Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature 
by Ruth Bernard Yeazell.
Yale, 314 pp., £22.50, October 2000, 0 300 08389 0
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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’.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters are an early example of a rare source: first-hand information. She took the line – which was to become common among travellers – that harem days were more humdrum, the emotions more ordinary and the life more open and pleasant than Europeans imagined. But the harems of fact (and even Lady Mary’s account was not untouched by her personal agenda) were too little known, and perhaps too unlike the more exciting imagined ones, to make much impact. Even when facts were absorbed, the colour they took on depended on the imagination to such an extent that it is the character of the author, not of his material, which dominates in the high literature of Racine’s Bajazet, the sadistic eroticism of Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, the high comedy of Byron’s Don Juan, the jolly pornography of the anonymous Lustful Turk or Rowlandson’s fleshly fantasies of plump, solicitous slave girls.

Yeazell has explanations for what drew painters and writers to harem scenes and stories. In some cases, she suggests, it was a way to imagine the unlikely or impossible. For example, she wonders whether his Bain turc was not, for the elderly Ingres, a resolution of the paradox the harem presents in relation to sexual appetite: although the seraglio may contain many women, coupling is, by definition, done in pairs and stamina sets a limit on serial or collective performance. She sees in the blissful, figure-cushioned interior he has assembled (much of it from other paintings, not all of them his own) a recapitulation of the history of his erotic imagination: one which allowed him what in real life would have been impossible – to have all his girls all at once.

While men’s response to the idea of the harem may encourage such turns of thought, there were women (like Lady Mary) who found the anonymity of the veil, the privacy of the women’s quarters, the conviviality of girls together, all highly desirable. Others, reflecting a different set of personal circumstances, found boredom, oppression and lack of freedom.

Imagined emotional dynamics offered Western writers of fiction extreme cases which could be used to exemplify, satirise or challenge European customs. A bizarre circularity was manifested when the life of harems as imagined in the West was fed back to the East. By the end of the 19th century things had become impossibly tangled. Pierre Loti’s ‘vertiginously self-reflexive fiction’ came close to autobiography. Les Désenchantées, published in 1906, was based on the testimony of two Turkish sisters who had decided to break the monotony of their existence by setting up clandestine meetings with Loti; they were among those ‘who already understood themselves through the representations of the West, his own prior fictions included’. In the novel, a third character, his heroine, Djénane, commits suicide rather than return to the harem. Almost twenty years later, in 1924, a woman who claimed to be Djénane’s original and very much alive, wrote an account of the making of the novel – the feedback circuit was complete.

Perhaps because he had never seen her without her veil, Loti had not twigged that one of his principal sources for the details of harem life was French, a turcophile like him, and herself a writer – she had produced her own account of life in the women’s quarters, Le Jardin fermé, in 1908. She and her two Turkish friends began their games with Loti idly, but, she maintained, became serious when they saw how affected he was by them. They decided to ‘arranger de jolis souvenirs pour Pierre Loti’ by making him ‘vivre un roman’. They even found a genuine harem for their encounters – it belonged to a Circassian friend whose poverty ensured that it was without the ‘European bric-à-brac that would have cluttered up the interiors of wealthier owners’. The women wanted him to write a novel which told the truth about modern harem life. To do it he would have to be ‘provided with the documentation’. More, ‘to write the novel it was necessary that he live it.’ The relationships both in the novel and in life were unconsummated, but the experience of taking tea by the Bosphorus with what passers-by must have assumed were his wives or concubines was an excitement in itself.

Loti’s adventure came at the end of the two centuries or so of excursions into harem subject-matter studied by Yeazell. She begins by establishing that, throughout the period, very little was known about the real life of the harem – although slightly more about the exceptional circumstances of the Ottoman Court than about ordinary households. She tracks themes: for example, the contrasting perceptions of the harem as a prison (with its attendant plots of intrusion and escape) and as a place where women ruled – a prototype ‘feminotopia’. She digresses on sexual arithmetic, on the imagined pleasures and frustrations both of a man with many women and of women alone with women. She offers commentaries on what her writers imagined an imbalance of the sexes must imply – and on the ways pornography found to exploit the themes of absolute power, utter powerlessness and systematic coercion. In a chapter entitled ‘Taming Soliman and Other Great Ones’ she looks at the stories in which love between two wins out over the custom of plurality: stories which have, in fact, Western courtship plots, but in which the hurdle the lovers must surmount is the availability of the sultan’s other women rather than a rival for his undivided attention, a difficult father, money or poverty.

