Three “relationship” novels read this month with varying degrees of enjoyment. All three are much discussed elsewhere, so I feel justified in giving them each what amounts to a very arbitrary micro-review. Of these three I doubt I will be returning to The Mistress of Nothing or Letter from Peking. Miss Pettigrew, however, will immediately be moving onto the keeper shelf.
This edition: McArthur & Co., 2010. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-55278-868-4. 248 pages.
My rating: 6ish/10. (Mostly for the first half of the book, which was quite engrossing, and the fact that it sent me away curious to learn more about the real Lady Duff Gordon. The last half deteriorated to a 3 or maybe, generously, a 4.)
This book won the 2009 Canadian Governor General’s Award for Fiction, to which I can only say that it must have been a quiet year in publishing.
Somewhere as I did a bit of internet research on the author and the novel, I read that Kate Pullinger worked on this for ten years. I’m assuming that it was very much a peripheral project, though I also saw that she received an Author’s Society grant to travel to Egypt for her research, and a series of Fellowships from the Royal Literary Fund. I personally think that the author should also have spent some time working on how to write a convincing bedroom scene, because the sexy bits in this one were blush inducing for all the wrong reasons, reading as though they’d been grafted into a reasonably serious historical novel from something much more slight and bodice-ripperish.
Based closely on Lady Duff Gordon: Letters From Egypt, edited by Lady Duff Gordon’s mother, Sarah Austin, and daughter, Janet Ross, and published in several volumes between 1865 and 1875, The Mistress of Nothing is, first and foremost, well researched. It is also beautifully written for the most part, making the latter plot and stylistic inconsistencies all the more glaring.
Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon was well known for her beauty and sparkling wit and moved in the highest social circles in England, though she and her husband were, relatively speaking, not all that wealthy. Lady Duff Gordon was a noted scholar, and specialized in translations of German literature. She was also doomed to an early death, for she had at some point contracted tuberculosis, and, soon after the birth of her third child, was told she must leave England for a warmer, dryer climate. Travels to South Africa and then to Egypt brought some respite, and The Mistress of Nothing follows the Egyptian sojourn which ended in Lady Duff Gordon’s death in Cairo in 1869. She was 48.
The Mistress of Nothing provides an intriguing if superficial portrait of Lady Duff Gordon, but the focus of the novel is on another genuine character, her personal maid, Sally Naldrett. Sally accompanied her mistress on her travels, and on the trip to Egypt was Lady Duff Gordon’s sole companion, as limited finances precluded anything resembling an entourage.
When the two women reached Egypt, they were fortunate in acquiring an Egyptian dragoman/factotum, one Omar, who by all reports was a devoted and efficient assistant and of great aid in every way possible. At some point Sally and Omar developed an even closer relationship; Sally became pregnant and gave birth to Omar’s child, a development unrealized by Lady Duff Gordon until the actual birth. Her Ladyship reacted in an extreme manner, refusing to have anything to do with Sally and stating that the child was to be given to Omar’s family (he was already married to an Egyptian woman) and that Sally was to return to England. Sally ended up marrying Omar – under Muslim law he was permitted multiple wives – but there was no reconciliation between her and her mistress, and Sally disappears from Lady Duff Gordon’s narrative, though she was very much still present at least on the fringes of the household for quite some time before Lady Duff Gordon’s eventual demise. Omar stayed on, and retained his position in the household as well as Lady Duff Gordon’s good graces, being recommended by her to serve in the Prince of Wales’ household after her death.
All of this is true to the historical record, and quite fascinating it is, too. It’s very easy to see why Kate Pullinger decided to elaborate on the real life framework of this dramatic trio of personalities; the story as it stands is enthralling.
Where the fictional treatment starts to unravel is where the real life letters leave off and Pullinger’s pure invention takes over. Once the (fictionalized) virginal Sally discovers the joy of sex with Omar, the narrative changes from an interesting examination of expatriate life in 1860s Egypt to a mushy pastiche of Sally’s (imagined) thoughts and emotions and Pullinger’s inventive fabrication of what Sally gets up to once cut adrift from her once-benevolent employer. Though willing to go along with the tale, I was unwillingly lost along the way, and closed the book with a feeling of deep disappointment. It was so close to being such an excellent read…
Well, I see the above got longer than the promised micro-review, though I really didn’t say too much; it’s a largish topic and there are all sorts of things I could say about the fascinating character of Lady Duff Gordon, and the roles of women in the 19th century, and class distinctions, and the vast gap between mistress and servant despite their years of physical intimacy, and the political situation in Egypt and the whole aristocratic British person living abroad thing. But others will have said it already, so I will (and not a moment too soon – the morning typing time is running out) move on to the next book on my list.
