Eighteenth-Century British Orientalism

Jennifer Thorn


Edward Said has remarked that "it is genuinely troubling to see how little Britain's great humanistic ideas, institutions, and movements . . . stand in the way of the accelerating imperial process. We are entitled to ask how this body of humanistic ideas co-existed so comfortably with imperialism" (1994, 82). This seminar, "Eighteenth-Century British Orientalism," is designed to allow us to begin to answer a form of Said's question—the coincidence of the Enlightenment promise of progress through knowledge with the violence of colonialism and the emergent representations of race, culture, and civilization with which it was associated. Eighteenth-century England used the term "Orient" to describe the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, with which regions it was then involved in the commercial ventures that would become nineteenth-century imperialism. Representations of these regions and cultures abound in the high and low fiction of the era as well as in travel accounts and works of scholarly works on architecture, religion, gardening, and government. The term was most commonly associated with the oriental tales that were enormously popular through the century, many of them adaptations of The Arabian Nights, itself introduced into England in 1704 in a hugely popular, anonymous translation of Antoine Galland's French version of the original. These oriental tales included escapist fantasies, social critiques, stoical moral treatises, and philosophical meditations upon "universal human nature," making varying uses of "the Orient" as counterpoint to England, often to its disadvantage.

My design of this course evinces Said's view that oriental tales and orientalist scholarship say more about Britain—its ideal self-definitions, its anxieties, its assumptions about world and cosmic order—than about "the Orient." I do not, however, concede the relevance of Said's paradigm to eighteenth-century Britain without qualification. While this heterogeneous mass of material can and must be termed orientalist in Said's sense—"more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient that it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient"—it demands scrutiny not solely or primarily as a predictor of the nineteenth-century norms and situations from which Said drew his model. For example, the 1704 translation of The Arabian Nights contrasts sharply with the better-known translation by the nineteenth-century explorer Richard Burton. While the former averts its eyes from King Shahryar's queen's dalliance with a black servant, concerned primarily with the tale's educational value, the latter elaborates upon the details of the queen's perverse desire for "a Negro slave with his upper lip like the cover of a pot, and his lower like an open pot—lips which could sweep up sand from the gravel floor of the cot." Indeed, nineteenth-century scholars themselves noted a difference between their ideal relation of England to the Orient and the eighteenth century's. Macaulay, the whig historian who so famously recounted British history as progress from barbarism to an enlightenment that correlated with British governance of more benighted cultures, denounced Samuel Johnson's 1759 oriental tale Rasselas, finding its universalist depiction of its "Abyssinian" protagonists insufficiently demarcated from (and perhaps denigrated against) European "civilization."

The course is methodological in that it is meant to prompt, indeed to foreground, students' self-consciousness about what we can and can't presume—about the era's "Persia," "Ceylong," gender roles, class structure, views of commerce and race, and fictional norms and ideals. Orientalism is not simple, singular, or constant, nor are its effects, nor are the strategies by which one might contest it. How was eighteenth-century Britain like and unlike the imperialistic nineteenth-century Britain of Said's remark? The eighteenth century saw the growth of capitalism and consumerism, the restructuring of middle-class family life, the invention of the newspaper, and a widening exploration, trade, and colonization dependent in part on the technological and scientific advances associated with the Enlightenment. Yet to conflate the eighteenth-century with the nineteenth, even if the name of de-essentializing presumptions of progress that informed and legitimated English colonial and imperial activity, would be to essentialize history.

