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The natural history of living beings poses, above all, complications the mind has no conjectures on which to base a previous state. Nothing explains the origin and the genesis, which is ever a mystery by which all human efforts have not achieved anything plausible.
--Baron Georges Leopold Cuvier, Letter to the Emperor Napoleon on the progress of science since 1789
Great Eland, the English month of January, 1816. There was no freak show today because it was New Year's Day, and it was my birthday. It was the coldest Paris winter anyone could remember and the city was blanketed in snow, ice creaked on the Seine and hundreds of skaters glided over its surface. The bells of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame tolled to celebrate King Louis's gift of three hundred and twenty francs to feed the freezing and starving poor of the city. I imagined my friends, other freaks of nature, other things-that-should-never-have-been-born, gathering on the cobblestone courtyard of 188 rue St. Honore getting ready to make their way to Warren's Nest Tavern to celebrate the day. Miss Ridsdal, thirty inches tall and thirty-five years old, Miss Harvey with her perfectly white knee-length silken hair and pink eyes, Mr. Lambert, a twelve-foot giant, Count Boruweaski, a two-foot midget, and Miss Duclos, the lovely bearded lady.
As for myself, I was much too sick to join them. My master, Sieur Reaux, had left early to celebrate with the other circus managers at a large dinner, but I was too ill and too ill used even to care. I burned with fever and my chest seemed clogged with a mysterious mass that all the coughing in the world could not relieve. I had felt this way for months. Thespasms would seize me and choke me like a murderer. My chest would burst with pain so that I held on to whatever I could find to cling to, a table, an armchair, the doorframe, to keep from falling. The large white handkerchief I always carried clutched in my hand these past weeks would come away spotted with blood. The Khoekhoe had no word for what was wrong with me, but the English did. Alice Unicorn, my servant whom I had found in a Manchester mill two years ago, explained it to me. After five years, I was used to the snow, I knew how it felt against my skin, could taste its cold wetness when it fell against my lips, knew its special chill in my bones. I needed to return to a warm, dry climate she said, or I would die. In other words, I needed to return home to the Cape of Good Hope where I had been born and where my brothers and sisters were. I wondered if I could ever do that.
If it hadn't been this day, I would have been on display in the animal circus of my master, exhibited in an eight-by-twelve-foot bamboo cage just high enough for me to stand and almost naked, shivering in my apron of pearls and feathers, my leggings of dried entrails, my painted face, my leather mask, my dyed and braided hair, my doeskin red gloves, my sheepskin lappa slung over one shoulder, my necklace of shimmering glass and shells, my crown of feathers, my cowrie seed earrings, able to stagger only a few paces, or crouch over my brick kiln for warmth, or obey the shouts of my keeper, who amused and harangued the crowd with his barking soliloquy. Surrounding me would be scores, sometimes hundreds, of white faces, all peering up at me, a sheen of horror, pity or terror occupying their faces, or perhaps a smirk of amusement, contempt or nervous excitement; eyes gleamed, lips pursed, skin transpired. Cries, insults, shouts and laughter would at times overwhelm me as if the waves of the ocean engulfed me except it was not salt they deposited but liquid hatred, which beat upon my naked skin, my bare feet, my burning face and scorched brain. I had learned over the years to divorce myself from the crowd, to hover just above it like a purple heron in flight. I learned to feel not, to listen not, to think not. I decided to understand no language, not even that of pity or compassion, for this too was part of their game; to pity the monster, the animal, the dis-human, the ugly, the heathen, the Hottentot.
I was the black Moor, evil encased in black skin, a warning and a symbol to all those upturned faces and jammed-together bodies that God could punish them as he had punished me with expulsion not only from Eden but from the human race. I was a thing-that-should-never-have-been-born, a creature made in Eve's image yet, unlike her, not part of mankind. I was a female who was the missing link between beast and man, a wonder of nature created only for the delectation of discovery by hordes of paying Parisian customers, who for three francs could, from a distance, contemplate the form and color of monstrosity.
Sometimes, I would growl or spit, scream or hiss insanely. Sometimes, I could laugh and dance, sing and play my guitar. Sometimes, I would play the clown by rolling my eyes, sticking out my lips, shaking my backside, but sometimes my feet won't move, my hands won't pluck at my guitar, my knees won't bend. Sometimes, I am too cold or too sick or too full of morphine to move. Then, there are loud protests from the stinking, hawking, spitting, tobacco-chewing, foul-breathed audience that they are not getting their money's worth. They did not want a statue of Venus, but a heaving, stomping, undulating, living Venus, with beastly breasts, beastly hips, beastly eyes and above all a beastly face that held no beauty for them. I was the glue of common contempt and rejection that held them all together.
