Lady Duff Gordon, the real-life dame of Victorian letters, gets mercilessly scrutinized in Kate Pullinger’s latest novel, which is told through the eyes of Sally Naldrett, Duff Gordon’s faithful servant, who rises through the ranks of the housekeeping staff to become her lady’s personal mistress. Duff Gordon is about as benevolent as they come in Victorian England, and when she is forced to move to Egypt due to persistent tuberculosis, she takes Sally along as her sole companion. But, as the word “mistress” in the title suggests, this is Sally’s story. She has worked for the Duff Gordon household for most of her adult life, and now, at 30, Sally is resigned (and seems quite content) to serve her lady indefinitely.
Pullinger, who took over a decade to write The Mistress of Nothing in part because of her aversion to historical fiction, seems preoccupied with characterizing Sally as virtuous, dutiful, and possessing all the stereotypical traits of Victorian servant women. As is bluntly foreshadowed in the first chapter, Sally finds love and a family of her own in Egypt, only to be shunned by Duff Gordon, who fires her and turns Sally’s husband, Omar, against her. It’s a desperate situation, often recounted in Sally’s stilted, play-by-play narration, as when she is forced to leave her infant son Abdullah with Omar’s parents: “I was always crying, all day and all night.… I was damp with sorrow and self-pity. I knew it was the best I could do: I needed to work, Abdullah needed a family.” Pullinger’s decision to have Sally narrate the story ultimately weakens the characterization.
Despite the conventionally drawn characters, Pullinger has at least created a compelling study of love in all its guises. The relationships are gritty, complicated by duty and caste: mother and son, husband and (multiple) wives, and the perverted interaction between a lady and her mistress, which is more akin to that of master and slave.