Said himself cautioned against the reductive excesses to which methods of reading like those he had encouraged in Orientalism could be put. "If you know in advance that the black or Jewish or German experience is fundamentally comprehensible only to Jews or Blacks or Germans," he wrote, "you first of all posit as essential something which, I believe, is both historical and the result of interpretation—namely the existence of Jewishness, Blackness, or Germanness, or for that matter of Orientalism and Occidentalism" (1996, 34). In just this way, this seminar is designed to confront students with a series of interpretive dilemmas, in the hopes of prompting both greater self-consciousness about their own presumptions and, with it, real thinking. This commitment to induction informs, for example, my selection of Peter Marshall's definition of "orientalism" from the Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment for students' coursepaks, rather than Said's more rhetorically charged and abstract definition. It is fatally easy for students to criticize earlier eras for their benighted attitudes and limited knowledge. Even as I want students to grapple with the material force of bias, I want not to reinforce inadvertently a bias that is arguably as pernicious, a smug complacency that simply by recognizing others' shortcomings, we escape them in ourselves. To put this somewhat more subtly, even as I embrace the opportunity to foreground the historicity of values—the processes by which they are articulated and deployed, the processes by which later respondents, in their turn, evaluate them—I want this fundamentally intellectual activity not to be severed from an awareness of its own limitations, its own implication in culture and history.

For these reasons, I have focused the course on fantasy and narrative: what pleasures may have been offered to eighteenth-century readers of The Arabian Nights, "Almoran and Hamet," Persian Letters, Rasselas? What educational value did such narratives claim, or imply? How did learning inform pleasure, utile dulce? Do we ourselves associate fantasy with a particular kind of writing, such as children's literature? Of course, a primary "pleasure" of orientalism is the imaginative entwining of "the exotic" with "the erotic." Yet even those works that invoke the harem differ importantly in form and desired effect: Mary Wortley Montagu prides herself on the advantage over earlier travellers' accounts afforded her by her sex; Eliza Haywood plays with gender reversal, depicting a sexualized captivity of men in the East; Montesquieu juxtaposes political theory with an imagined revolt in the harem. Focusing on pleasure as we read heterogeneous works for quite diverse readerships affords a manageably constant lens by which both to acquire an ear for eighteenth-century English culture—fears of fiction, for example—and to examine the least tangible of the course's concerns, the historicity of race, sexuality, and literary form. It does not, however, address "the ethical imperative of anticolonial/ postcolonial reading" that Srivinas Aravamudan has asserted: "to articulate the agency of the colonized, rather than merely theorize from the position of the colonizer" (94). To this important call, this seminar provides no direct answer, except to take the first (or the next) in what it is hoped will be a lifetime of sensitizing steps in cross-cultural interaction.

I have designed the course for easy reconfiguration to suit varying teacherly and institutional demands: the course can serve two additional course functions, albeit obliquely, first, providing a chronologically-based survey of eighteenth-century fictional forms and sources. In this sense, it is not radically unlike a novel survey, admittedly of a particular kind. In addition, because it focuses in a sustained way on the historicity of gender and race, the course can be taken as an elective toward the Women's Studies major or certificate at Duke. The course I present here is a seminar in that it asks for a substantial amount of reading, emphasizes class discussion, and asks for lots of writing of different kinds. I have not envisioned it as being restricted to majors or seniors: I require simply—or not so simply!—maturity, a willingness to work and to engage. Still, as a course that asks students to think about factuality and fictionality, the "truths" of history and of fiction, and their own and the texts' inductive and deductive processes, the course is well-suited to serve as an honors sequence or a senior seminar for English majors.

Course Description and Objectives

The course unfolds in five parts. We open with a foundational first unit in which we read much of The Arabian Nights and focus on oriental tales by Eliza Haywood, John Hawkesworth, Clara Reeve, and Frances Sheridan that show various debts to it. We move then to a nonfiction unit, in which we read orientalist and adjacent-to-orientalist numbers of The Spectator and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters; then a unit on French orientalism, in which we read Montesquieu's Persian Letters and Francoise de Graffigny's Letters of a Peruvian Woman (one can substitute here Diderot's Indiscreet Jewels); and finally a unit on English novels, in which various orientalist elements entwine quite differently in visions of utopias and dystopias—Samuel Johnson's Rasselas; Ellis Cornelia Knight's continuation of it, Dinarbas; and the wonderfully unexpected William Beckford's Vathek. (I have taught Daniel Defoe's Roxana in this unit as well, in a year when I taught fewer tales from the Nights.) Then, in our last week, to remind ourselves of the background we've acquired in the Nights and its varying influence and to remember we've been reading European literature indebted to this once-denigrated Arabic work, we read a few tales in Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Days and Nights.

