Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature

Harems of the Mind: Passages of Western Art and Literature

by Ruth Bernard Yeazell

Hardcover(New Edition)



Fascinating and mysterious, the idea of the harem long captured the imagination of the West. The Muslim practice of concealing the women of the household from the eyes of alien men tempted Europeans to extravagant projections of their own wishes and fears. This intriguing book examines the art that resulted. Drawing on a wide range of evidence from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century—including travel writing, literature, painting, and even opera—Ruth Bernard Yeazell demonstrates the surprising variety of expressions inspired by the harem of the Western imagination.

The book provides both a rich account of changing perceptions of the harem and a demonstration of the tenacious persistence of myth and stereotype. Yeazell shows that Europe’s hunger for facts about the harem combined repeatedly with the impulse to fantasize. Masculine erotic fantasies of the harem were reflected in the paintings of Ingres and Delacroix, the writings of de Sade, Byron, and Loti, and the work of anonymous pornographers. Alternate representations portrayed the harem as a prison or a locus of freedom, a place of murderous rivalry or a home of loving sisterhood, a chamber of erotic license or a nightmarish snare of frustration and ennui. And Montesquieu, Mozart, and Charlotte Brontë among others explored in their art the opposition of the imaginary pleasures of the harem to the freely chosen union of a loving couple. In a nuanced reading of Ingres’s Bain turc andother works, Yeazell concludes that for some the appeal of the harem lay in the fantasy of eluding time and death.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300083897
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 09/10/2000
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Ruth Bernard Yeazell is Chace Family Professor of English and director of the Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Some Travelers' Tales

In the fifth canto of Byron's Don Juan (1819-24), the poem's hero, sold into slavery at Constantinople, finds himself disguised as a woman and smuggled into the Grand Seraglio of the sultan. In the sixth, he is about to retire for the night with the more orthodox members of the harem, when the narrator briefly pauses to boast of his inside knowledge of the scene:

It was a spacious chamber (Oda is
    The Turkish title) and ranged round the wall
Were couches, toilets—and much more than this
    I might describe, as I have seen it all,
But it suffices—little was amiss.
    'Twas on the whole a nobly furnished hall. (6.51)

Though the author of Childe Harold often turned his own restless tourism to the uses of poetry, no evidence exists that he ever managed to include the sultan's harem on his itinerary. In fact, his modern editors find the narrator's claim to "have seen it all" anomalous enough to warrant the solemn note that "Byron usually did not claim to have been in places where he never had been." But if the poet had never directly seen the interior of a harem, he had encountered many representations of one, and he was hardly the first to pretend to a familiarity in excess of his experience. While most male travelers stopped short of asserting that they themselves had actually entered forbidden ground, few could resist describing at length what they had not seen. And few could resist claiming to be more in the know than theirpredecessors. The blank walls of the harem have long constituted an imaginative provocation to the European mind, and the poet merely exaggerates a typical response to their challenge.

    That Byron necessarily drew on other representations for his hero's adventures does not distinguish his imaginary harem from the more sober reports of those who had preceded him. The poet's boast of having seen it all might even be read not as a claim to direct experience but as a joke about the abundance of such images already in circulation. Among the many accounts of the East that Byron himself had read as a youth, Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1668) openly acknowledged the challenge posed by writing of the harem. After detailing the ranks of eunuchs, both white and black, who serve in the Grand Seraglio, Rycaut proceeded to a section on "The Apartments of the Women":

And since I have brought my Reader into the quarters of these Eunuchs, which are the Black guard of the sequestered Ladies of the Seraglio, he may chance to take it unkindly, should I leave him at the door, and not introduce him into those apartments, where the Grand Signors Mistresses are lodged: And though I ingenuously confess my acquaintance there (as all other my conversation with Women in Turky) is but strange and unfamiliar; yet not to be guilty of this discourtesie, I shall to the best of my information write a short account of these Captivated Ladies, how they are treated, immured, educated and prepared for the great achievements of the Sultans affection; and as in other stories the Knight consumes himself with combats, watching and penance to acquire the love of one fair Damsel; here an army of Virgins make it the only study and business of their life to obtain the single nod of invitation to the Bed of their great Master.

