Saturday, 9 June 2012

How indispensible are you?

The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger

If you’re proficient in your occupation, highly skilled, with few equally trained people to compete with, it’s rational to assume you will keep that position for as long as you choose.  This is how Sally feels in The Mistress of Nothing.  Set in mid century 1800s Britain initially, she is sent to work as a scullery maid in a lowly household after she has been orphaned.  There, she sleeps on the floor of the pantry with an older, higher placed servant sleeping on the table.  She is ambitious, and a quick learner, and eventually secures a position with an aristocratic family, becoming the personal maid of Lady Duff Gordon.
The lady is gravely ill with tuberculosis, and the family, despite being in the aristocracy, has a limited cash flow.  Sally quickly learns to administer to the complex medicinal needs of the lady, often foregoing her pay.  When the lady’s diagnosis demands that she immediately move to a hot dry climate, Egypt is chosen, and since she can afford only one servant, Sally goes with her.  As an English speaking, English trained servant and medical expert, Sally understandably feels secure in her position.  She quickly becomes fluent in Arabic and its local dialects, as well.  After all, how easily can she be casually dismissed and replaced in Egypt, which in the 1800’s, didn’t have Arabic speaking English maids trained in treating tuberculosis to vie for her job?  And even so, since she rarely gets paid, she feels her job is especially secure.  She believes she will always have a roof over her head and food to eat.

Nevertheless, she discovers that her position was little more stable than that of a “household pet”. Because she marries and has a child without her employer’s permission, she is cast out, without so much as a final paycheck or reference. 
Sally’s husband is also employed by the lady, who has ordered him to keep his distance from Sally, so he does.  Thus Sally is left alone, a single mother unemployed in Egypt, with little hope of securing another position remotely suited to her past experience.

If you’ve had the sudden shock of unfairly losing your employment, this may be a good read for you.  Being treated like something sub-human is galling, especially when it puts your very survival at risk. If you’re feeling like you need to commiserate, this novel could work well as therapy for you. 

Please feel free to post your comments.  I'm always looking for guest bloggers to share their experiences and good reads!
(The paperback is on sale, but there are few copies left!) 

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