Certain imprints have a certain style: Serpent's Tail, for instance, I always think of as 'a bit edgy'. They, after all, have brought us (perhaps most famously) Lionel Shriver's 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' (about a boy who murders his fellow students), Jonathan Trigell's 'Boy A' by (another child murdering child), Daniel Davies's Isle of Dogs (about sex between strangers in car parks), and Patricia Duncker's 'Hallucinating Foucault' (a homosexual writer's obsession with a lunatic asylum patient). They have also published one of Kate's previous books, 'A Little Stranger' (which the Guardian described as 'pleasantly disturbing'). They tend to be based in the present (or recent past) about difficult issues - and are challenging and thought-provoking reads.
At first 'The Mistress of Nothing' by Kate Pullinger seems to be different. It is an historical novel. The sexual coupling is not explicit. The first half of the book seems rooted in the well-written conventional setting of 'the Empire'. It is thoroughly enjoyable but not, apparently, Serpent's Tail fare. The maid is loyal in the devoted nineteenth century way. The mistress has tuberculosis and the two go down the Nile in search of hot air and a cure. There is a scene involving wet cupping that is graphic but it soon passes - most of the time we are on the river with Sally languidly wishing our clothes were a little less constraining and we could bare a hand or a leg and dangle them in the water.
Eventually, of course, something happens to change all this. No one can resist the eroticism of Egypt for long. Bodies sweat, become curious, then wake despite themselves. It is then that the expertise of the writer becomes apparent. The desultory and arid setting of the Nile becomes the necessary background for the rest of the book. Like all of us, Sally is capable of misinterpreting people. Her mistress, Lady Lucie Duff Gordon (a historical figure) is courageous and has always helped people in distress, and so when she says: 'I'm not surprised Sally Naldrett, to find you capable of this.' Sally believes it is clearly an indication of her admiration of her loyal maid.
What happens next is shocking, sad and believable. People are not consistent; Lady Duff Gordon shows herself to be modern in that she is liberated, fearless and charitable - but only to those who suit her self-image. As Madonna 'rescues' a child from an orphanage in Milawi with a great fanfare ... into the arms of a nanny, so Lady Duff Gordon treats the poor villagers around her, while in her quieter private life she is less valiant. And it becomes apparent that 'The Mistress of Nothing' is a Serpent's Tail book after all - just as edgy and thought-provoking - but a more subtle, nineteenth century version.
Kate Pullinger was born in Canada, and moved to London in 1982 where she still lives. She is the author of Tiny Lies, a collection of short stories, and the novels When the Monster Dies and Weird Sister. She collaborated with Jane Campion on the novel of the film The Piano, and has written for film, television and radio. She is currently lecturer in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University.
Questions about 'The Mistress of Nothing'
CD: You've written highly acclaimed books with contemporary and historical settings. Why did you choose to write a novel set in the nineteenth century?' KP: In 1995, when I first read Katherine Frank’s wonderful biography, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon’, I was grabbed by the story of Sally and Omar and that Christmas Eve on a boat on the Nile. To tell you the truth, I’m not that big of a fan of historical fiction, but this story really compelled me; I am a big fan of Egypt though, so learning about Egypt during this period – the building of the Suez Canal, etc., was fascinating. But the period also caused problems – the Victorians are so familiar to us and in many ways the territory is full of clichés – Victorian Lady Travellers, orientalism, etc.
CD: Was there much to go on?
KP: Well, Lucie Duff Gordon’s life is well known and well documented, but nothing is known about what happened to Sally Naldrett. But the fact that there was so little to go on with regards to Sally gave me a lot of freedom when it came to figuring out a story for her. I think if her life had been better documented I wouldn’t have wanted to write the novel.
CD: Egypt comes through clearly and vividly in this novel - and I see that you had grants from the Author's Foundation to enable you to travel there. What did you learn through travelling to Egypt that helped you to bring the setting so alive?
KP: Well, I’ve only been to Egypt twice, once when I was in my 20s and I travelled with a friend for several weeks, and then again, three days in Luxor, in 1999, using that grant from the Author’s Foundation you mention. I was frustrated that I couldn’t get to Egypt more (lack of money, two small children, etc) but I consoled myself by reminding myself that I couldn’t ever travel to Luxor in 1863. But having been there twice helped a lot, and those three days in Luxor were crucial. Luxor isn’t all that different from how it would been in Sally’s time; at night the tourists all get back on their boat-hotels and the town reverts to a sleepy village. I spent a lot of time in Luxor Temple, figuring out where the French House must have been (there are photos of it), looking at the sky, at the Nile at night. Egyptian ruins are the most beautiful ruins I’ve ever seen, and I’m fascinated by modern Egypt and they way it lives with, ignores, and celebrates, its ancient past.
CD: Did you have any difficulties finding out how different nineteenth century Egypt was from modern Egypt?
KP: My main source of research in that regard was reading novels by Egyptians, in particular, of course, the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz. These books are set at the very beginning of the twentieth century, but the family life as it is depicted then would have been very similar to family life fifty years earlier. Also, in the 1860s Egypt was in the midst of a phase called its Belle Époque and there’s been a fair amount written about that. I did a lot of reading around the lives of Victorian domestic servants as well, though there is surprisingly little written about that.
CD: I thought the problems with dress came over very well indeed. How did you go about researching this?
KP: The story about Lucie Duff Gordon abandoning European dress is in Katherine Frank’s biography, so I just extrapolated from that. Of course, removing those clothes is hugely significant – the way we all dress has significance beyond covering up our bodies. And the details about Sally wearing Lucie’s cast off clothes, adapting them for her own use – this was common in all those households.
CD: Are there any members of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon's family alive today? Have they read your novel?
KP: The eminent historian Antony Beevor is Lucie Duff Gordon’s great-great-grandson. He has read the novel now, and I believe he has written something about it for the national press. Stay tuned.
CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
KP: My nine year old loves snails and tries to shield them from the wrath of her father, the gardener. When I was 19 I dropped out of university and went to live in the Yukon Territory, northern Canada. Oddly enough, there was a very good French restaurant in Whitehorse, which is otherwise a rough and ready town of miners and actual gold-diggers. My brother-in-law and I used to go eat there and I used to always have escargot. Mind you, I used to eat steak tartare as well. However, one year later I became a vegetarian and now the idea of escargot fills me with horror!
CD: What is your proudest moment?
KP: As a parent one has many moments when you almost burst with the most ridiculous pride. However, for myself, I guess one of the most amazing moments in my life was when, out of the blue, I had a letter from an editor at Jonathan Cape, saying how much she liked my short stories, and did I have more stories as they were interested in publishing a collection. This letter arrived on Christmas Eve. I was 26. Publishing has changed so much since then, an event like that would never happen now, or at least, it would be very very unlikely to happen.
CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
KP: See above!
CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
KP: This is hard – it’s either got to be something that is in fact so awful it is almost beyond comprehension – the terrifying genocide in Rwanda – or so banal as to be ridiculous – the day I dropped my iPhone on a stone and shattered its lovely face.
CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
KP: Ha ha! Lord knows – too many to mention – the fact my hair went grey when I was in my twenties and now that I’m in my 40s is almost completely white, too white to dye?!
CD: What is happiness?
KP: Writing fiction, for books or for my digital projects. And then not writing fiction and going on holiday to places that are hot and dry with my family where I can swim, read, and drink chilled wine.
CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
KP: Put on my spectacles. Can’t function otherwise.