British novelist Pullinger (A Little Stranger, 2008, etc.), who collaborated with Jane Campion on the novelization of the film The Piano, reimagines history in her U.S. debut.
In a renowned series of letters still in print today, Lady Duff Gordon recorded her independent travels abroad, highly unusual for a woman of mid-19th-century England; Pullinger recounts her version of Lady Duff Gordon’s stay in Egypt through the eyes of her maid Sally, who receives brief mention in the letters. Suffering from tuberculosis, Lady Duff Gordon traveled on her doctor’s recommendation to Egypt in 1862, reluctantly leaving behind her husband and young children. Thirty-year-old Sally has served her mistress devotedly for a decade by the time they depart England. In Alexandria, Lady Duff Gordon hires as her dragoman—a combination of “an interpreter, a guide, a factotum”—Omar, a young Egyptian also mentioned in the actual letters. With Omar, the ladies set off down the Nile to Luxor, where they settle. Lady Duff Gordon is remarkably open to studying the people of Egypt as well as its antiquities. Soon she and Sally are dressing “native” without the stays so symbolic of Victorian England’s restrictiveness. The Upstairs/Downstairs mentality is abandoned when Lady Duff Gordon invites Sally and Omar to share her meals. But if mistress and maidservant are soon besotted with Egypt, Sally is also secretly besotted with Omar. Never mind that he’s married and a father. When Sally realizes she is pregnant, Omar promises to make her his second wife, legal in Egypt. Unfortunately, no one informs Lady Duff Gordon until she’s called to help Sally deliver her baby. Afterward, Lady Duff Gordon keeps Omar in her employ while demanding Sally return to England and hand her child over to Omar’s wife. Pullinger portrays Sally’s ultimate rebellion as a courageous act of independence and Lady Duff Gordon as an unforgiving puritan and snob.
Putting 21st-century political correctness aside, compared to Lady Duff Gordon’s courage and complexity, Sally comes off as a self-delusional, whiny adulteress.