There are few images of British domestic servants from the Victorian period. The great and good were forever having portraits of themselves commissioned, from line drawings to magisterial oil paintings, but representations of servants are few and far between. Of the three main characters in my novel, only Lucie, Lady Duff Gordon, has a range of portraits, from sketches done when she was a child, to Henry Phillip’s portrait which still hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. There is a photograph of Omar Abu Halaweh, her Egyptian manservant, and I spent a lot of time staring at that photo, trying to see into his soul. It’s a formal studio portrait, but Omar’s pose is amusing, and his half-smile makes him look like a young Will Smith.
For me, writing a historical novel based on a true story was all about finding ways to leap into the territory of fiction. While Duff Gordon’s life is well known through both her own writing, Letters from Egypt, and Katharine Frank’s wonderful biography, very little is known about her two servants, Omar, and her maid, Sally Naldrett. There are no known images, drawn, painted, or photographed, of Sally. There is no record of what happened to her after she left Lucie’s household; Sally Naldrett disappears from history entirely.
How would a disgraced English lady’s maid survive on her own in Cairo in the 1860s? This question drove my story.
About the author: Kate Pullinger is a Canadian writer who lives in London, England. She has written six novels, two collections of short stories, and many works of digital fiction; The Mistress of Nothing is her US debut. Find her at www.katepullinger.com.