time in Luxor, and had loved it, so was very happy to find myself writing a novel set there.
2. I read that it took you ten years to write this novel and that at one point, a year’s devotion to writing it had left you with only one page. This is a plight any writer can identify with! What caused the difficulties with this narrative, and how did you finally overcome them?
Perseverance! But also the story wouldn’t let me go – the historical fact that Sally gave birth on the Nile on Christmas Eve, having hidden both the romance and the pregnancy from Lucie, with whom she spent nearly every minute of every day, was fabulous territory for fiction.
The problems were many – I’d never written about a writer before and I found this hugely problematic; Egypt is the Land of Clichés when it comes to the way Europeans often view it, and Victorian Lady Travellers are also pretty clichéd territory now. I found myself grappling with many subjects I knew next to nothing about – Egypt in the 19th century, Islam at that time, tuberculosis – I even tried to learn Arabic! Also, I found it very difficult to get the point of view right, though now that the book is told entirely from Sally’s point of view, it seems so obvious I don’t know why I didn’t think of it in 1995 when I first had the idea for the novel!!!
3. What is the heart of this novel for you? What was the central question or concern that you wanted to address?
The absolute heart of the novel is that moment on the Nile. And for me the thing of greatest interest was trying to tell an otherwise completely invisible story; while Lucie Duff Gordon’s life is well documented, no one knows what happened to her maid Sally Naldrett. For me this is of huge interest; while Lucie was an amazing woman, much loved to this day in Egypt, it’s the forgotten lives that interest me. Also, having written a novel, ‘A Little Stranger’, that deals with a woman who is overwhelmed by the experience of motherhood and can’t cope with having a child, I was interested to explore the story of a woman who faces losing everything.
4. The Mistress of Nothing is an orthodox novel, but I know you have a great deal of interest in the digital world. I read an interview with you in the Observer in which you said: ‘Our ideas about what reading is will have to change to keep up with what is going on in a digital culture.’ I’d love to hear more about what you think on this issue.
For many years now I have had a foot in two camps, so to speak, the print publishing world, and the digital world, and while these worlds are edging closer together now, for me they are still too far apart. I write digital fiction – look at http://www.inanimatealice.com and http://www.flightpaths.com for some examples – and I am very interested in thinking about the future of fiction and what the digital age could mean for writers and readers. I’m not talking about ebooks that recreate print pages digitally, but new forms of storytelling. When you think about the long history of storytelling from cave painting onward, it is possible to view the print novel as part of a trajectory and not a glorious endpoint. Storytelling is evolving. However, for long form prose storytelling, like ‘The Mistress of Nothing’, the book remains the most brilliant, reliable, and beautiful technology. But that
5. You’re currently involved in the project Flight Paths that aims to create a networked novel on and through the internet. Could you explain more what that means, and what you’re hoping to explore via the experiment?
I was interested in working on a fiction project that opened up the research and early development phase to other people from the very beginning, and this is essentially what ‘Flight Paths’ means to me. The story is one I’ve had in my head for a long time, but putting it up online, creating multimedia elements, inviting contributions from other people (we have fantastic contributions), is very exciting. The project is unfolding slowly, and will continue to evolve – I don’t really have any clear idea of where it will lead. With both this project, and ‘Inanimate Alice’ (mentioned above), I work very closely with my collaborator Chris Joseph; without Chris neither of these projects would exist. http://www.chrisjoseph.org/
6. I noticed a series of creative writing articles that you wrote for the Guardian. What advice would you give to an unpublished author working on a novel?
I think the main advice I would give anyone is to keep your head down and concentrate on the writing – don’t get caught up in worrying about publishing and agents and that whole side of things until you’ve got a manuscript that you are very confident about. Remember it is much much easier for any agent or publisher to say ‘no thanks’ instead of ‘yes please’. Read as much and as widely as possible. And try to find impartial advice on your writing – usually friends and family are anything but impartial, so join a rigorous writing group or class, find an MA where writers whose work you admire are teaching, or join a mentoring programme for 1-1 editorial advice. Most writers, including professionals, value good strong editorial advice. And good luck!
7. Where do you see your work heading next? You have so many intriguing strands to your career – will you seek to consolidate them or to branch out into further new territory?
‘Intriguing strands’ is a nice way of putting it; sometimes I worry that I go in too many directions and would be better off doing just one thing! But one of the great things about being published and getting your work out there in both print and digital forms is that opportunities come your way – and it is hard to say no!!! I am, in fact, doing something completely new to me at the moment – writing a libretto for an opera! I’ve been commissioned by the Slovak National Opera, in Bratislava, to work with a Slovak composer, Lubica Cekovska, to write an opera based on Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’. So from new media to very old media – with full orchestra and singers! My favourite line so far: ‘She drinks the poison, and sings, and dies.’