My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This book was quite hard to rate, but I finally settled on two stars because it wasn’t well enough written (even acknowledging that 19th-century erotica probably wasn’t meant to be great literature) to deserve any more. It’s an epistolary novel, told entirely as a series of letters – mostly from Emily Barlow to her friend, Sylvia Carey.
This book was first published in 1828, but only became popular when it was republished in 1893.
Emily, who is in love with Henry (Sylvia’s brother), gets sent off to India for reasons that are never made clear, and don’t matter because she never arrives. Instead, she and her maid, Eliza, end up getting kidnapped by pirates and sold as harem slaves. Emily ends up with the Dey of Algiers, and Eliza with the Dey of Tunis. Since this is erotica, what happens next is entirely predictable. Emily is raped by the Dey, but pretty soon realises that (after the whole messy, painful deflowering is over) sex is great, and the Dey is really good at it, so she’s entirely happy with the situation.
Emily gets to hear the stories of two other harem slaves – an Italian woman and a Greek girl. The Italian woman was captured on the way to Corsica with her new husband (she is so modest that she is still a virgin); the Greek girl is sold by a corrupt official after her father and fiancé are murdered. The story is pretty much the same in all cases, with only the names changed. Additionally, there is a sideways move into the adventures of a pair of Catholic priests, who have a similar line in forcing young women to have sex with them, then selling them to the Turks – including a young novice nun who is faced with being buried alive after trying to escape her convent (after her brothers refused to testify that they forced her to enter it in the first place).
Meanwhile, Emily has been describing her new life as a harem slave in her letters to Sylvia, who is shocked and rather insulting about the Dey when she writes back. Since has been reading the letters, the Dey determines to kidnap Sylvia to punish her – as you do. He manages this, and embarks on a complex charade involving himself pretending to be a French physician and a fake marriage conducted by an English Jew pretending to be a priest. Sylvia, of course, also follows the pattern and becomes quite happy in her new life.
So far, so unoriginal, so distasteful. However, before we mount our 21st century politically-correct high horse and ride madly off in all directions, we should consider that “woman who gets blackmailed/threatened/bribed into a relationship with the hero” is still a staple plot device – in women’s fiction, written by women, for women. Whilst this does not make rape any more acceptable, it does mean that we should consider that it isn’t limited to nineteenth-century erotica written by men [although, see below for a further thought on this]. It’s alive and well and living in formula romances written by 21st-century women, although in slightly less blatant form. Likewise, the enduring popularity of “the sheikh”, “the Greek”, “the Italian” and more recently “the Russian mafia boss” in women’s fiction: are we talking racism and stereotype, or are we talking “exciting and exotic”? Whichever it is – and it could be both – modern romances, written by women for women, have the same issues as The Lustful Turk, and you can’t logically censure the one without applying the same standards to the other.
Anyway, moving back to the adventures of the Lustful Turk, all of this bedroom activity is brought to a sudden end by a new slave, who cuts off the Dey’s penis. The Dey then orders his physician to also cut off his testicles, since without the penis they are useless, and has the amputated parts preserved in jars of spirits of wine – one of which he gives to Emily, and the other to Sylvia. After which, the two girls are sent back to England.
Once back in England, the last letter discloses that the jars of wine spirits (and contents) have been donated to Sylvia’s friend who runs an expensive girls’ school; Sylvia’s friend shows them to her students, as a reward for good behaviour. Furthermore, Sylvia has married (a baronet, who has apparently not noticed that she is not the virgin he expected), but Emily is determined not to do so until she can find a man who is sufficiently charming and skilled to replace the Dey in her affections and her bed. She has a “young willing maid” who “auditions” all of her suitors – of whom seven out of ten have been found wanting. Emily discloses that she has hopes that the current one, an Irish earl, will pass the test.
This conclusion to the tale is somewhat unexpected. The “bad guys” – the Turks and the Catholic priests – are portrayed as lovers with great skill as well as stamina and charm (we don’t know about the Jew), able to secure any woman’s love and devotion. Whereas of the “good guys”, Henry is portrayed as a wet blanket who goes into a decline when Emily leaves for India and thereafter does nothing; the Italian woman’s husband is so unmanly that a month after the wedding he still hasn’t consummated the marriage; the Greek girl’s fiance gets stupidly and uselessly murdered (though it’s in her defence, and it’s notable that she’s the only one who doesn’t completely fall for the Dey’s charms); the Italian novice nun’s brothers would rather leave her to be buried alive than admit that they forced her into the convent in the first place; Sylvia’s baronet husband is too stupid to notice he hasn’t married a virgin; and as for seven out of ten of Emily’s suitors – they’re just not worthy of her consideration.
