Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Green Books Campaign: The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

Here it is : The Green Books Campaign, organized by Eco-Libris. 200 of us bloggers are simultaneously posting reviews, each of a different green book, that is, a book printed on either recycled paper or on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Here's a piece from the press release:
By turning a spotlight on books printed using greener methods, Eco-Libris aims to raise consumer awareness about considering the environment when making book purchases. This year’s participation of both bloggers and books has doubled from the event’s inception last year.

Founded in 2007, Eco-Libris ( is a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices in the industry, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. To achieve these goals Eco-Libris is working with book readers, publishers, authors, bookstores, and others in the book industry worldwide. So far Eco-Libris has balanced out more than 150,000 books, resulting in more than 165,000 new trees planted with its planting partners in developing countries. To learn more visit
My choice for the campaign is the historical novel, The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger, which is printed on FSC-certified paper by Serpent's Tail in the UK and McArthur and Co in Canada.

The Mistress of Nothing won the 2009 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes, and was long-listed for the Giller Prize. It's a novel based on a striking real-life story, that of the unconventional Victorian intellectual Lady Duff Gordon, who was forced to travel to Egypt as a cure for her raging consumption, leaving behind her husband and children including a toddler. She was accompanied at first by only her maid, thirty-year-old Sally Naldrett, but once in Cairo, took on also the dragoman Omar Abu Halaweh, settling in Luxor and finally dying in Egypt of her disease. The whole time, she wrote letters home which were published and famed and I understand are in print to this day, and provide the springboard for this novel.

The novel however does not take Duff Gordon's viewpoint, but most interestingly consists of the first-person account of the maid, Sally, about whom in reality very little is known. The book elaborates, as Pullinger explains in an article in the Independent, on a single curious paragraph in a biography of Lucie Duff Gordon, which points however to a dramatic story involving Sally and the dragoman Omar. (I'm not linking to the article, since to savour fully the tension of the book you'd be better not to read the paragraph beforehand.)

The Sally of the novel is the devoted lady's maid and nurse, orphaned and then abandoned and sent into service at an early age, who views Lady Duff Gordon, a colourful and expansive figure who treats her servants with generosity and concern, as something of a saviour. Of an adventurous and curious nature herself, Sally is perfectly happy - indeed excited - to be accompanying her mistress on the journey to Egypt. As they journey south along the Nile (in search of drier air for Lucie's lungs) and settle in Luxor, European conventions fall away: first Lucie and then Sally adopt Arab dress, and they abandon their formal relationship, reading together in the afternoons and brushing each other's hair. It seems, to the reader and also to Sally herself, that they have become less mistress and maid than companions. And yet the moment Sally steps over a line she had not realised was there, her mistress turns against her and brings to bear on her the full force of offended rank, with tragic consequences.

The story is told in the plain language of a maid taught to read by her mistress, generally formal while very occasionally - usually in moments of emotion - swinging towards the demotic, and marked by the emotional restraint which Sally herself confesses characterises her: she had been taught at an early age, she says, to bite down on her emotions. It is a testament to Pullinger's skill, therefore, that, via this medium, she conjures a vivid, indeed emotive picture of Egypt, and the very restraint of the account makes Sally's predicament all the more moving when it occurs. The mode of telling does exact a certain price in terms of story/plot: Sally is never clear why there is such a dramatic reversal in Lady Duff Gordon's attitude to her: is it that Sally has misconstrued her all along, or is Lucie's reversal an understandable inconsistency resulting from Lucie's own personal trials, including jealousy? And if that last, jealousy of what, exactly? Sally asks herself all these questions, but is unable to answer them, and the reader, restricted to her viewpoint, must remain as uncertain as she. The ending leaves us with another uncertainty: Sally's predicament hinges on Omar's dependence on the good favours of Lady Gordon Duff, and we do not know whether the lady's death at the end releases the pair from her strictures. But then the novel, having plucked Sally and Omar out of obscurity into the vivid world of story, thus finally re-enacts the uncertainty of the trajectory of their real lives, and in this way is very moving indeed.

You can read the other reviews here.
To see how many books were saved in the printing of The Mistress of Nothing and for more information about the environmental characteristics of the paper used to print it, as well as to take the green book quiz, visit Webcom, the print provider for McArthur & Company Publishing.
Please take part also by leaving comments on the blogs, and pass on the word and your opinions via Twitter and Facebook.


avisannschild said...

This book was my next choice had the book I requested not been available. I don't think I've read anything by this author before and this one sounds really good. Great review!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, I recommend it!

Serena said...

Stopping by from one of the other campaign stops...sounds like an interesting book...wonder why the author chose the maid's POV.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Well, I think it's extremely interesting that she has done so, Serena: I'd say because the untold stories, those of the people without voices, are so often the interesting ones, but also, as Kate Pullinger says, her interest was sparked by the brief comment in the biography of the lady which indicates that the maid's story was a very dramatic one indeed...