The first unit immediately presents the difficulty of reading The Arabian Nights as literature. Students primed to look for "deeper meanings" in English classes may well be stumped by its authorlessness, heterogeneity, and lack of thematic coherence. Alternatively, the familiarity with the Nights that it is hard not to presume can lead students to miss its historical importance. My primary concerns, therefore, revolve upon familiarizing students with the generic instability and experimentation characteristic of early eighteenth-century fiction, the popularity of tale form; and the "mystery" that Paul Hunter has noted, "what happened to fairy tales during the seventeenth century, for they disappeared from the English public consciousness, their household familiarity in Shakespeare's day having dwindled to nothing by the time of Henry and Sarah Fielding" (142). We look at tricksters and trickery and think about orality and print culture. We read, at a minimum, five groups of tales: the "tales of racial and sexual paranoia," in Robert Irwin's phrase, that include the frame tale, "The Three Apples," and "The Young Prince of the Black Islands"; the "Hunchback" cycle for its physical cruelty, humor, and focus on the lower ranks of society; "Noureddin and the Fair Persian" for the debate on the similarities between slavery and marriage that later writers saw in it; the Sindbad stories, later studied for their possible basis in fact; and Aladdin, for the marked reinvention that has accompanied its longevity. These questions continue to shape our reading of oriental tales, in which genres again overlap—amatory fiction, captivity narrative, oriental tale, travel narrative, political and moral philosophy—though to different readerly effects.

In our non-fiction unit, we first discuss the limited utility of the concept of "non-fiction," in an era in which "novel" could mean simply "news." The periodical nature of the Spectator papers poses interpretative challenges like those students face in reading Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters: many little pieces of things written over a long period of time that are not intended to comprise a singular whole. So, too, both involve self-presentations that are as much self-occlusions or masks. Both works also invoke intra-group distinctions as much as inter-group distinctions, affording an important context for the interracial contrasts that are more explicitly the course's concern.

The unit on French orientalism extends this formal focus on fragmentation and tone, as the target of Montesquieu's satire in Persian Letters shifts from "France" to "Persia" to the reader, often in the same letter. Very broadly, English oriental tales are more didactic, French oriental tales more satiric; we test such oppositions as we read Graffigny's similarly unexpected epistolary entwining of the sexual and political, Letters of a Peruvian Woman.

The primary focus in the novel unit is its chronological range, the shifts in generic expectations, if not in racial and sexual presumptions and ideals, that these novels suggest. Defoe's Roxana is of use for its place in the era of experimentation that also characterized Haywood's tales and the appearance in English of the Nights; its entwining of commerce, the exotic, and sexuality forms an important complement and counterpoint to "oriental tales" per se. As different as are Johnson's stoical, Christian orientalism in Rasselas, and Knight's highly sentimentalized completion of it in Dinarbas, the two stand in sharp contrast to the more modern forms of sexuality, fantasy, and racism that inform Beckford's Vathek.

Finally, to look away in order to look back in summary, we spend a class or two reading in Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Days and Nights. These final class periods on Mahfouz enable, I hope, the class to situate the chronological survey we've enacted in the larger context of "the world," or, more modestly, to remember that the legacy of the Nights is felt not simply in England. So, too, reading contemporary Arabic fiction in translation underlines the ambition of the class to open doors that stay open beyond the duration of the course, as we test our abilities to read works that confound our notions of "novels" without having recourse to presumptions of exoticism that occlude as much as they reveal.

