Early in Kate Pullinger's new novel, The Mistress of Nothing, protagonist Sally Naldrett is asked by a fellow servant why she spends her one day off a month in the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum. "Because I like the mystery," Sally says.
The character has that in common with her creator. Unanswered questions about this real-life lady's maid prompted Pullinger to spend more than a decade riffling through Letters from Egypt by Sally's employer, 19th-century writer and free-thinker Lady Lucie Duff Gordon. Pullinger also read and reread Katherine Frank's 1994 biography, Lucie Duff Gordon: A Passage to Egypt, in search of clues to illuminate Sally's banishment from Duff Gordon's service in Egypt.
The cause of Sally's disgrace is recorded in a passage in Frank's biography which, Pullinger says, "came to dominate my life for the next 14 years." Aboard ship, returning to Luxor from Cairo, Lucie was summoned to help Sally deliver herself of a child. Lady Duff Gordon hadn't known that Sally was pregnant, much less that the father was her own trusted Egyptian factotum, Omar.
Though he already had a wife and chiId, Egyptian law permitted Omar to marry Sally too. Duff Gordon consented to the marriage, but - with a spiteful rigidity uncharacteristic of such a free-wheeling soul - decreed that Sally be bundled back to England, after giving her baby to Omar's first wife.
That's as far as recorded history takes Sally. As a novelist, Pullinger takes us considerably farther, confessing in her Author's Note to playing "fast and loose with the facts" to flesh out her maid's view of Lucie Duff Gordon and to postulate what happened after Sally's dismissal.
Authors of historical fiction have been playing fast and loose for centuries, either by mingling history and histrionics the way Shakespeare did, or by inserting invented characters into real-life events, or - increasingly - riffing on historical personalities without undue concern for strict factuality. Even so, Pullinger's harsh depiction of Lucie Duff Gordon has prompted British writer Anthony Beevor to ask in The Guardian: "…(W)hy cannot novelists use the far more legitimate technique of roman-à-clef if they wish to rewrite events or characters for dramatic effect?"
As the great-great-grandson of Duff Gordon, Beevor may have personal reasons to pose this question. But it's something I wonder about too, most particularly with respect to the elusive character of Sally. Despite Pullinger's acknowledged readiness both to borrow from the facts and to depart from them, I can't help thinking that the burden of factuality, the sheer weight of those many letters by Lucie Duff Gordon, along with Katherine Frank's beautifully detailed biography, somehow inhibited Pullinger from creating a consistent, comprehensible core for Sally.
The virginal housemaid describes the ease of her sexual initiation as "perfect." She accepts the fact that Omar already has a wife. Indeed, she matriculates from a standoffish thirty-year-old who's never even wanted to be kissed to a pregnant hedonist who worries only spasmodically what will become of her once Lady Duff Gordon finds out about her and Omar.
Some aspects of Sally's awakening are understandable. Pullinger makes vivid use of Duff Gordon's letters as well as her own travels to evoke Egypt's allure for a housemaid who never felt at home in her homeland. Equally plausible are Sally's oscillations between seeing herself as her ladyship's "intimate" and fearing that she is a mere appendage, given the liberties the iconoclastic Lucie Duff Gordon allows herself and her maid - before coldly rescinding them in the wake of Sally's betrayal.
At times, however, the voice of the narrator who describes herself at the outset as "a plain-speaking woman" and promises to "tell my story plainly" varies unhelpfully. Sally's analysis of what underlies Duff Gordon's lack of "empathy" smacks more of 20th-century psychology than the 1860s. Elsewhere, she displays a susceptibility to be shocked and re-shocked by her mistress's repeated and consistent rejection that seems to belong to some other, less astute person.
For me, The Mistress of Nothing soars only when Sally - and Kate Pullinger - break altogether from the clutches of Lucie Duff Gordon and the fetters of the historical record. The final, speculative section, in which Sally defies her ladyship's orders and attempts instead to use her knowledge of Arabic and her now-outcast status to make a life for herself and her child in Cairo, is gritty, moving, and utterly believable. Perhaps that's not only because the author has been liberated from the tyranny of what really happened, but also because the reader - this reader, anyway - has been liberated too.
Of course, it was the "really happened" aspect of this story of a famous lady and her maid that piqued Pullinger's curiosity to begin with and makes its unusual aspects all the more extraordinary. However, knowing that only some of the novel's events are based on fact kept me wondering: Which ones? Was the real-life Sally so willing to share Omar with his other wife? (Katherine Frank suggests not.) Did Lady Duff Gordon really dismiss her maid without references or severance pay? (No, according to a letter to her husband.) With a roman à clef, as Beevor suggests, a reader would have less reason to quibble and less compulsion to consult the record.
Still, in making the choice to go with real names and then play fast and loose with the facts, Pullinger has set herself a challenge that also pays rich dividends. The remarkable life of Lucie Duff Gordon deserves renewed attention, and Pullinger's novel about this unconventional literary figure's even more unconventional maid yields some moving narrative which, whether factual or not, rings utterly true.
Erika Ritter's most recent non-fiction work, The Dog by the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath: Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships, also deals with the sometimes contradictory realms of historical fact, treasured assumptions and plausible speculation.