By suggesting that his own exclusion from the women's apartments would not stop him from helping others through the door, Rycaut called attention to how readers' presumed desire for inside knowledge governed his narrative. And even as he tried "to the best of [his] information" to give a faithful report of what he had learned, he immediately began to associate it with romance—as if the imagined rivalries of the sultan's harem were the polygynous Eastern version of those "other stories," As Rycaut likewise suggested when he came to describe how "the Grand Signior resolves to choose himself a Bed-fellow," the prohibited observer can only reproduce the tales he has been told: his account of how the sultan has all the "Damsels" gathered before him so that he may throw a handkerchief "where his eye and fancy best directs" proceeds, in his words, "according to the story in every place reported, when the Turkish Seraglio falls into discourse." The story of the nightly handkerchief was one of the more persistent tales to circulate around the mysteries of the sultan's harem; to this day, some uncertainty remains as to whether or not it corresponded to imperial practice. But the more such stories were passed on from one traveler to another, the more each new visitor also insisted on distinguishing his knowledge from his predecessors'.

    Aaron Hill began his own Present State of the Ottoman Empire of 1709 by boasting of how the temporary absence of the sultan and "his Ladies" at Adrianople had enabled him and some other English travelers to "snatch ... the Lucky Opportunity of Seeing ... the Great Seraglio at Constantinople, so much farther, than had been before permitted"—an opportunity that he exploited to the full when it came time to describe the palace itself and "particularly" the apartments of the women. Like Rycaut, he appeared to have little doubt that this was the account his reader had been waiting for. "Chiefly bending my design'd description," as he put it, towards those "Paths of Love, and Labyrinths of Pleasure ... where the amorous Sultan toys away his Minutes in the wanton Raptures of his Ladies Conversation," he effectively offered himself as guide for a voyeur's tour of the harem.

    Having engaged to lead the reader "with a gradual Curiosity, through every inmost Part of its discover'd Glories," Hill proceeds through the rest of the chapter with a similar mixture of coyness and titillation, as he repeatedly anticipates and defers the promised climax of the tour. "But now appears a SECRET worth the hearing," he characteristically announces at one point, as if finally about to arrive at the "inmost" part of the narrative:

I will not only trace the Sultan to his amorous Pastimes with the Virgins of his Pleasure, but admit the Reader to the close Apartments of the fair SERAGLIO LADIES, nay and into the retir'd Magnificence of their Bedchambers, but shew him all the various Scenes of Love and Courtship, which are practis'd daily by their Lord and them, even to the Consummation of their utmost Wishes; and if the British Ladies are desirous of a further Information, still advance a step or two beyond it.

Despite the note of imminent disclosure, however, Hill's eager readers would have had to traverse more than fifteen folio pages of architectural description before they approached anything like the amorous pastimes promised by this passage. If there is no end to the possibility of inside know-ledge about the harem—since beyond the "utmost" one can "still advance a step or two" toward "further Information"—there is also no end, it would seem, to the lure of a "SECRET" not yet articulated.

    A reader whose curiosity had been genuinely aroused by all this teasing might well have complained of a certain anticlimax when the tour finally arrived at the threshold of the sultan's bedchamber. For as in many such accounts, Hill primarily achieved an effect of truth by dismissing previous reports as fictions. After once more teasing "the natural Curiosity" of his "Female Readers" by promising that they were about "to look a little" into the "Amours" of the sultan, he paused to urge that they first "lay aside those vulgar Errors and Romantick Notions, former Authors, or perhaps, their travelling Lovers have possess'd their Minds with." Hill's immediate target in this case was the familiar business of the sultan's handkerchief. Even "the Learned and Judicious Sir Paul Ricaut," he complained, "has not blush'd" to credit the "erroneous Story." Typically, however, he himself went on to retail another problematic bit of palace lore—that the evening's favorite entered the imperial bed by creeping up from its foot. Assuming we believe Hill's repeated boasts of privileged access to the seraglio, we may still wonder just how a tour of the empty palace guaranteed this European visitor's superior knowledge of the sultan's private habits.