At times, I would recognize a familiar face in the crowd. It would emerge from the haze of dusty white faces for the second or third or umpteenth time. Someone who had returned to make sure what he had seen the first time was truly real, that he had not dreamed the apparition before him. Assured, he could once again gaze upon the impossible and contemplate the unimaginable. I hated them most for they reminded me that there were humans amongst them--something I didn't care to believe. Others returned so that they could tell their wives or children or neighbors and friends. Others must have returned for other reasons, for amongst the strangers there was always a repeater. And sometimes our eyes would meet and I could see fear at war with compassion and I would laugh inside and recall the rainmaker's warning: There is no medicine for those who are not human.
No one understood my need to remain here if only to prove the fact of my existence. I refused to be a figment of their imagination. I would be real in all my Hottentot monstrousness. I was real, I existed, I ate and slept and pissed and shat and loved and fucked and cried and dreamed and bled. My humanness was the only thing I possessed. My right to exist was the reason I stayed. The hew-haws and ha-has wanted to erase me, damn me to extinction, but I wouldn't go. I remained stubbornly here. I refused to move my ass. I was famous, a household name, Frenchwomen dressed Hottentot style, all kinds of things were given that name, everything that was ugly, savage, uncivilized, brutal, deformed, reprehensible was called Hottentot, my name.
The rooms I lived in were filthy despite all of Alice's efforts at cleaning them, which, to tell the truth, were not always the best. But Alice and I understood each other. Alice was more a keeper than a housemaid, more nurse than cook. She was the only person I had to talk to now: the only human between insanity and me. Alice had begun to teach me to read and write in England. Just because you don't know how to read and write doesn't mean you are stupid, she would say. The word "illiterate," that's different from stupid. You ca' be illiterate and smart and you ca' know to read and write and be stupid . . . If she hadn't followed me to France, she probably would be dead by now. You sav'd me life, Sarah, she would say, I'll ne'r forgo' that. Alice would stay until two o'clock to prepare my daily bath in the huge French copper bathtub that sat in the corner of the bedroom. She would then return to her own room until supper. Alice Unicorn was the only white woman I had ever had as a friend who was not thirty inches tall, a prostitute or did not have a beard.
The great blue and white cast-iron coal stove whose fumes blackened everything stood guard in the corner. I counted the number of tiles on it as I always did each day. The fumes had yellowed and cracked the wallpaper that had once been a matching bright and beautiful floral design in blue and white, like the tiles under my bare feet. Despite the filth around me, I was determined to remain clean, my skin soft and smooth, unblemished as when I polished it with whale fat. I spent my waking hours, out of the cage, trying out new grease and pomades, oiling my face and neck, my hands and feet, my breasts and thighs. I dipped my hands into the softness of kid, satin and velvet gloves, which I collected by the dozens. According to Alice, my body was, in fact, insured by Lloyd's of London for more than five hundred pounds. This must have been my new owner's idea. I could not imagine my former master, or my former husband, thinking of it. All that was so long ago. I no longer thought nor cared about it anymore. I couldn't. I would go crazy if I did. All I wanted now was the hot peacefulness of my bath: to sink down into oblivion with my opium pipe and my gin. To live only in dreams. Dreams of a time when I was not a thing-that-should-never-have-been-born.
The copper tub gleamed in the oil lamp's glow, lit early in the seal gray of a winter's afternoon. Steam lifted from its sweating sides and rose like the Cape mists. Alice poured buckets of hot water into it, filling it almost to the top. The fogginess made the sparse furnishings disappear: the bed, the ottoman, the round table, the piles of pamphlets, the circus posters, my flesh-colored silk sheath and glass beads hanging from a hook on the wall. Alice had carefully laid out my face paint and oils, but the rest of the room was a disorderly, unkempt cell of despair. Leftover food had not been cleared away from the table, on which my medicines stood amongst bottles of gin, eau-de-vie, a few Christmas oranges and old receipts for the rent. Newspapers, broadsheets and theater bills were scattered everywhere. Everything was stained and dirty. Even the air I breathed seemed unclean, even the fire in the fireplace and the fire in the stove, which burned constantly in my battle against the cold. I pulled my robe closer around me and watched as Alice prepared my pipe of dagga, which she placed on the little stool beside the bathtub.
--There's nothing to eat, she said, shaking her head.
--No matter, I replied, imitating her Manchester accent. I don' wan' n' food.
