Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Hospital and the Lady's Maid

Winter Scene

A relative is ill.  I've been shuttling back and forth between the hospital and temporary lodgings.  I think you'll agree that patients need an advocate in the hospital, someone to make sure they don't lie in bed neglected or in pain, too dazed to remember how to push the button to call the nurse. Care varies.  I'm there for stints when no one else can be there.  It's complicated by the fact that Relative A doesn't speak to Relative B because of something that happened at a family reunion in 1989, or was it 1979?  Relatives C, D, and E try to reconcile A and B. Nothing works, so I'm staying out of the way.  
It's very difficult to read in the hospital. I've been dashing out in the afternoon to eat vegetable sushi at a nearby restaurant, and almost fell asleep over my book at the table yesterday. Then I tried to get coffee at a kiosk and a boy informed me that he was out of everything except decaf.  "Are you going to make another pot of coffee?"  "No, we don't have any more coffee."  "Really?"  
Fortunately I found some in the hospital cafeteria.  
I have read Kate Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing this week.  It won the Governor General's Award for Fiction in 2009 in Canada and was recently published here.  It's the story of Sally Naldrett, the lady's maid of Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, a writer of the 19th century best known for Letters from Egypt.  She moved from England to Egypt because of her tuberculosis, and Sally, her devoted maid of many years, accompanied her.  In Egypt, Sally became involved with the Lady's dragoman, Omar Abu Halaweh, and got pregnant.  After helping to deliver Sally's baby, Lady Duff Gordon banished her from her service.  And Pullinger imagines the situation from Sally's point of view.  
It's a very short novel, and the first part is very interesting.  Sally has a reserved but intelligent voice, is devoted to her bold mistress, and the description of their travels through Egypt is lyrical and fine, perhaps adapted from Letters to Egypt.  Lady Duff Gordon is a fascinating character.  She  taught Sally to read.  She translated literature from the French and German.  She knew George Meredith.  When she moved to Egypt, she lived for writing letters.  
"It was as though writing these letters was as important as the day itself had been, if not more so, as though these letters home had become her work, replacing all the other writing she had done in her life."
And it is fascinating when both reject their European women's clothing. 
I must admit, I became a little bored with Sally after she gave birth to Omar's son.  You would think she would become a more fully realized character then, but instead she just hides out in the house while Omar takes care of Lady Duff-Gordon.  Finally she is sent away, with orders to leave her baby with Omar's family.  Lady Duff Gordon ruins her life.
Sally works at a hotel in Cairo and arranges her life so she can visit her son.  Omar, however, is a big disappointment.  He refuses to allow Sally to live with his parents and first wife, because he is afraid of being fired.  Lady Duff Gordon has told him he cannot have anything to do with Sally if he wishes to work for her.  Lady Duff Gordon seems half in love with him herself.
It's a puzzling novel--so muted and plain--and one has the impression that not much happens, though much IS happening.  There's a lack of drama about the narrative.   it reminds me of Margaret Forster's novel, Lady's Maid, the story of Elizabeth Wilson, the maid of another sick writer, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
I have to say that I prefer Forster's novel, but I enjoyed Pullinger's The Mistress of Nothing.  


Anonymous said...

I loved Lady's Maid. I think I wrote about it on WWTTA. I couldn't put it down: to me it shows how it matters who writes, not what they write about. I really recommend Margaret Forster: I don't think I've picked up a book by her that didn't absorb me.

I like reading women's letters too, memoirs. I can see how writing might be more important to a person than anything physical that happened to them that day :)

You are being angelic in what you are doing for Relative A.


Frisbee said...

Lady's Maid is excellent! I really enjoyed it.

I hope my Relative will get well soon.

Buried In Print said...

You're doing well to keep reading: I find it extremely hard to focus in hospitals. Especially when there's tension between fellow-attendees. (And of course there often is.) Hope things go along as well as they can.

I enjoyed Pullinger's novel, too, although I agree, it's a very different approach to a maid's tale than Margaret Forster's is (which I also loved). I'd like to read it again, knowing the outcome; I think I was swept away by the setting and the women's adjustments to life there, on first reading, and I'd like to focus more on their relationship in the earlier stages, before her Ladyship got her nose quite so out of joint.

Frisbee said...

These would be two good books to read together.

Yes, I think Pullinger's book might be better on a second reading. Somehow I lost interest in Sally and it might (!!) be because of the reading circumstances.