Furthermore, the story ends not with the Dey going merrily on with his career of lasciviousness, but instead unable to have sex with anyone – a sort of enforced faithfulness to Emily and Sylvia. Meanwhile, far from being fallen women whose marriage prospects have been destroyed and now face a lifetime of misery and shame, Sylvia has married up (she is now a baronet’s wife) and Emily is determined not to marry at all until she can find a man who meets her high standards – hence the maid (not Emily!) auditioning the candidates. The current candidate is an earl, representing a huge leap in social status for Emily if she deems him worthy of her.
In short, the “foreigners” are consistently portrayed as more “manly” than the women’s male relatives and conventional lovers/husbands, and the two girls – far from being ruined by their experiences – return to England to social success. And the Dey’s parts have been handed off to Sylvia’s friend, not even kept as mementos – and how’s that for crushing to a man’s ego: you give a girl your genitals and she hands them off (like an unwanted birthday present) to be displayed to schoolgirls as a reward for learning their French verbs properly!
The book ends not with, as might be assumed, the men in control but with the various men dead, mutilated, deceived, or discarded, and Emily and Sylvia in control.
This book was far more interesting than I expected – although the interest lay mostly in how it ends. One might have expected the girls to stay in the harem as happy slaves, or, if they returned to England, to be either disgraced (morality tale) or indiscriminately exercising their new skills with anyone and everyone (erotica). As it is, they “get away with it” – their families pretend that they’ve been away at boarding school the whole time, and all is as it was, except that they now have higher standards in men. It’s explicit that Emily isn’t going to marry until she can find a man who meets her requirements, but I detected an implication that Sylvia was quite satisfied to have a husband who was rather stupid – presumably stupid enough to let her run her life the way she wanted.
This reminded me, a little, of Jane Eyre. In Jane Eyre we also have a relatively defenceless woman (economically this time) in the power of a man, or men; yet Jane eventually comes out on top. At the end of the book, Jane says, of Rochester, “Reader, I married him.” She marries him – not the other way around. Throughout the book, Rochester is portrayed as morally weak (thinking he can buy Jane’s affection with gifts, and attempting to commit bigamy) despite his appearance of power; at the end, he is physically broken too. Jane, on the other hand, has inherited a fortune and has decided, after all, to marry him – even though she is now a woman of independent means who could walk away if she wanted to.
This similarity – of women who appear to be be weak but actually come out on top – makes me wonder whether The Lustful Turk was actually written by a woman. I find it difficult to believe that a man, writing for men, would cut off the Dey’s penis (the correct functioning of which many men feel is inextricably linked to their own self-worth) and have Sylvia’s husband deceived and Emily rejecting seven out of ten suitors for not being good enough in bed to satisfy her maid. Emily doesn’t even conduct the auditions herself: the men are treated like domestic servants being interviewed by the housekeeper before the mistress selects the best of the short-list.
It’s also noteworthy that although the women are raped, the men who do it are not only skilled lovers but also personally charming, and find it easy to win the women’s devotion. Society expects women to be chaste, and to refuse sex when it’s offered: to say yes immediately marks you as a slut. So in the nineteenth century, and although this attitude is supposed to be gone, it’s not, and it’s perpetuated by women: you can see it in the plots of contemporary romances. Why does the heroine have to be bribed, tricked, threatened or blackmailed into a relationship with a hero who has all the hallmarks of (according to the author) a desirable partner? Because nice girls don’t say yes. In The Lustful Turk, the rape is a necessary device to allow the girls to have sex without being married, and while still keeping their character as “nice girls”; it’s glossed over very quickly and the description passes on to how great the sex is. Much of the description is, of course, from the girls’ point of view (though Sylvia’s tale is told from the Dey’s point of view), and one does wonder whether this also signals that it was written by a woman, possibly for a female audience. We should not forget that women read erotica – they just don’t talk about it as much as men do, and I should think that held true in the nineteenth century just as much as the twenty-first.
In some ways, I feel mean giving this only two stars. Nearly 2000 words of review should signal something a bit better than two-out-of-five. However, most of the book is pretty standard stuff – it’s only the last few pages, where the Dey’s bits get cut off and we find out what happens to Emily and Sylvia, that the whole book suddenly looks different, as if a different set of lights have been switched on. And the writing just isn’t good enough to lift it above two stars.
But this is a two-star book that anyone who’s interested in nineteenth century erotica, or women’s writing, might well want to give a try. It might not hit the spot as erotica, as such, but that twist at the end makes it a thought-provoking read.