--There're Christmas oranges, she replied. I'll peel on' for you.
Alice sat two more oranges on the stool beside the tub and laid out the orange sections on a dirty napkin. The odor of the orange was the last smell I remember. And it was not the pleasant, sweet smell of the yellow flesh and orange peel, but the stench of sulfur and the aftertaste of blood. I rolled a section around on my tongue. I swallowed, tasting it. A thin sheen of sweat had broken through my skin. I shook as Alice helped me into the bath. She averted her eyes from my apron as always, but I no longer bothered to hide it from her. I sank into my refuge gratefully, the bitter acid taste still on my lips, my eyes closed, my arms at my sides. My hips caused some of the bathwater to spill over onto the floor and the new towels. It made my lit pipe hiss. I held my breath and sank under the surface of the water completely, my eyes open. Underwater, I couldn't see the ugly ceiling, the ugly furniture, the ugly floor, the ugly boots of my master, the ugly lamp illuminating the ugly blackness.
--Goodbye, Sarah, called Alice as she left. I listened to her turning the key in the lock, locking me in. Then, after a moment of hesitation, as if she had changed her mind, I heard the key turn again, unlocking the door. Alice had left the door open. Alice was freeing me. I could, at this moment, walk out of this room and this life, a free woman. I could leave Reaux and the circus forever. If only I had the will, I could get out of this tub, get dressed and leave before he returned. I could hobble in my wooden platform shoes across the courtyard, past the fountains, through the iron gates, past the concierge's lodge, the lone bare linden tree, the frosted lit windows. I could step across the open rushing gutter, bloated with sewage, rain and snow, hail a cab and be gone.
I had been sick for a long time before Alice noticed. Longer than I could remember. It probably started in the spring, around the time I had been examined for three days in the King's Botanical Gardens. The Cour des Fontaines courtyard was not a place to be in bad health. Les Fontaines were the water reservoirs for the waterworks and gardens of the King's Palais Royal. The entire quarter extended from the Palais Royal's vaulted archways, with their galleries and shops, and food stands and cafes, bars, pastry shops and promenades, to Les Halles, the meat district, the stomach of Paris, not only its stomach but all its internal organs--its heart, liver, intestines, its shit. The slickest, fastest, largest, most brazen rats ruled our quarter. They were the best fed of the city, scurrying here and there, fornicating with the lesser rats of Les Halles. The district was a maze of alleys and narrow streets and culs-de-sac lined with dozens of theaters, music halls, circuses, bars, coffeehouses, restaurants, exhibition halls, casinos, taverns and whorehouses. All kinds of animals, human and otherwise, lived here, on exhibit: elephants, giraffes and camels, tigers, snakes and parrots, and all the parasites they brought: fleas, ticks, lice, mice. This was where I lived.
They exhibited me at number 188 rue St. Honore, which had once been the Catholic College of St. Honore, a convent up until the Revolution destroyed it. Now, part of it was a brothel, and the old wine cellar was used as latrines for the whores. The furnished hotels nearby housed cheap prostitutes who plied their trade amongst the slaughterhouses that filled the district. There were also the gaming houses like the Good Children Gallery, a favorite haunt of my master, which housed all the games of chance: roulette, biribi, passe-deux, trente-et-quarante. Nearby were famous, luxurious cafes such as the Thousand Columns, where my friend Madame Romain presided over the cashbox as "la Belle Limonadi*re," empress of the Palais Royal gardens.
Chase-Riboud plunges her reader into the midst of her story, joining Sarah Baartman in Paris in 1816 -- sick with consumption, pondering the nearly impossibly prospect of escaping her captivity and returning to her native country. As she journeys back in memory, we journey with her into her life as a Khoeknoe maiden, the disastrous encounters of her herding tribe with Dutch and English settlers, and her eventual decision to leave her tribal community for Cape Town to make a life among the colonists. Book clubs will find in Sarah a reflective woman who encounters among Europeans both exploitation and affection, cruelty and surprising kindness. The novel continually raises the question of where exactly the evil of colonial exploitation began, and where the limits of collusion and responsibility lay.
At the same time, Hottentot Venus is a novel about our conceptions of evolution, exploring the unique role that Sarah plays in the competing scientific ideas beginning to emerge at this time. Chase-Riboud follows the interest in Sarah shown by Georges Cuvier, one of the great minds in comparative anatomy, and in an inspired sequence toward the end of the novel, dramatizes a meeting of famous evolutionary minds as they observe Sarah's skeletal remains in a museum. This perspective on the history of science raises illuminating and troubling issues about how race became a part of the theorizing on evolution.