Texts (all paperback except Knight):

William Beckford, Vathek & Other Stories: A Beckford Reader, ed., Malcolm Jack. Penguin

Daniel Defoe, Roxana, ed. David Blewett, Viking Penguin

Francoise de Graffigny, Letters of a Peruvian Woman, MLA

Samuel Johnson, Rasselas, Penguin, ed D.J. Enright

Ellis Cornelia Knight, Dinarbas, ed. Ann Messenger, Colleagues

Robert Mack, ed., Arabian Nights Entertainments, Oxford

Robert Mack, ed., Oriental Tales, Oxford

Naguib Mahfouz, Arabian Days and Nights, trans. Denis Johnson, Davies

Montagu, Turkish Embassy Letters, intro. by Anita Desai, Virago

Montesquieu, Persian Letters, Penguin

Coursepak: Primary Readings

Eliza Haywood, Philidore and Placentia, or, L'Amour trop Delicat, from William H. McBurney, ed., Four Before Richardson: Selected English Novels, 1720-1727. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963.

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, Spectator: Included here are orientalist numbers of the newspaper with others that immediately followed or preceded them, to provide context:

49 April 26, 1711 (RS): coffee-house conversation

50 April 27, 1711 (JA): visit to England of four Indian kings

94 June 18, 1711 (JA): ideas of time

158 August 31, 1711 (RS): letters; opinions of Spectator

159 Sept 1, 1711 (JA): vision of Mirza

194 Oct 12, 1711 (RS): letters from readers on love and friendship

195 Oct 13, 1711 (JA): Story of sick king and drugged mallet

288 Jan 30, 1711-12 (RS): letters from readers on jilts and trade

289 Jan 31, 1711-12 (JA): dervish who mistakes a palace for an inn

292 Feb 4, 1711-12 (unknown): on generosity and grace

293 Feb 5, 1711-12 (JA): Persian fable of drop of water

342 Apr 2, 1712 (RS): letter regarding feminine decency

343 Apr 3, 1712 (JA): Story of Pug the monkey

348 Apr 9, 1712 (RS): letter from reader re scandal

349 Apr 10, 1712 (JA): story of Muli Moluc, emperor of Morocco

510 Oct 15, 1712 (RS): force of female beauty

511 Oct 16, 1712 (JA): Persian marriage auction; merchant who purchased old woman in a sack

512 Oct 17, 1712 (JA): story of sultan Mahmoud and his vizier

534 Nov 12, 1712 (RS): letters re female education, etc.

535 Nov 13, 1712 (JA): story of Alnaschar

536 Nov 14, 1712 (JA): letters re uselessness of pretty men

545 Nov 25, 1712 (JA): letter from emperor of China to the pope

556 June 18, 1714 (JA): "Spectator" tells how he came to talk

557 June 21, 1714 (JA): letter from ambassador of Bantam

577 Aug 6, 1714 (unknown): from man who likes to read aloud

578 Aug 9, 1714 (unknown): on identity; Fadlallah, prince of Mousel

583 Aug 20, 1714 (JA): on planting

584 and 585 Aug 23, 1714 (JA): story of Hilpa, Harpath, and Shalum

Secondary Readings

P.J. Marshall, "Orientalism," Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment. Ed. John Yolton, R. Porter, B. M. Stafford. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991. 384-85.

P.J. Marshall and Glyndwr Williams, The Great Map of Mankind: British Perceptions of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. London: Dent, 1982. 1-44 ("Introduction" and chap. 1, "Images of the World").

"The Qu'ran," "The Worship of Islam," "Science, Art, and Culture in Islam," and "The Unity and Variety of Islam," from Eerdmans' Handbook to The World's Religions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), pages 319-24, 329-36 [total of 19 short pages]

Writing Assignments

My commitment to fostering students' responsibility for their own education is reflected in the kinds of writing assignments I devise. I care a lot about writing, assigning a range of kinds of assignments each term to hone a variety of analytic and writing skills and to maximize the odds that some kind will seem manageable to each student.

I find it useful in seminars to assign some writing on the first day. For this class, I ask that each student write a three-page "oriental tale," however they define the term, due the next class. This first day's writing does not count toward students' final grades; rather, it is meant to provide a marker against which they can gauge their own changed thinking at the semester's end. I am also interested here in having them become aware of what happens when they themselves imagine "the Orient."

