Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Mistress of Nothing Lady's Maid

Hi Flower!

Like many other people I have been watching and loving Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater. It's well written, well acted and gorgeous looking, isn't it? The Upstairs Downstairs of it all created a perfect storm in which I read two novels: The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger and Lady's Maid by
Margaret Forster. Both of these books are, like Downton Abbey about strong, entitled women and their devoted maids.

The Mistress of Nothing takes it's start from real life. Lady Lucie Duff Gordon wrote her famous Letters from Egypt in the 1860's after being forced to go there from her home in England because of consumption. Although Gordon was a famous entertainer and trendsetter in England she was not rich. So when she was forced to leave her family and go away for her health she was only able to bring one maid along with her, Sally Naldrett. Once in Egypt both women go native. They abandon their Victorian expectations and the social conventions of their times. For the first time in their lives they experience freedom of mind and body. The two also become friends rather then mistress and servant. They learn Arabic, dress in traditional Egyptian clothing and are accepted and welcomed into the local Egyptian community.

Lady's Maid also takes historical fact and expands it into a novel. It is the story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning as told through the eyes of Barrett's maid, Lily Wilson. Wilson as Barrett called her, was instrumental in getting Barrett's correspondence to Browning during their romance. When the famous couple eloped to Italy Wilson accompanied them. Wilson lived her life through Barrett's. She was Barrett's maid, companion, confidante, nurse and support through every crisis and success.

The working lives of Sally Naldrett and Lily Wilson put them each in a position to contribute to literature and history and yet they remained far away on the outskirts of both. It was clever of Pullinger and Forster to use peripheral people in the lives of the well known as the conduits for stories of the celebrities and for their hypocrisy.

Sally and Wilson are each lulled into a false intimacy with Gordon and Barrett through their own loyalty and proximity. The maids have spent their adult lives in a servitude of adoration. They are encouraged to see themselves as valued members of the family. Free thinking and modern women that Gordon and Barrett are they pride themselves on the equality and respect they have for their servants. That is until Sally and Wilson both cross a line. In each case they are frightened about their future but confident that Gordon and Barrett whom they have cared for, nurtured and seen through countless hardships will stand by them.

In The Mistress of Nothing, Pullinger does a very good job recreating Egypt in the 1860's. It's a fascinating look at a native culture outside of the colonial system of the time. The novel hums along interestingly covering Egypt, medicine and the relationships between Sally, Gordon and their local dragoman, Omar, until it gets to Sally's crisis. Just when the conflict in this story truly begins, the drama ends. Overall The Mistress of Nothing was a disappointment. The only surprise for me was that the book was the winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award in 2009.

Lady's Maid is a wholly convincing, absorbing study of the relationship between unequal people who live in each others pockets. Forster's portrait of regimented, cold, Victorian England juxtaposed with warm, languorous Italy is marvelous. It is Forster's intricate dissection of what it is like for a servant, even a treasured one, to live within and yet outside of a family that is the payoff in this novel. There is a powerful subtly to Forster's writing that I was completely astonished by. I would read any of her other novels in a heartbeat.


No comments:

Post a Comment