Hottentot Venus: A Novel by Barbara Chase-Riboud
From the bestselling author of Sally Hemings comes an extraordinary new novel based on the true story of Sarah Baartman, a South African herdswoman exhibited as a "scientific curiosity" in the capitals of nineteenth-century Europe. [end box]
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.
In an unforgettable saga that ranges from Capetown to St. Helena to London to Paris and back to Africa, Chase-Riboud has fashioned a Dickensian evocation of this icon of scientificracism, whose body, sex, and brain were exploited, examined, and dissected to become a synonym of ugliness and brutality — the absolute negation of European beauty, which even today taints our Western concepts of humanity. Sarah, the tragic heroine, evokes nineteenth-century novels of the "other" such as Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Nigger of the Narcissus.
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. Like Chang and Eng and the author's own Sally Hemings and Echo of Lions, HOTTENTOT VENUS is a powerful, stark portrayal of the harsh realities of race—a stunning look at the cruelty of curiosity, colonialism, and its twenty-first century consequences.