    Whatever his own reliability, Hill saw clearly enough why others, at least, might be tempted to fabricate evidence about the secrets of the harem. "Common Fame is both a Lyar, and a Magnifier of the falsities of all Mankind," he sensibly observed, and "where Truth is doubtful, or the Fact obscure, she strait contrives to fill deficiences with a productive train of illegitimate Assertions." Though Hill believed no subject could "more entirely prove the certainty of this Opinion, than the Great Seraglio of the Turkish Sultan," the seventeenth-century French traveler, Jean Chardin, thought the harems of Persia more mysterious still. So closely did the Persians guard their women, according to Chardin, that the "sérails" of the Turks and even of their sultan could be called public spaces in comparison. The great difficulty of learning anything at all about the women's quarters, especially those in the royal palace, led Chardin to term the Persian harem "un monde inconnu"—after which, predictably, he declared himself better informed on the subject than any other European before him. What he had to say, he assured his readers, was nearly all that one could know, because even the "grands seigneurs" did not know any more. Soon he was pronouncing the royal harem of Persia "incomparable" in regard to the beauty of the women it enclosed. The habit of filling epistemological "deficiencies with a productive train of illegitimate Assertions," in Hill's words, was clearly not limited to accounts of the Ottomans.

    For all these travelers, of course, the way to any harem was barred not so much by differences of nationality and religion as by the distinction of sex. When Chardin alluded to those "grands seigneurs" who knew no more of the royal harem than he did, he does not seem to have meant Europeans of higher rank than his own but the great lords of Persia themselves. Even his local informants, in other words, would have had no more access to its secrets than he did. And while the royal harem was always a special case, ordinary households posed scarcely less of an obstacle to the masculine visitor. If the mysteries of the harem had such a long hold on the imagination of the West, one reason, no doubt, was that the vast majority of travel reports—until the nineteenth century, at least—were written by those firmly excluded from its precincts. But less than a decade after Hill published his Present State of the Ottoman Empire, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was already availing herself of the privileges afforded her sex, not to mention her position as the wife of England's ambassador to the Porte, to prono-unce "the falsehood of a great part of what you find in authors" including "the admirable Mr. Hill ... and all his Brethren Voyage-writers." Cheerfully indulging what she termed "a true female spirit of Contradiction," Lady Mary gave new force to the travelers' topos by which each writer routinely dismissed the accounts of his predecessors.

    Though Lady Mary clearly had no wish to confine her "spirit of Contradiction" to matters conventionally associated with her sex, she also took evident pleasure in her ability to venture where no man was permitted. "I am sure I have now entertaind you with an Account of such a sight as you never saw in your Life and what no book of travells could inform you of," she boasted to the female correspondent who received her famous description of the women's bath at Sofia. After all, she concluded pointedly: "'Tis no less than Death for a Man to be found in one of these places." In the midst of a detailed account of upper-class Turkish architecture, she paused to remind yet another woman friend of her privileged access to spaces—and to knowledge—ordinarily concealed from the authors of travel literature. "You will perhaps be surpriz'd at an Account so different from what you have been entertaind with by the common Voyage-writers who are very fond of speaking of what they don't know. It must be under a very particular character or on some Extrodinary Occassion when a Christian is admitted into the House of a Man of Quality, and their Harams are allways forbidden Ground." Written in 1717-18, though not widely available until their posthumous publication in 1763, Lady Mary's letters from Turkey promised her readers the sort of inside knowledge only a woman "of Quality" in her own country could provide.

    Like "common Voyage-writers," as she called them, Lady Mary prided herself on her capacity to surprise. Yet in the case of this cosmopolitan woman, the traveler's revelation often takes the ironic form of disclosing that the secrets of the Other are not so novel after all. "As to their Morality or good Conduct," she wittily remarked to her sister on the inhabitants of the harem, "I can say like Arlequin, 'tis just as 'tis with you, and the Turkish Ladys don't commit one Sin the less for not being Christians." Elsewhere in the same letter, she suggested that the polygamous character of the harem had been grossly exaggerated. "'Tis true their Law permits them 4 Wives, but there is no Instance of a Man of Quality that makes use of this Liberty, or of a Woman of Rank that would suffer it. When a Husband happens to be inconstant (as those things will happen) he keeps his mistrisse in a House apart and visits her as privately as he can, just as tis with you." She knows of but one exception, she reports, "and he is spoke of as a Libertine, or what we should call a Rake, and his Wife won't see him, thô she continues to live in his house." If the reality of the harem, by this account, proves all too familiar, the veracity of the teller is confirmed precisely by her refusal to exaggerate its difference. The letter's close drives home the point: "Thus you see, dear Sister, the manners of Mankind doe not differ so widely as our voyage Writers would make us beleive. Perhaps it would be more entertaining to add a few surprizing customs of my own Invention, but nothing seems to me so agreable as truth, and I beleive nothing so acceptable to you."

