Sunday, April 26, 2015

"The Wilder Shores of Love": Romance and exoticism, what did you expect?

The Wilder Shores of LoveThe Wilder Shores of Love by Lesley Blanch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Believe it or not, I decided to read The Wilder Shores of Love because it got quoted in the J. Peterman catalogue next to an illustration of a fancy nightgown. And after reading the book, that doesn’t seem like a bad place for it. Like the J. Peterman catalogue, it is fanciful, romantic, ardent, and full of exoticism. It is seductive yet also a guilty pleasure, due to the way it traffics in outdated stereotypes about ethnicity and gender.

Lesley Blanch takes for her subjects four well-bred European women who discovered that their “destiny” lay in the Middle East. First is Isabel Burton, a devout Catholic girl who fell madly in love with Richard Burton, the dashing explorer and Orientalist. Posterity has reviled Isabel because she burned Richard’s notes and manuscripts after he died, but Blanch shows that she was more than just a prudish Victorian wife.

Next we learn about Jane Digby, a beautiful aristocrat who had a string of scandalous romances that took her from England to France to Germany to Greece, and who finally found stability and contentment as the wife of a Bedouin tribesman.

Then comes Aimée Dubucq de Rivery, a French girl who was shipwrecked, kidnapped by pirates, sold into the Ottoman Emperor’s harem, and eventually saw her son become Sultan. It was fun to read about the intrigues and treacheries of the Ottoman court, like a real-life version of Game of Thrones. But alas, this section of the book seems to be pure speculation. There is no conclusive proof that Aimée Dubucq became an Ottoman concubine, yet Blanch keeps discussing what Aimée “must have felt” or “might have done.”

The book finishes with the brief, febrile life of Isabelle Eberhardt, a Russian-Swiss woman who roamed around Algeria dressed as a man, taking many lovers and trying to become a Sufi mystic. Even though all of the women in this book led unconventional, adventurous lives, Eberhardt is the strangest and most complex, and I’m not sure that Lesley Blanch fully understands her. Burton, Digby, and Dubucq get slotted as the Passionate Wife, Sexual Amazon, and Sly Sultana, respectively; Eberhardt doesn’t fit into a box like that.

Blanch tries to explain Eberhardt by frequent references to her “melancholy Russian soul,” but to a 21st-century reader, that just sounds silly and stereotypical. So, too, do Blanch’s invocations of “Oriental cunning” or “Arab fatalism.” This book tells of four women whose love for the Middle East included large doses of romantic exoticism; but in reporting their stories, Blanch often falls into the traps of exoticism herself.

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