The Romantics and the Myth of the Islamic Orient, Roderick Cavaliero
London, I.B.Tauris, 2010.
‘Romanticism had its roots in fantasy and was nurtured on myth’ is the opening sentence of the prologue to The Romantics. What emerges from its pages is that Mr Cavaliero is as much a Romantic as his characters, a welcome alternative to the stream of historians, myself occasionally included, who as outsiders write about a similar theme known as ‘orientalism’. Orientalism is simply not mentioned here. The book is divided into fifteen myths, including ‘the Turkish myth’, the ‘myth of sex’, ‘the myth of the romantic dream’ and ending with ‘the myth of nostalgia’ or ‘playing on dulcimers’ (however, Coleridge’s wonderful myth of Kubla Khan sadly gets only a brief mention). The title is slightly misleading because it omits the whole of the Arabian scene.
Most of the Romantics here are literary figures; opera enters Mr Cavaliero’s world through stories put to music (e.g. Mozart and Rossini), in painting Delacroix and Ingres put in an appearance¸ also the Maltese Amadeo Preziosi (but illustrations of their paintings so poor as to be worse than none at all), but by and large the emphasis is on the Ottoman Empire, English writers and mostly men, hence the author’s frequent reference to the letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu as one of the very few Europeans to visit and write about the harem. (a whole chapter dedicated to it). Rather like today’s women anthropologists, Lady Mary was able to see both sides of the screen. Amadeo Preziosi, who lived in Constantinople for some forty years, is upheld as an authority on the harem because he painted women in such settings but apart from his own ménage (?) he is not only most unlikely to have been panting from life but was catering for western demand for such subjects.
The book is at its best when focusing in detail on a particular source of myth – e.g. Thousand and One Nights – or individuals – e.g. William Beckford, Byron, Walter Scott. Then one asks: are his characters part of the myth or creators of it? Byron comes across as both, Pierre Loti also, Hester Stanhope definitely both – see Kinglake’s visit (insisted on by his mother) to her decrepit eyrie – at night (at Lady Hester’s insistence, major myth-making moment). Most interestingly the author occasionally includes the numbers of copies of publications sold on the publication day, in other words the myth in instant creation. Some myths work better than others: the history of The Thousand and One Nights for instance is well covered though I am not quite sure why it is the version edited by Edward Lane’s nephew which is quoted rather than Lane’s magnificent if somewhat anaesthetised original. It leads into an interesting discourse on Beckford’s Vathek, surely a fine example of oriental myth. Walter Scott’s four Crusader novels are well covered, also Disraeli’s Tancred, but curiously not his Contarini Fleming or Alroy, both of which bring in his Levant travels of 1830-31. And in ‘The myth of Egypt’, no mention of the ‘Egyptian’ architecture that decorated some of London’s buildings as the first Nile trophies reached the British Museum, nor indeed of Brighton Pavilion. But one can’t fit in everything.
The confusing chronology of the opening myth, ‘the Empire of Osman: the Turkish myth’ should have had more careful editing (as in the rest of the book, but not a feature of this particular publisher) and when writing about relatively modern history surely the terrible CE is unnecessary. The author under-rates ‘The myth of Persia’: his focus is on James Morier’s Hajji Baba, popular but not all that mythical, and George Meredith’s Shaving of Shagpat, definitely myth. But what about the seventeenth century Sherley brothers particularly Robert and his beautiful Armenian wife, in magnificent costumed portraits by Anthony van Dyk – surely they helped mythologise this distant and little known country? And even in the nineteenth century the Iranian world was much less well known than the Ottoman, hence Matthew Arnold’s combining Iranian myth (Shahname) with his Sohrab and Rustum. Earlier he describes Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, without however associating it with Persia or the rich tradition of Persian poetry beginning to be translated. And of all myths of Persia surely none has been so hypnotising as in the quatrains of Edward Fitzerald’s Omar Khayyam, whose myth-making potential was so well demonstrated in the 2009 British Library exhibition. It surely deserved a mention.
In other words the author’s presentation is a bit of a Romantic curate’s egg. I would like to think he was a member of ASTENE where he would find many kindred spirits within the pages of this bulletin and indeed among our members.