Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Book Review: Mistress of Nothing

The Guardian, UK (Antony Beevor)

Thanks very much to MaryC for pointing out another book review about Mistress of Nothing which looks at the way in which the character of Lucie Duff Gordon is treated.

A new novel, The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger, raises again the debate over faction. Pullinger's book is beautifully told and moving. It is based on Katherine Frank's acclaimed biography of Lucie Duff Gordon, my great-great grandmother. But to dramatise her tale, recounted in the novel by Lucie's maid, Sally Naldrett, Pullinger ends by turning Lucie into a vindictive monster. This is very different to the impression one gets from either Frank's biography or any other account of Lucie's life in Luxor during the 1860s, where she wrote her most famous book, Letters from Egypt.

One cannot possibly accuse Pullinger of dishonesty. She acknowledges in an author's note at the end that she has "played fast and loose with the facts" and takes responsibility for all the "other untruths, fabrications and mistakes in this novel".

But why cannot novelists use the far more legitimate technique of a roman-à-clef if they wish to rewrite events or characters for dramatic effect?

Interesting. Much the same happened with The English Patient, where the name of a real person, Count Laszlo Almasy, was used in an entirely fictional context.

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