Kate Pullinger’s Historical Fiction Novel: “Mistress of Nothing” Takes us to Lady Duff Gordon’s Egypt

by | Nov 19, 2020

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Last updated on November 19th, 2023

About this Book

By Carolyn Ray

We’re setting sail to Egypt with ‘Mistress of Nothing’ by Kate Pullinger. We loved this book – it’s unconventional, inspiring and takes us to a time before mass tourism. And it’s about a real person, Lady Duff Gordon.

Lady Duff Gordon was a real person. Lucie, Lady Duff-Gordon (24 June 1821 – 14 July 1869) was a Victorian writer, traveller and highly unconventional intellectual whose celebrated salons were attended by Tennyson, Thackeray and George Meredith. In 1862, at the age of 40, creeping tuberculosis led her to leave her beloved husband and children in England and travel to Egypt with her lady’s maid, Sally. where it was hoped that the hot, dry climate would speed her recovery.

She settled in Luxor, learnt Arabic, and wrote many letters about Egyptian culture, religion, and customs. Her letters are notable for humour, outrage at the ruling Ottomans, and many personal stories from the people around her. She is best known for her Letters from Egypt, 1863–1865 (1865) and Last Letters from Egypt (1875), most of which are addressed to her husband, Alexander Duff-Gordon, and her mother, Sarah Austin. (Source: Wikipedia)

house on hill

Our Take on this Novel 

Once I picked up this book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s an easy read, beautifully written, and perfect for summer! I could almost imagine myself barging on the Nile. I loved that it was about a real woman and admired her courage and resilience. 

If you love history and imagining ‘the way things were’, you’ll love this book too! This is a sold 4 out of 5 boots!  

Carolyn and Wendy, your book club hosts 

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Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger

Recommended by: Susan
Published in: 2009
Country: Egypt

Abstract: Kate Pullinger’s Governor General’s Literary Award-winning novel about a lady, her maid and the man that comes between them. Lady Duff Gordon is the toast of Victorian London society but when she contracts tuberculosis, she and her devoted lady’s maid, Sally, set sail for Egypt and an entirely new life. Sally and Lady Duff Gordon thrive in their new and exotic surroundings, learning Arabic, adopting native dress and visiting the tombs of ancient pharaohs. Soon, Sally adapts to this new world and to the heady freedom she’s never known before. But freedom and romance are luxuries a lady’s maid can ill afford. When Sally yearns for more than her status entitles her to, she receives a brutal reminder that she is the mistress of nothing.

The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger


Kate Pullinger was born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, and went to high school on Vancouver Island. She dropped out of McGill University, Montreal, after a year and a half of not studying philosophy and literature, then spent a year working in a copper mine in the Yukon, northern Canada, where she crushed rocks and saved money. She spent that money travelling and ended up in London, England, where she has been ever since. She is married and has two children.

Kate Pullinger is Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University where she is also Director of the Centre for Research in the Cultural and Creative Industries.

In 2009 Pullinger’s novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes. It was also longlisted for the Giller Prize. 

Source: https://www.katepullinger.com/


“What happens when you leave everything behind? When you leave everything familiar, not just houses and streets and wet windy wintertime, but husbands, children, friends? None of these things followed us into Egypt. Does this mean I am no longer the same person? Does this mean that I too have changed?” (p.39)


1. What is your favourite part or passage of the book and why?

2. Why do you feel Lady Duff Gordon cast out Sally so harshly? Was she betrayed? Did she truly have an issue with propriety?

3. Following those lines of thought, why does she not treat Omar similarly? Why is she so certain that Sally “tricked” Omar into impregnating her?

4. Should Omar have stayed as loyal as he did to Lady Duff Gordon? Did he fail to protect Sally and Abdullah in the right way? To whom does he owe more loyalty?

5. Sally performs one more “treatment” on her Lady before she is cast out of the house. Would it have been easy, as she stated, to make the cut too deep? Was there a part of you that wanted her take that sort of action against her sick employer?

6. Discuss the relationships and interactions in Omar’s father’s house. How did you react to Sally and Mabrouka’s growing friendship? What commonalities do you see between them? Should Omar have allowed Sally to live with his Cairo family?

7.By story’s end, is Sally still an Englishwoman? Is she an Egyptian? Considering Abdullah and her position at the Nile hotel, is she still a “mistress of nothing”?

8. How did the Egyptian setting affect the mood and urgency of the story? Consider the trip up the Nile, the excursion to the Valley of Kings, the political uprising and spreading riots against the Pasha’s Suez schemes, and the French House elevated above the struggling village of Luxor

9. Why is Sir Alick put off by his wife’s appearance and lifestyle when he finally visits her in Egypt? Is Lady Duff Gordon’s family still indeed family?

10. Discuss the various members of and visitors to the Luxor household. Which did you enjoy reading about the most? Consider Omar, Ahmed, Mohammed, and Mustafa Agha.

11. Is life on the Nile a new beginning, or some form of afterlife?

SPECIAL GUEST: Allison Villasenor

Joining us to share her expertise on Egypt will be Allison Villasenor, the Managing Director for Club Adventures, powered by AAA Exclusive Vacations. Club Adventures offers a lineup of small group adventure tours, helping Members to explore the world through a local lens.

An avid discoverer and lover of connections, Allison has traveled the world in search of authentic travel experiences for over 15 years. In her role, Allison guides strategic vision, product development, sales and operations.

To learn more about available tours, visit: https://clubadventures.com/


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