I assign a short answer assignment early in the term based on the required secondary readings (Marshall and Eerdman's), that students can do either independently or in collaboration with classmates. I am of two minds about the value of these secondary readings: on the one hand, they provide background for which students seem to hunger regarding eighteenth-century England's interdependence with its Eastern trading partners and Islam. On the other hand, students are hard-put not to try to do outside-in readings of our fictional narratives after having read secondary materials, regarding "the truth of history that we now know" as a foundation for adjudicating matters that are more subtle.

I require students to write questions on the board for that day's discussion for one work in each unit. I'm looking here for real questions: what don't you understand? what do you want to think about some more? what reminds you of something we've already read? what do you think the class should focus on? I pass around a sign-up sheet for question-writing the second week of class and ask for a printed copy of each question you put on the board; this helps me design essay questions. Three student questions for Montagu were: (1) "What kind of relationship do you think Montagu attributes to 'art and nature' (157)? Does she value one over the other? How does reading her treatment of nudity on p. 149 next to her passage on p. 59 influence your take on this question?" (2) "In her 24th Turkish letter, addressed to Alexander Pope, Montagu meets Achmed Bey, a great pasha's son who 'has been educated in the most polite eastern learning' and who 'drinks wine freely.' From this man, Montagu is exposed to an Arabic poetry that she finds 'passionate and lively' (53). How do the people through whom Montagu gains access to this cultural capital influence her like/ dislike of the poetry?" (3) In Letter 27, Montagu writes, `I was here convinced of the truth of a reflection I had often made, that if it was the fashion to go naked, the face would be hardly observed . . . ' (59). Do the implications of this passage imply any biases or idealizations of an "oriental" culture?"

I require frequent one- or two-page response papers I call "pearls" that encourage students to relax as writers and hone close-reading skills: small pieces of induction. To foster lively and honest engagement, I have also devised a number of creative pearls: for example, an invitation to imitate or parody The Persian Letters or Letters of a Peruvian Woman. In Fall 1995, this yielded a very insightful and enjoyable vision of the Persian Letters "if Toni Morrison had written it," which prompted useful discussion about change and continuity in the novel form and in the perception of social hierarchies.

The first longer assignment, to be about six pages in length, asks students to compare certain aspects of the translation of Arabian Nights we're reading—Robert Mack's edition of the anonymous "Grub Street Galland"—to any other translation of the Nights. I put on Reserve the most historically important English translations, by Edward Lane, John Payne, and Richard Burton, as well as the most recent English translation, by Hussain Haddawy. But students may use any translation or version, as long as they check with me first. (Indeed, one of the most insightful papers I received in Fall 1995 compared Galland's "Aladdin" to Disney's.) The aim here is close attention to variability of representations of race, sexuality, status, power, fantasy, and the relationships between the Nights and its audiences seemingly encouraged by each edition. This assignment also forces students to think about intention as regards orientalism, for no translator explicitly declares his wish to personalize or temporalize his translation, and yet the "translations" vary considerably.

I require two additional essays, each to be about eight pages long, requiring students to consider more than one work (ideally two). Here is the question sheet distributed for the first of these two essays, to give a sense of my hopes for these essay assignments:

Option #1: expand and deepen any pearl. For example, if you've considered an issue in a single work, you may want to revisit it in terms of two works.

Option #2: Changing or removing an orientalist element. Compare an orientalist element in terms of its centrality to the plot. Could things have turned out the way they did without this element or if this element were presented differently? And how would changing or removing this element affect the overall meanings of the stories?

You might want to focus on "props" (such as genii, rings, lamps); or on places (such as harems or "Ceylong"); on tendencies we've noted in class that are more subtle (such as the possibilities for intense homosocial bonding that "the orient" is imagined to afford); or on the relation of any two of these three types of elements.

