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Oriental Feminotopias? Montagu's and Montesquieu's "Seraglios" Revisited

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Publication details

JournalGender and History
DatePublished - 17 Nov 2006
Issue number1
Number of pages20
Pages (from-to)66-86
Original languageEnglish


In the now dense scholarship on the meanings and value of the concept or category of 'orientalism', stimulated by Edward Said's twenty-five-year-old canonical text, several persistent themes have emerged. These include pressures for properly gendered discussion and analysis, and debates as to what kind of overarching framework or coherent category/concept survives the extensive exploration of diversities, contingencies and instabilities within the cultural/historical field it claims to address. Reina Lewis, Lisa Lowe, Billie Melman and Meyda Yegenoglu have recuperated an empirical terrain and reconfigured a conceptual framework for gendered accounts of the kinds of colonial, global and cultural encounters for which 'orientalism' has been deemed a useful category of analysis.1 Robert Young, Gayatri Spivak, Lowe and scholars with Middle Eastern and south Asian interests, have opened up discussion of contradictions and complexities within the category and its applications.2 More generally, there are now numerous investigations and interpretations which seek to explore and account for the interactions between material and cultural aspects of the histories with which 'orientalism' engages.3 In addition, scholars have tested and modified the chronological framework established by Said which emphasised a late eighteenth-century rupture in the history of European cultural constructions of (one or more) 'orients'. Just as discussions of 'enlightenment' now encompass seventeenth- as well as eighteenth-century developments, so accounts of 'orientalism' now explore trajectories extending across the whole of the eighteenth century while continuing to debate the significance of Said's chronology. This article responds to some of the arguments in this oeuvre, engaging in particular with discussions of gender and orientalism in the eighteenth century in the work of Melman, Felicity Nussbaum and Ruth Yeazell.4 By 'revisiting' two canonical texts of eighteenth-century orientalism – the so-called 'Turkish' or 'Embassy' letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the Persian Letters of Charles-Louis de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu5– I want to consider the use of 'harem'/'seraglio' tropes and of gendered and sexualised discourses in the shaping of 'enlightened' considerations of 'oriental' Others, of power relations and of 'male' and 'female' identities. I shall focus on the role of presentations of 'the harem' as utopian or dystopian strategies or images consciously deployed in these highly crafted texts for a range of political, intellectual and aesthetic purposes. However, I shall also suggest that, beyond any overt intentions, these strategies and images express some of the uncertainties and complexities within these texts and, indeed, in eighteenth-century 'orientalist' projects more generally.

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