Finally, while reading groups will want to pursue Chase-Riboud's ideas about race, science, and colonialism in their discussions, they will also discover that Hottentot Venus contains a wealth of other themes to consider. Sarah herself is a fascinating, complex character, drawn in defiance of the historical perspective of her as mere victim. And the author's lushly detailed evocations of colonial Africa, Regency London, and Napoleon's Paris -- and the sometimes well known figures Sarah encounters in her travels -- offer myriad opportunities to be transported to another time and place. Book clubs will enjoy debating whether Hottentot Venus is more satisfying as an examination of a tragedy or as a rendering of a moment in time. And many readers will find themselves tempted to take both sides. Bill Tipper
Discussion Questions from the Publisher
Barbara Chase-Riboud's previous historical novels won her critical praise and established her as a writer who daringly transforms the hidden truths of the past into compelling fiction. In Hottentot Venus, Chase-Riboud recounts the tragic life of Sarah Baartman, re-creating in vivid, shocking detail the racism and sexism at the heart of European imperialism.
Born in the colony of Good Hope, South Africa, in 1789, Sarah Baartman was taken to London at the age of twenty by an English surgeon, who promised her fame and fortune. Dubbed the "Hottentot Venus," she was paraded naked in Piccadilly in a freak-show exhibition and subjected to the unabashed stares and crude comments of the British public, which resulted in a sensational trial for her custody by British abolitionists. Soon afterward, however, Baartman's keeper -- who may have been her husband -- sold her to a French circus owner. In 1814, her new owner took her to Paris as part of an exotic animal circus to be displayed to French high society. Baartman endured unconscionable exploitation and cruelty as medical experts and leading scientists touted her as an example of primitive evolution because of her genital "apron" and her prominent buttocks. Upon her death in 1816, she was publicly dissected and her brains, skeleton, and genitals were consigned to a French museum. In 2002, after eight years of legal negotiations between the French and South African governments, Baartman's remains were finally returned to South Africa for proper burial.
In Hottentot Venus, Barbara Chase-Riboud evokes this strange and moving story in the voices of Baartman and her contemporaries, combining years of research with the sensitivity and perceptions of a masterful storyteller to bring the story to life.
We hope that the following questions will enhance your reading group's discussion of this haunting story.
1. Discuss the role of missionaries during this period in African history. In what ways does Reverend Freehouseland's influence on Sarah actually contribute to her remaining a slave, even though he legally "freed" her from slavery?
2. What role does faith play in Sarah's life? How does religion shape her and the actions of those who exploit her?
3. During her time in London, Sarah forms a strong friendship with Princess Caroline, a dwarf who is also on display at the 225 Piccadilly freak show. How does Caroline's death foreshadow Sarah's? How else is Sarah's posthumous fate foreshadowed in the course of the story?
4. Was Sarah right to be suspicious of Robert Wedderburn and his efforts to free her? How would Sarah's story have been different if she had rebelled against Dunlop and Caesar and cooperated with Wedderburn?
5. In the first chapter Sarah describes the reactions of some of the people who come to see her on display in Paris. Why do women torment her more than men? Why is pity more painful for Sarah to endure than jeers and laughter?
6. Why do you think people find freak shows entertaining? What are some modern day freak shows?
7. How do the working class people of England react to the Hottentot Venus? How does their reaction differ from that of the French intelligentsia?
8. Discuss Sarah's relationship with Alice Unicorn. In what ways were their early lives similar? What are the paradoxes in their relationship?
9. Discuss the plight of women during this period in history. How does Sarah's marriage to Alexander Dunlop change her life? How does her position in society compare to that of Alice's?
10. How does Dunlop manipulate Sarah throughout the story? What power does he have over her?
11. Discuss how the various characters (Dunlop, Caesar, Réaux, Cuvier, etc.) justify to themselves and the public their horrific treatment of Sarah. Do they all see her as less than human?
12. Hottentot was the name given to the Khoekhoe people by the Dutch. What other racist terms have come and gone as part of the English language?
13. How does the changing of Sarah's name - from Ssehura to Saartjie to Hottentot Venus -- rob her of her identity and contribute to the mythology surrounding her?
14. Sarah's worst humiliation comes at the hands of Baron Georges Cuvier, a noted scientist who founded comparative anatomy. What does Sarah represent to the scientists and artists who attend Baron Cuvier's three-day exhibition and lecture?
15. Sarah did not receive a proper burial until 2002 when the French government agreed to return her to South Africa. Why do you think it took 150 years for this to happen?