Option #3: The exotic and the erotic. Compare the ways any two narratives entwine sexual politics and cultural comparison. Some questions you might consider here: Who's chaste? Who's promiscuous? What's said about that? Where is "progress"? Where is "commerce"? Is the tale a utopia, a dystopia? Does the tale seem to imply "it could happen here and that's good/bad" or "it could never happen here and that's good/bad"?

Option #4: Identify or objectify? Compare the ways readers are encouraged to identify with and/ or objectify (distance themselves from) orientalized characters in any two narratives. You'll probably want to address the relation of tone to theme as you work through your comparison.

Option #5: Genre. Do oriental tales seem to you to have any common characteristics that distinguish them from the longer orientalist works (a satire, a novel, a collection of travel letters) we've read? Do oriental tales seem to you to reveal a different kind of debt to Arabian Nights than do the longer orientalist works? What different authorial purposes seem to inform decisions to write in an orientalized form? Which do you think are most or least successful? Why?

Obviously, this question is enormous. Choose any part of it that intrigues you and build an essay around your own explorations of genre and its possible meanings.

Schedule of Readings

Week 1

Arabian Nights Entertainments: to 17 ("Introductory Tale") and 140-222 ("The Story of Sindbad the Sailor" and the beginning of "The Story of the Three Apples")

Week 2

ANE to 306 (the rest of "The Story of the Three Apples" and "The Story of the Little Hunch-back")

Week 3

ANE 440-482 ("The Story of Noureddin and the Fair Persian") and 651-725 ("The Story of Aladdin; or, the Wonderful Lamp") and close of frame-tale (892)

Weeks 4 & 5

Tales: Hawkesworth, "Almoran and Hamet"; Sheridan, "History of Nourjahad"; Reeve, "History of Charoba, Queen of Aegypt"

Weeks 6 & 7

Addison & Steele, Spectator papers; Montagu, Turkish Embassy Letters

Weeks 8 & 9

Montesquieu, Persian Letters; Graffigny, Letters of a Peruvian Woman

Weeks 10-14

Defoe, Roxana; Johnson, Rasselas; Knight, Dinarbas; Beckford, Vathek


Srivinas Aravamudan, "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the Hammam: Masquerade, Womanliness, and Levantinization." ELH 62, 1 (Spring 1992), 69-104.

Michael Banton, The Idea of Race. Boulder: Westview, 1977. 1-26 (chaps. 1, "The intellectual inheritance" and 2, "The racialization of the West").

Elizabeth Bohls, Women Travel Writers and the Language of Aesthetics, 1716-1818. New York: Cambridge, 1995.

Peter L. Caracciolo, The Arabian Nights in English Literature: Studies in the Reception of The Thousand and One Nights into British Culture. New York: St. Martin's, 1988.

Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997.

Mark Hannaford, Race: The History of an Idea in the West. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996.

Nicholas Hudson, "From Nation to Race: The Origin of Racial Classification in Eighteenth-Century Thought," Eighteenth-Century Studies 29:3, 247-64.

Peter Hulme, Colonial Encounters: Europe and the Native Caribbean, 1492-1797. New York: Methuen, 1986.

J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth Century English Fiction. New York: Norton, 1990.

Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Lisa Lowe, Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Felicity Nussbaum, Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1995.

Richard H. Popkin, "The Philosophical Basis of Eighteenth-Century Racism," in Harold Pagliaro, ed., Racism in the Eighteenth Century. Volume 3 of Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture. Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University, 1973, pp. 245-62.

G. S. Rousseau, and Roy Porter. Exoticism in the Enlightenment. New York: Manchester University Press, 1990.

Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism, New York: Vintage, 1994

Edward W. Said, Orientalism. Vintage, 1979.

Said, "Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World." In Robert Boyers and Peggy Boyers, eds., The New Salmagundi Reader. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Jennifer Thorn, "`Chivalric' racism: Galland, Burton, and the Arabian Nights." In Monstrous Dreams of Reason: Cultural Politics, Enlightenment Ideologies, ed. Laura Rosenthal and Mita Choudhury, forthcoming.



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