In Victorian-era England, servants were meant to be present but invisible. The problem with Sally Naldrett, the ladies’ maid who narrates The Mistress Of Nothing, is that she’s all too visible, yet nothing special to look at. She’s a supporting character given more material than she can carry, while more compelling action happens beyond her sight.
British author Kate Pullinger based her American debut on the life of Lady Duff Gordon, a progressive Englishwoman who traveled to Egypt in the 1860s seeking relief from her tuberculosis. She settled in Luxor, where she was the only European, and proceeded to cut her hair short, dress in men’s clothing, study Islam, learn Arabic, and hold salons where she discussed religion, philosophy, and politics with the local men. Her discourses home were published in Letters From Egypt, which has been in print almost continuously since 1865.
Rather than focusing on Gordon directly, Pullinger tells her story through her maid’s eyes. Next to nothing is known about Naldrett, so Pullinger weaves a version largely of her own design. The character is thin, though, a loyal servant who chose to be a spinster rather than give up her position by her lady’s side. In Egypt, Naldrett falls in love with Gordon’s local guide, and becomes pregnant with his child. Initially, Naldrett informs readers that her relationship with her mistress doesn’t end well. The foreshadowing is unnecessary: The results of her actions are always predictable, exacerbated by all the time she spends thinking about how her mistress will react to her pregnancy, or mourning afterward how unfair her treatment has been. While other characters continuously discuss how cruel and unreasonable Gordon’s behavior is toward her servant, it’s hard to hate her too much, because even Naldrett understands her mistress’ reactions. As much as Gordon attempts to embody the vivacious socialite, she’s a dying woman in exile from her home and family, and she can’t bear to be too close to someone with the love and happiness she’s abandoned.
Meanwhile, a fascinating story plays out at the edges of Naldrett’s perception. The ambitions of Egypt’s ruler take a heavy toll on the country’s people, who are required to hand over their camels and food for military campaigns, or pressed into slave labor. The later chapters are highly tense, as rumors of armed rebellion spread, Naldrett’s lover becomes involved in revolutionary politics, and Gordon is threatened for speaking out against government policies. All these issues stay in the background and are eventually dropped entirely as the fate of Naldrett and her baby dominate the plot. They’re tantalizing hints at what a worthwhile book Pullinger could have written with a better protagonist.