“The truth is that she hated me for being happy. She hated me for finding love when love had deserted her. She hated me for creating a family when she had lost hers.”
The idea of historical fiction is one that tends to conjure up images of book covers for Ellis Peters type thrillers about monks and monasteries or alternatively something about the plague.
So it was with some trepidation that Kate Pullinger’s Mistress of Nothing was picked up. But there are a few reasons why this book works compared to perhaps some of the other offerings on the market. Firstly, Pullinger has clearly done her research and been to the location of her novel’s setting Egypt. That makes it more a work based in fact than imagination.
Secondly, the backdrop and the timing are integral to the novel not just being used for the sake of being different. Let me explain further. Some times a Roman backdrop feels as if it has been put in because of their associations the reader has with that era of excess, war and emperors. Here the reader is likely to come to a world of class and politics in an old Egypt that is new to them. That means that Pullinger has to work at describing and setting the action.
In one sense this is a story about class and jealousy. A loyal servant finds love and chooses to keep that from her faithful employer. Once the secret is out the relationship breaks down completely. That is handled well although as a reader you are left frustrated with the impotence of a system that was only on the side of one set of people. But that was the reality and Pullinger also paints an interesting picture of the politics of a virtual dictator who is taking the men from the villages to build and die constructing his dreams.
What makes this book work so well is the descriptive powers that are deployed by Pullinger. You can visualise the hot Luxor environment, the small Bedouin children and the camel drives. Her ability to develop characters also means you can see the pain and anger as the relationships between the three pivotal characters changes.
The story weaves in several themes of love, class, duty and the scents and sounds of a different world in Cairo and Luxor. Into that mix are Sally the loyal maidservant and her mistress Lucie Duff Gordon. They are friends, at least Sally thinks so, and as Duff Gordon’s illness worsens and she heads to the deserts for drier air the two women become almost equals. But the arrival of the local man servant Omar changes the dynamics and his affair with Sally threatens to ruin everything.
How did you first stumble across this story? Did the Duff Gordon letters pull you into the story of Sally or was it the other way round?
In fact I first came across this story in Katherine Frank’s biography, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon’, which I read in 1995. It’s a wonderful biography, which tells the whole of Lucie’s life story, and the story of Sally is a tiny episode – just a few lines really. Frank described what happened that Christmas Eve on the Nile and my imagination was captured by the drama of that scene and the fact that Sally had hidden so much from Lucie.
Did the idea of setting a book in Egypt and the realisation you would have to travel there to do research excite you or were you wary of the amount of research and travelling you would have to do?
I’ve always been fascinated by Egypt – I spent several weeks there travelling when I was twenty. While writing this novel I was only able to return to Egypt once – I spent four days in Luxor in 1999. But being able to dwell in Egypt in my mind’s eye, in my imagination, and through the research, was pure pleasure. I’d done historical research for a couple of my other books (‘Weird Sister’, a contemporary novel, was based on an actual witch trail that took place in 1593, and ‘The Last Time I Saw Jane’ had one of three narrative threads that was based on a true story from the 19th Century) so I knew what it would entail. I’m not keen on historical novels where you can feel the writer’s research, so for me the bigger challenge was to find ways to leave the research behind and escape into the story. While I would have loved to have spent more time in Egypt, I told myself that I couldn’t visit Egypt in 1863! But Luxor is, basically, a sleepy old town, especially at night when the vast majority of tourists get on their Nile tour boat-hotels and leave. I found those four days gave me enough of the smells and sights – the night sky, the Nile – to go on.
There are at least two occasions where Sally voices her feelings commenting that she could find it easy to hate Lady Duff Gordon but she doesn’t. Did you make Sally voice those views to try and keep the reader open minded about the characters?
For me it was more about imagining how Sally would feel – she loved Lucie and she found it hard to stop loving her, despite Lucie’s awful actions. Also, I think when people feel guilty about something they blame themselves, and obviously Sally was as much to blame over what happened as both Lucie and Omar. So it wasn’t so much about thinking about the reader in that instance, but more about trying to figure out the complex cocktail of emotions that Sally must have felt. There was much to admire about Lady Duff Gordon, and Sally wouldn’t have forgotten that. She’d been in her household for so many years. Also, I think some readers will identify with Lucie as well and will see what Sally did as a betrayal.
You manage to paint a background of political unrest, conflicting behaviour because of religion and the tension between the classes without ever overdoing it. Was it a challenge weaving all those themes into the story?
This was a big challenge for me – to get the facts right at the same time as using the political backdrop to add to the tension. My North American agent, who always wants everything I write to be bigger and louder and more dramatic, felt strongly that I should make much more of these events, but I wasn’t comfortable with pushing the story in that direction. I stuck pretty close to the known facts of Lucie, Sally, and Omar’s lives together; I only really escaped into fiction when it came to imagining what Sally felt, and then imagining what happened to Sally once she left Luxor.
You mention in your author’s notes that this book too quite a long time to come to fruition did you ever fear you would not be able to tell the story?
You know, I never considered abandoning it completely, despite the fact I had to leave it to one side and write other things many times. I just had to find a way to tell the story, and the story never lost its power for me. The embarrassing thing is that it took me ages and ages to figure out that it had to be completely from Sally’s point of view – I didn’t do that with the novel until very late in the process, but it seems completely obvious now. Sigh! When I teach creative writing I bang on and on about the importance of point of view, getting point of view right from early on in the process, but I flailed about like an idiot with that on this book.
In a way the story of Sally is left with room for more exploration. Would you ever consider a follow-up novel? ‘The tale of Sally’s adventures in Cairo’?
I would consider it, yes! But not for a few years… I’m going to see what happens with this book before I make any decisions at all about what kind of book to write next. I’ve got a bunch of digital projects I’m involved in, lots of collaborations, as well as libretto for an opera based on ‘Dorian Gray’, so I’m really enjoying not having to grapple with a novel currently! Writing a novel can be so overwhelming – so many words, so many things to juggle – wonderful to be finished!