Antony Beevor’s defence of both his great-great grandmother’s character and established historical fact is an admirable one (Guardian newspaper, 25 July 2009).
This argument has been referred to and pondered upon in a thoughtful review of my novel ‘The Mistress of Nothing’ by Erika Ritter (Globe & Mail newspaper, 14 Sept, 2009).
That Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon, acted toward her maid, Sally Naldrett, in a manner that could be described as ‘vindictive’ is indisputable. While, as Beevor says, I admit to playing fast and loose with certain elements of historical record when it came to writing Sally Naldrett’s story, I did in fact stick very close to what is documented in Katherine Frank’s biography, ‘Lucie Duff Gordon’, through Lady Duff Gordon’s own letters, as well as letters to her from her family. Her family did not approve of the punishment she meted out to Sally Naldrett, and made it quite clear they felt she was over-reacting. Sally Naldrett had given nothing but loyal service to Lady Duff Gordon for more than a dozen years; she had given up her own life in England in order to go into exile with Lucie as she sought a cure for consumption hundreds of miles up the Nile. The fact that Sally had an affair with the Egyptian manservant, Omar Abu Halaweh, and hid that affair from her employer, including the resulting pregnancy, was, no doubt, regrettable. But the truth is that Lucie Duff Gordon exacted an extremely harsh punishment on Sally Naldrett for this transgression, forcing her to give up her child, and sending her into the Victorian equivalent of the wilderness €“ a female domestic servant with no employer, no references, left to fend for herself alone in Egypt.
Surely it is the role of all novelists, including those who write about history, to uncover the untold stories, the undocumented lives; surely this is a legitimate way to demonstrate and elucidate ‘historical truth’ (a concept that is itself notoriously unreliable). No one knows what happened to Sally Naldrett after she was cast out of the Duff Gordon household; my novel is an attempt to create a life for Sally that was not as desperate and miserable as the known facts suggest it might have been. There is no doubt that Lucie Duff Gordon was a much-loved and progressive figure, before her time in many ways as, I hope, the novel also demonstrates. Her story is well known and well documented. On the other hand, the life of Sally Naldrett was consigned to the dustbin of history. In ‘The Mistress of Nothing’ I try to imagine a life for Sally Naldrett where she overcomes the obstacles €“ minor things otherwise known as class, race, and gender - that she faced.