I enjoyed this month's book club selection, a good read, although I'm somewhat surprised that it won the Governor General's Award. I hadn't hear of the book or its author until it was chosen by our book club so I didn't have any particular expectations.
The Mistress of Nothing is based on the letters of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, a British translator and writer, who was forced to leave England for a drier warmer climate due to her tuberculosis. Although the Duff Gordons were a relatively prominent family, they were not particularly wealthy and Lady DG was accompanied only by her lady's maid Sally Naldrett when she set off for Egypt, settling eventually in Luxor. From Cairo, the services of a dragoman, Omar Abu Halaway were engaged for them and he took over many of the household chores, including all the cooking. The Englishwomen found the heat particularly debilitating. As the household settled into The French House in Luxor, the lines between mistress and staff blurred. Lady DG and Sally Naldrett both abandoned their stays, Lady DG taking to wearing the lighter clothing of Egyptian men, and Sally the clothing of Egyptian women. They became brown as they became less concerned about their English complexions. And in the hot afternoons they reclined on floor cushions, learning Arabic with Omar. The became a congenial relaxed group and Lady DG's health improved. It was only when Lady DG held her salons with prominent Egyptian men that the household reverted to their formal roles. As time passed, Omar and Sally fell in love and she became pregnant. The couple planned to marry although Omar already had a wife and child. This was permissible by Egyptian law. They delayed telling Lady DG about the situation until Sally gave birth to a son on the boat back to Luxor from Cairo. The progressive Lady DG, generally kind to servants, assisted with labour and delivery but refused to see Sally or the baby afterwards. Omar took over all the household duties but his position depended on his obeying Lady DG's wishes regarding his personal life. Although Sally and Omar did marry they were not allowed to live together, and Lady DG purchased a passage home to England for Sally without references, and arranged for Sally to leave baby Abdullah in Cairo with Omar's parents and his first wife. Sally may well have discovered that she was mistress of nothing when she was thus punished for her transgressions but she soon proved that she was mistress of herself.
While a good read, and interesting throughout, this novel was less dramatic than I expected. I found the frequent switching back from present to past tense slightly annoying. I enjoyed the glimpse into 19th century Egyptian culture. There will be much to discuss for the book club. As well as the characters' motivations, the issue of polygamy is sure to come up. I think the question also raises itself as to whether a self-imposed exile from all one loves, family, friends, country, is really an extension of life. Lucie Duff Gordon lived seven years in Luxor.