- Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature by Ruth Bernard Yeazell
Yale, 314 pp, £22.50, October 2000, ISBN 0 300 08389 0
Imagination must take the strain when facts are few. As information about the domestic life of polygamous Oriental households was fragmentary, 17th, 18th and 19th-century European writers and painters filled gaps with gaudy embroidery. Only the barest descriptions and a little gossip about the seclusion of women were necessary to seed fantasies about sex, submission, jealousy, power and violence, or to encourage the investigation of cooler themes such as secrecy, privacy, sisterhood and security. Imagined seraglios became playgrounds for poets and pornographers, moralists and feminists. They provided theoretical examples for social theory and jurisprudence to take up. They offered painters stimulating subject-matter – the girl in the slave market, the odalisque in a dream of soft compliance – and gave dramatists plots in which naked jealousy tangled with ferocious passion.
These works, which say so little of substance about domestic life in the East, do cast some light on the minds and societies which produced them. That is Ruth Bernard Yeazell’s subject. To find out how Western concerns and speculations were projected by the distorting lens of (often wishful) ignorance, she has trawled a substantial range of material – from the sparse documentary accounts of travellers to any number of imaginative genres, both literary and visual. Just what significance she expected this material to have is something of a puzzle. Her book tends to show what one would have guessed: that exotic colour does not penetrate deeply. Sexual subjection is a theme that arouses powerful emotions, and harem stories and pictures, like science fiction stories and pictures, reflect their own time and place. But the more closely you look at the way they drew on (usually fantasised) customs of the harem, the clearer it becomes that in dealing with the subject very few writers and painters (even inadvertently) have enlarged our ideas of the variety of human behaviour in general or our own insular Western variety in particular.
From what was imagined or misunderstood, however, some idea of the shape of secret longings and less secret discontents does emerge. Lady Craven, travelling to Constantinople in the late 1700s, ‘never saw a country where women enjoy so much liberty … as in Turkey’, where they were also ‘perfectly safe from an idle, curious, impertinent public’, and even from their husbands, for ‘a Turkish husband that sees a pair of slippers at the door of his harem must not enter; his respect for the sex prevents him from intruding when a stranger is there upon a visit; how easy then is it for men to visit and pass for women.’ Lady Craven had, Yeazell explains, special reasons for liking what she thought she saw: ‘travelling to spare expense and escape the scandal of her own adultery, she might well fantasise about a place where a woman could be free to do as she liked.’ Harriet Martineau, half a century later, had different ideas: ‘I cannot now think of the two mornings thus employed without a heaviness of heart greater than I have ever brought away from Deaf and Dumb Schools, Lunatic Asylums, or even Prisons.’ When she goes into detail about the tedium of harem life – no ideas, endless cups of coffee and talk about clothes – the scene is, as Yeazell puts it, ‘hard to distinguish from afternoon tea among a circle of leisured ladies in Kensington’.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.