Letter From Peking by Pearl S. Buck ~ 1957.
This edition: Cardinal, 1964. Paperback. 218 pages.
My rating: 3/10
Pearl S. Buck was a prolific writer, with a number of excellent novels to her credit – The Good Earth, The Living Reed, Peony – and a whole slew of other stuff. Some of which, sadly, is not very good at all. Like this one, which sounded promising, started out not too badly, and slid downhill fast.
This might have made a decent short story, but Pearl S. Buck, by dint of much repetition and needlessly florid meanderings, padded it out into a novel.
Here’s the gist of it.
An American woman, happily married for twenty years to a half-Chinese, half-American man, leaves China with her twelve-year-old son at the start of the Communist government takeover. Her husband, due to an extreme sense of duty, remains behind in his job. (He’s the head of a Chinese university; you know already from this that it’s not going to end terribly well, what with the whole Cultural Revolution thing on the horizon.)
Back in America, the woman settles into her family home in rural Vermont, which has been conveniently waiting for her in perfect order all these years, complete with faithful (if gruff) hired man. A letter arrives. Her husband has been pressured to take on a Chinese wife, to prove his loyalty to his country. The woman puts off answering it. The son runs into issues with his mixed race ethnicity. Much emotion ensues. The woman talks. A lot. Both to herself and to anyone else who will provide a shoulder to cry on. The son decides “enough of this already, Mom’s micromanaging my life. No more confidences.” More tears.
Then the woman, all on a sudden whim, decides to track down her father-in-law, and finds him in the most unlikely circumstance, living in a small shack under the protection of a local big-wheel landowner, having lost his memory but still being cognizant enough of things to insist on dressing himself in Chinese silk gowns, of which he apparently has a whole closet full. (The father-in-law lived in China many years, and left after the death of his Chinese wife – the heroine’s husband’s mother – which was highly unpleasant. She was a revolutionary activist, and was put up against a wall and shot. Instant martyr stuff.)
Not one but two prospective suitors materialize. “Divorce your husband and marry again!” Oh, what to do, what to do???! By the time it all sort of resolved itself (sort of) I no longer cared.
Heroine is a deeply unpleasant woman, for all of her heartfelt moanings in this first-person monologue. She is a complete and utter snob, self congratulating herself on her amazing superiority in embracing the Chinese culture of her beautiful husband – long passages on how physically gorgeous mixed-race people are – while those around her are so gosh-darned bigoted. She insists that the good old days in China were absolutely wonderful; the peasants were happy; her servants loved her; her beautiful life was so fulfilling. Why did those nasty Commies have to ruin everything? In the meantime she bosses her son around, patronizes the Vermont people who fulfill all of the roles her Chinese peasants used to, and puts off dealing with her husband’s crucial issue. Eventually she gives permission for him to take on a wife-in-absence, giving her yet another lowly person to mercilessly critique.
By the end I hoped that neither of the suitors ended up with her; they seemed nice fellows. And I wished her new daughter-in-law best of luck, and rejoiced for her sake that the son had decided to move far, far away.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of Pearl S. Buck, and enjoyed most of it. This one, as you may have gathered, not very much.
This edition: Persephone Press, 2000. Softcover. ISBN: 978-1-906462-02-4. 234 pages.
My rating: 8/10
What a relief to turn to this playfully frivolous novel after Pearl Buck’s dismal thing.
Middle-aged Miss Pettigrew, supremely inefficient governess, is on her uppers. Down to her last shilling, she knocks on the door of one Miss LaFosse, following up a lead from an employment agency.
Miss Pettigrew is welcomed in and definitely proves herself useful, but in a most unanticipated way. Dashing young men, cocktails, nightclubs…ooh, la la! Miss Pettigrew has never experienced such a whirl as she does in this utterly life-changing day.
That’s all I’m going to say. A whole lot of fun, this light and airy novel. If you haven’t already experienced this silly, happy thing, seek it out immediately, and enjoy!