The Mistress of Nothing, Paperback

The Mistress of Nothing Paperback

4 out of 5 (2 ratings)


Lady Duff Gordon is the toast of Victorian London. But when her debilitating tuberculosis means exile, she and her devoted lady's maid, Sally, set sail for Egypt.

It is Sally who describes, with a mixture of wonder and trepidation, the odd menage marshalled by the resourceful Omar, which travels down the Nile to a new life in Luxor.

As Lady Duff Gordon undoes her stays and takes to native dress, throwing herself into weekly salons; language lessons; excursions to the tombs; Sally too adapts to a new world, affording her heady and heartfelt freedoms never known before.

But freedom is a luxury that a maid can ill-afford, and when Sally grasps more than her status entitles her to, she is brutally reminded that she is mistress of nothing.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Historical romance
  • ISBN: 9781846687112



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Review by

The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger is a sweeping tale focused on the lives of two English women, their relationship and their experiences. The story is drawn from the known historical accounts of the last years of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, who traveled to Egypt in the 1860's with only her lady's maid, Sally Naldrett, and settled in the Upper Nile region in the hopes that the dry Egyptian climate would be a cure for her tuberculosis. While much is written about Lady Duff Gordon, including her own published letters, Letters From Egypt, little is known about her lady's maid Sally. Pullinger has crafted a story of their time in Egypt told from the point of view of Sally. Lady Duff Gordon, a woman of some standing in Victorian society, is portrayed as a strong woman capable of easily adapting to her surroundings and an individual that is not afraid to fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Within months of settling in the Upper Nile region of Luxor, Lady Duff Gordon has shed her stifling English wardrobe for flowing Egyptian clothing, shorn her hair, started to learn conversational Arabic and hosting salons for intellectual discussions with the local Egyptian society. Sally, timidly at first, starts to follow the example of her employer and slowly sheds the stiff wardrobe and customs of an English household. We watch as Sally evolves from what has been almost a cloistered existence to one of freedom and expression. Sally's innocence slowly drops away as she transforms into a woman, whom in her thirties, is experiencing life for the first time.The story is a interesting examination of society of the time period, both European and Egyptian, and the evolution of the relationship between Sally and Lady Duff Gordon, from employee-employer, care giver-patient, to near equals, to abandonment and betrayal. The prose is rich and flows slow, steady and even, almost like the Nile itself. Overall, a great story to lose oneself in.

Review by

In 1865, Lady Lucie Duff Gordon’s Letters From Egypt were published, telling of her experiences as well-respected English woman forced to relocate to a warmer climate in order to survive tuberculosis. In her letters, she mentions Sally, her lady’s maid, but gives very little information about her. With this novel, Kate Pullinger attempts to fill that gap and tell Sally’s story. The story is well written; I really liked Pullinger’s sparse style. The premise was interesting and I loved the way Sally’s first view of Egypt from their boat was described. Her sense of awe and her joy were conveyed perfectly. I also really enjoyed all of the details of Egyptian life. A couple of elements made the book unsatisfying, despite the good writing. First, the love story between Sally and Omar seemed unrealistic. There wasn’t any build-up leading to it, it just happened and even though Sally is aware that Omar is already married, that fact never really comes into play until very late in the story. That left me wondering the entire time, “But what about...?” In addition, Lady Duff Gordon’s reaction to Sally and Omar’s relationship seems very inconsistent with the way her character was developed throughout the novel and is never explained. In the end, I was left with more questions than any resolutions to the story.