Some of her literary sources are well known – the harem interlude in Don Juan is one. Byron’s way with the plot is subversive: Juan in disguise makes a very pretty girl, and when the sultana who has slipped him into the harem asks, ‘Christian, canst thou love?’ he bursts into tears – overwhelmed by thoughts of his last mistress. He is only able to regain his manhood and take advantage of his erotic opportunities later on. The poem is original, both in its manipulation of stereotypes and in its way of being funny. As nearly all Yeazell’s protagonists were writing from ignorance, the best imaginations have an enormous advantage. Byron’s harem fantasies are interesting and amusing because he is. In the hands of minor performers, exotic tales based on meagre resources quickly become repetitive. You long for these players to turn to a subject about which they have some first-hand information; painters and writers who cannot imagine worlds of their own can make wonderful things if they know what they are talking about.

The contrast between the work of the two very great painters she writes about, Ingres and Delacroix, and that of skilled but unimaginative Orientalist Salon painters such as Gérôme, makes you realise, once again, that only a powerful imagination can escape banality by transforming commonplace fantasies. The harem, for all its lubricious excitement, was, as subject-matter, rather limited. Within the accepted Salon genres, classical history provided a greater range of action and emotion, modern history more opportunities for polemics and patriotism, and scenes of modern life more interesting – because better informed – insights into domesticity.

Even in the case of Delacroix, the romantic spirit of his imagined battles and lion hunts – which owe more to Rubens than to ethnography – is challenged by what seems calmer and truer in his pictures of women of Algiers in their apartments. He had only a few hours’ experience of the clothes, rooms and physical types he shows, but it was enough. Beside The Women of Algiers, Gérôme’s white slaves are as unconvincing as Alma Tadema’s Roman girls, and for the same reason: their attractions are calculated by eyes which are neither Roman nor North African. One tends to see what one knows and Gérôme knew what a pretty French girl looked like. He took great pains with the tiles, marble, robes, baths and so on, but suggesting that you know just what things look like physically (although I am not sure how reliable his detail really is) can make the ensemble even more risible when the human actors are clearly in fancy dress.

So, aside from the productions of exceptional talents, reflections-in-the-mind of the harem provide rather disappointing insights into the Western imagination. Allowing your characters the freedoms or the restrictions of the harem did little, for instance, to stretch ideas of what European marriage was like, or could be like. Tales of the mysterious Orient are about ‘us’ abroad – like the photographs tourists bring back in which familiar figures stand out against exotic backgrounds.

In the case of another, later and briefer, excursion into Oriental taste – the fashion for things Japanese – the process was more straightforward. It had little effect on Western literature – Lafcadio Hearn is the only writer I can think of. Painters, on the other hand, found the basis for new freedom in Japanese prints – which allowed an escape from linear perspective – while architects and designers discovered an alternative to the weight of 19th-century drapes and mouldings in Japanese asymmetry, simplicity and two-dimensional pattern making.

‘Life in the Harem, Cairo’ by John Frederick Lewis (1858).

Of Yeazell’s harems of the mind, the one which comes closest to being an invitation of this kind – to a new style not of life but of decoration – can be seen in the paintings of John Frederick Lewis. Yeazell gives more space to reproductions of his paintings and drawings than to those by Ingres or Delacroix, and with reason: Lewis, who lived in the Ottoman quarter of Cairo from 1841 to 1851, was formidably industrious and his drawings of interiors, clothes, markets, streets, animals are authentic records which, in quantity alone, would be impressive. The paintings he made are also extremely pretty. Sunlight casts shadows of delicate wooden screens on walls, young women in elaborate clothes lead idle lives. There are bright flowers and pet animals. Surely this delectable environment, with its convincing sense of ease, is a true reflection of the timeless Orient – of a real alternative world? But Yeazell points out what one quickly begins to guess: if these pictures, many of them painted in England, seem a little more authentic than Gérôme’s, it has to do with light and texture rather than a deep understanding of harem life. Lewis, too, has made his young women in a Western mode – although in his case the atmosphere is not sexual (no nudes, for example) but domestic. There are two versions of his painting The Hhareem. In the more extensive view (1849) a turbaned man surrounded by women leans forward expectantly as a new recruit is unveiled. In the other version the right-hand side of the picture – which shows the unveiling – has been cut off. Either Lewis did not paint it or someone removed it. Whichever way, it is a fair comment on work in which the ‘Chinese patience and Persian delicacy’ praised by Théophile Gautier were used not to show the world of the Arabian Nights but to make images that have more to do with the sweet life as the Arts and Crafts households in Bedford Park would later conceive it.

The greatest landscape painters have chosen subjects close to home. Those who decided to go East – like David Roberts and Edward Lear – tend to be of the second rank. Writers, too, grow strong on a diet of familiar material. Harems of the Mind is mostly an account of talent betrayed by ignorance into shallowness or excess; only a few spirits were strong enough to make something lasting of thin material. But quality is beside the point: Yeazell’s aim is to show that there was more variety in Western ideas about the condition of Eastern women than some analysts of Orientalism have suggested. In that context the ideas in your head are what matter, not the quality of the art which put them there. In the long history of misconceptions, those elicited by the harem were too fantastical to be of much use as a mirror in which to see our own customs, or even, perhaps, to be taken seriously as an insult by those they misrepresented.

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