By Ron Charles
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; 7:02 PM
It's a sad fact of American publishing that a literary award given in Canada is like a tree falling in the forest. Despite our shared language, our integrated economy and the world's longest friendly border, we're still a lot more attentive to our old masters in England than to our amicable neighbors up north. Every American newspaper that takes book coverage seriously writes about who's nominated for the Booker Prize 3,000 miles away, but Canadian award winners right next door generate all the excitement of Victoria Day.
I wish this were the prelude to a harangue about the provincialism of American literary taste (Yes, Canada has more to offer than Margaret Atwood!), but sometimes a nation's book prizes do it no favors. Case in point: the Governor General's Literary Award, which since 1936 has strived to identify the finest in Canadian literature. Even accounting for the usual politics and distortions of the judging process, what can justify passing up Alice Munro's "Too Much Happiness" and giving the $25,000 prize to this little historical romance by Kate Pullinger called "The Mistress of Nothing"?
Based on the true story of a wealthy 19th-century writer named Lady Duff Gordon and her personal maid, the novel promises themes that should resonate with modern-day readers: class conflict, feminism, Muslim-Western relations and political unrest in Egypt. But its exploration of these rich subjects never disturbs the ruffles of costume drama.
Drawing on Gordon's "Letters From Egypt" (1865) and Katherine Frank's biography "A Passage to Egypt" (1994), Pullinger retells and remakes a story that, frankly, plays better as history. (Gordon's great-great-grandson, British historian Antony Beevor, has already objected to the novel's blurring of fact and fiction in the Guardian.) By all accounts - her own and others' - Lady Gordon was an extraordinary woman: a successful translator, a fearless international traveler, a witty social observer and a charming iconoclast. That she accomplished all this under the shadow of a medical death sentence makes her life even more remarkable.
When Pullinger's novel opens, Gordon is struggling to find a climate that might tame the symptoms of her tuberculosis. In desperation, she leaves her husband and children behind in England and travels to Egypt, where she settles in Luxor and becomes a local curiosity and respected hostess. She learns Arabic, dresses as an Egyptian man "with a dash of Bedouin tribesman thrown in," sets up an ad hoc clinic during epidemics, entertains local officials and visiting Europeans, and composes letters that are entertaining and, at times, daringly critical of the tyrannical Egyptian government.
Pullinger's innovation is to retell the story of Gordon's life from the point of view of her personal maid, Sally. It's like a female version of Ronald Harwood's play "The Dresser," a close examination of the fraught relationship between an employer and a servant who must slide deftly among the roles of friend, confidant, nurse and slave. Gordon made friendly references to Sally in her published letters about her adventures in Egypt, but Pullinger knows how badly this relationship ended. In fact, "The Mistress of Nothing" opens with Sally's bitter announcement: "The truth is that, to her, I was not fully human. . . . She loved me, there's no question of that, and I knew it and had felt secure in it, but it transpired that she loved me like a favored household pet. . . . When I did wrong, I was dismissed."
Announcing this eventual rift at the opening allows us to see the approaching crisis from thousands of miles away, which poses a dramatic problem in a novel short on drama. And, disappointingly, when their breakup does occur, Pullinger offers little more insight or analysis than we received on the first page. Gordon remains the bright though capricious mistress, and Sally remains the dutiful though disappointed servant, prone to making thoroughly self-aware comments about her situation that any sociology major at Mount Holyoke would applaud.
We get little inklings about the political unrest in Egypt, but it's seen through a gauze, as are Sally's sexual explorations with Gordon's dragoman. "My Lady had come to Egypt to evade death," the virginal narrator tells us, "but in Egypt I found life." And when the scarves start to fly, that 19th-century Harlequin style takes over: "He drew me down beside him on his sleeping mat and we began. We began and we began and we began and it was perfect. I had not known it could be so perfect." I've never been to Egypt, but I don't believe that for a moment.
After the stork arrives and shatters the harmonious British salon in the desert, the rest of the novel is held hostage by Lady Gordon's hissy fit, as this dying grande dame drags herself through the halls like a jealous dorm mother trying to catch her horny kids in flagrante again. Sally wonders how she'll survive without her employer's protection, while her inscrutable lover promises that everything will work out fine. She's having none of it: "My life was ruined," she sighs. "I was destroyed."
Like most things in this novel, the rumors of Sally's destruction are somewhat exaggerated. As a light romance with a certain historical flair, "The Mistress of Nothing" is diverting enough. But a great nation's greatest novel? O, Canada, that's loonie.
Charles is The Post's fiction editor.
THE MISTRESS OF NOTHING
By Kate Pullinger
250 pp. $24