    When it came to the harem of the sultan, however, even Lady Mary never managed to get any closer than the apartments of a former "sultana." "I did not omit this oppertunity of learning all that I possibly could of the Seraglio, which is so entirely unknown amongst us," she assured her sister, immediately adding that her informant had pronounced "the story of the Sultan's throwing a Handkercheif ... altogether fabulous." Though in this respect at least Lady Mary evidently agreed with the objectionable Mr. Hill, she quickly followed it up by reporting that "neither is there any such thing as her creeping in at the bed's feet." Characteristically, the cosmopolitan traveler found the sultana's account of occasional jealousies among the imperial harem "neither better nor worse than the Circles in most Courts" where everyone waits upon the glance and smile of the monarch. Despite her demystifying impulses, however, the sheer opulence of the sultana's quarters prompted even Lady Mary partly to defend the authenticity of romance. "Now do I fancy that you imagine I have entertain'd you all this while with a relation that has (at least) receiv'd many Embellishments from my hand," she protested to her sister, after describing her hostess's elaborate jewelry, the "magnificence of her table" and the "rich habits," including "3 vests of fine Sables," casually strewn about her bed-chamber. "This is but too like (says you) the Arabian tales; these embrodier'd Napkins, and a jewel as large as a Turkey's egg!—You forget, dear Sister, those very tales were writ by an Author of this Country and (excepting the Enchantments) are a real representation of the manners here." Their "Enchantments" duly excepted, the Arabian Nights briefly metamorphoses into a local informant more reliable than all those ignorant Europeans who have preceded her.

    Yet for Lady Mary, the habits of enlightened skepticism continued to outweigh the seductions of romance; and even today, she remains one of the more reliable witnesses for those wishing to reconstruct upper-class life among the eighteenth-century Ottomans. This is not quite to say, however, that she—or any female visitor to the harem, for that matter—could simply replace masculine fantasies with unmediated reality. As we shall see, European women were not without their own preconceptions and wishful fantasies of life in the harem. Nor were those who followed Lady Mary to the East necessarily inclined to endorse her accounts of what she saw there. For subsequent women travelers intent on establishing their own claims to truth, her influential letters often furnished precisely the representations to be disputed. Embarking on another journey to Constantinople nearly seventy years after Lady Mary, Elizabeth Craven even refused to credit her predecessor's very existence as an author: "Whoever wrote L. M—'s Letters (for she never wrote a line of them) misrepresents things most terribly; I do really believe, in most things they wished to impose upon the credulity of their readers, and laugh at them."

    Few later writers approached this wholesale dismissiveness, but the impulse to correct the embassy letters persisted well into the nineteenth century. Reporting on the domestic life of the Turks in 1836, for example, one Victorian writer felt compelled to revise Lady Mary's famous account of the women's bath for contemporary audiences. Though the eighteenth-century aristocrat had described "200" bathers "all ... in the state of nature, that is, in plain English, stark naked, without any Beauty or deffect conceal'd," Julia Pardoe happily announced that she had "witnessed none of that unnecessary and wanton exposure described by Lady M.W. Montague." As Pardoe diplomatically phrased it, "Either the fair Ambassadress was present at a peculiar ceremony, or the Turkish ladies have become more delicate and fastidious in their ideas of propriety." In another account of Harem Life in Egypt and Constantinople three decades later, Emmeline Lott managed to contend that aristocratic privilege was precisely what kept the ambassador's wife from the inside knowledge accessible to a less fortunate person like herself. Lott's querulous record of her travails as a governess in Eastern harems opens with a fulsome tribute to "that 'Princess of Female Writers,'" whose "rank and position" were the "talisman" which "drew back the massive double-bolted doors, and gave her access to those forbidden 'Abodes of Bliss'"—only to turn that rank and position firmly against her titled predecessor:

