This year’s Governor General’s Award winner for fiction is a beautiful and engrossing historical novel set in Egypt in the 1860s. It’s told from the point of view of Sally Naldrett, lady’s maid to Lady Lucie Duff Gordon. Her Ladyship has been forced by poor health to leave her home in England relocate more or less permanently to a warmer climate. Despite her poor health, she has a spirit of adventure and the curious mind of a scholar, so she chooses Egypt. Sally, whose entire life centres around devotion to “My Lady,” willingly goes along, accepting and enjoying the changes in her life. The details of Sally’s world shift but the centre is fixed: her beloved mistress is always her top priority, and making My Lady comfortable and happy no matter the circumstances is always her goal.
Away from the strictures of English society, both Sally and Lady Duff Gordon find themselves loosening up — both figuratively and literally, as they both discard stays and English dress for more free-flowing Egyptian clothes. The boundaries between servant and mistress blur a little too, so that the two of them and their devoted Egyptian servant Omar find themselves eating, talking, and laughing together like friends.
But when Sally steps outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior to pursue a secret and forbidden love affair, she is harshly reminded that any appearance of equality between herself and her mistress is illusory. As is the affection Sally believed was mutual — it is entirely conditional, based upon Sally “knowing her place.” This is an intimate and personal novel, but also a novel about much bigger issues, primarily the issues of social class and the clash of cultures.
I didn’t realize till the Afterword that Lady Duff Gordon was a real historical character and that the story of her servants Sally and Omar is actually based on fact (though, as is often the case with characters of lower social class, very little is known about the servants’ lives). I think this is a tribute to the novel, since it was entirely absorbing as a story. Finding out it was based on fact was just a nice bonus. Another (rather shallow) bonus for me was that I have been reading Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mysteries, the first few of which are set in Egypt in a slightly later era (1890s). As there are a few superficial similarities (smart, unconventional upper-class British woman exploring the Nile region in the late nineteenth century) it was interesting to read a “serious” novel set in that same world and explore that place and time in a little more depth.
It is so refreshing to see what I think of as an “old-fashioned novel” — by which I mean simply a good, engaging story with strong characters and no fancy literary tricks — winning the countries highest literary award. Even better to see work of historical fiction getting this kind of acclaim. With the eminently enjoyable Wolf Hall winning the Booker Prize, The Mistress of Nothing taking the GG Award and Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean getting shortlisted for everything here in Canada, it’s a good time to be a lover of historical fiction (and maybe to be a writer of historical fiction, too!)