Nevertheless, her handsome train, Lady Ambassadress as she was, swept but across the splendid carpeted floors of those noble Saloons of Audience, all of which had been, as is invariably the custom, well 'swept and garnished' for her reception. The interior of those Harems were to her Ladyship a terra incognita, and even although she passed through those gaudy halls like a beautiful meteor, all was couleur de rose, and not the slightest opportunity was permitted her to study the daily life of the Odalisques.

The harems of Constantinople may have opened their doors to Lady Mary, but only the long-suffering governess, it would seem, really managed to get inside. With a gesture of self-abasement almost worthy of Uriah Heep, Lott staked her claim:

It was reserved to a humble individual like myself ... to become the unheard-of instance in the annals of the Turkish Empire, of residing within those foci of intrigue, the Imperial and Viceregal Harems of Turkey and Egypt; and thus an opportunity has been afforded me of ... uplifting that impenetrable veil, to accomplish which had hitherto baffled all the exertions of Eastern travellers.

This boast of access without precedent met the usual fate. The English governess had no sooner published her account, in fact, than another English-woman in Egypt wrote of her own visit to a Turkish "Hareem" and pronounced it "not a bit like the description in Mrs. Lott's most extra-ordinary book." Though she was a distant cousin of Harriet Martineau, Lucie Duff Gordon had no more patience for the "outrageous" representations of the harem that had appeared in her relative's Eastern Life, Present and Past (1848). As for the precedent of art and literature: "Fancy pictures of Eastern things are hopelessly absurd, and fancy poems too. I have got hold of a stray copy of Victor Hugo's 'Orientales,' and I think I never laughed more in my life."

    Among the more open-minded and judicious of Eastern travel-writers, Duff Gordon was more inclined to remark what she found "good and rational" about "hareem" than to celebrate its mysteries. But even she was not above mildly boasting of having penetrated further than others, as when she announced after some months in Egypt that "I have contrived to see and know more of family life than many Europeans who have lived here for years." By the time Duff Gordon first published her Letters (1865), however, the number of rival claimants to inside knowledge about the harem had grown quite crowded. Though artists and writers would continue to exploit its imagined secrets for at least another half century, some travelers to the East were already beginning to lament the loss of mystery. As early as 1846, the author of an anonymous article for Chambers' Edinburgh Journal apparently felt the need to distinguish her own visit to the apartments of a Bulgarian "sultana" from run-of-the-mill accounts of the harems at Constantinople, which "so many travellers habitually visit ... that they are half Europeanised." She was, in her words, "delighted with the prospect of inspecting an establishment which must be so very characteristic, so perfectly Eastern," for into this harem, of course, "no other stranger had ever been admitted."

    That the Chambers' correspondent may well have been the first foreigner to visit these apartments did not make her claim to novelty any less conventional. All travel literature implicitly holds out a similar promise: no one—at least no one like the writer—has ever seen this sight before, or those who claim to have done so have seen it all wrong. But as a space by definition sealed from alien eyes, the harem especially invited such claims, even as it rendered them more dubious than usual. For several centuries—Lady Mary in part excepted—most of what passed in the West for inside knowledge about any harem was little more than speculation and rumor, with one writer's dismissal of another's fiction often having to serve as fact. Yet even when a good number of European women began to visit Eastern homes in the nineteenth century, the thrill of getting inside did not altogether dissipate, nor did the impulse to claim that this traveler had really penetrated to the truth of the harem. Every household is different, after all, but the writer for Chambers' was not just making the trivial boast that no other European had happened to visit a particular set of Bulgarian apartments. What excited her, she made clear, was "the prospect of inspecting an establishment which must be so very characteristic, so perfectly Eastern"—the anticipation, in other words, of getting at that mysterious difference that she, like so many before and after, identified with the harem.

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