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Book Review: The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture

Tuesday, April 17, 2018 - 08:53

Andrea, Bernadette. 2017. The Lives of Girls and Women from the Islamic World in Early Modern British Literature and Culture. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. ISBN 978-1-4875-0125-9

I'm always on the lookout for books on history (or art, or literature) that will help expand my default assumptions about the diversity of cultures in the past, particularly in the field of gender and sexuality, but also in terms of ethnicity. I picked this book up last year at Kalamazoo, in part because I'm trying to get a better grasp on the experience of people from Islamic cultures in early modern Europe as grounding for a character in Mistress of Shadows. Although this source isn't particularly useful for that specific project, I started reading it this week in the context of one of my Book Bingo mini-stories, where I'm introducing a character originally brainstormed as a woman from Ottoman Turkey, widow of an Englishman who was part of the trade presence there, who is now building clockwork siege engines as part of the Alliance forces in the Low Countries. (The next Book Bingo square is science fiction and I needed a sci fi motif appropriate for alte 17th century Europe that wouldn't entirely break my overall worldbuilding.) For the Book Bingo project, this work was quite useful in confirming my initial plausibility-sketches. I don't often do full summaries of books that don't fall into the LHMP scope, but maybe I should do them more often.

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The Lives of Girls and Women... looks at women from the Islamic world (though not necessarily documented as Muslims) who came to the British Isles in the 16th and early 17th centuries. The book focuses in particular on how these women were able to express cultural agency and resistance to assimilation even when their presence in England was entirely involuntary, as well as how their foreign identity was depicted within public culture of the time. Rather than try to discover the general demographics of the female Islamicate presence in England, the book focuses on a small number of specific individuals whose names and life stories are known and fairly well documented. Their origins include West African, Tatar, Circassian via Safavid Persia, and Armenian via the Mughal Empire.

Andrea tries to recover their lives from the documentary evidence (and the meticulousness of her project is reflected in the fact that nearly 50% of the page-count is notes, bibliography, and index). She describes England as in a "proto-colonialist and proto-Orientalist" stage at this time, but it was not yet a major international power within the emerging colonial system. The lives of these women were linked to elite Englishwomen such as Queen Elizabeth I and Lady Mary Wroth. The problem of tracing their lives is, in part, reflective of the larger problem of deciphering women's lives in this era.

Here are brief biographies of the women that the text focuses on:

Elen More - A black West African, brought to Scotland by privateers who took her from a Portuguese ship. Elen was most likely taken from her original home as part of the slave trade, but she established a place in the Scottish court that is clearly more that of a lady in waiting than a slave. Elen was featured in early 16th century pageants at the Scottish court as the "Black Queen of Beauty" and presided ceremonially over tournaments in that role. [Note: as I read about her, I immediately recognized the inspiration for Alyssa Cole's historical romance Agnes Moor's Wild Knight and now  I may add that to my TBR queue.]

Ipolita the "Tartar Girl" ended up in Queen Elizabeth's court after being "aquired" (read: "bought") by an agent of the Muscovy Company and sent to the queen as a gift. Her function in the court seems to have been roughly that of a pet or mascot, similarly to a woman with dwarfism** that the queen also kept in her employ. Ipolita (a name bestowed on her in England) was the model for a character in Mary Wroth's novel The Countess of Montgomery's Urania, which features several foreign type-characters.

**Please forgive me if I've stumbled in the phrasing of this reference. The text has "female dwarf" which may be a standard historical description but feels othering to me.

Teresa Sampsona was a woman of Circassian origin living in the Safavid empire and possibly related to one of the Shah's concubines. It's unclear whether she was originally Orthodox Christian (as many Circassians were) or Muslim (a possiblity raised later in the context of accusations of apostasy). She met the Englishman Robert Sherley when he was attached to the Shah as his envoy to Christian Europe and Teresa may have been, in effect, given to him as a reward for his services. Teresa was baptized as a Catholic in 1608 (which doesn't preclude the possiblity that she was previously Orthodox) before marrying Robert and they traveled extensively together through Eruope, indcluding extended stays in England on several occasions. She, too, was a model for one of the charcters in the Urania. Teresa was multi-lingual, politically savvy, and possibly martially skilled, as portraits of her (by Anthony van Dyck and others, see this link for the van Dyck portraits) sometimes included a pistol and she is recorded as having saved her husband's life during various encounters with Persian and Portuguese attackers. After her husband's death in Persia, she dealt with several years of persecution from her late husband's enemies and rivals before succeeding in escaping to Europe where she spent her remaining decades in Rome.

Mariam Khanim and Teresa Sampsona's lives intersected in person, despite their separate histories. Mariam was an Armenian subject of the Mughal emperor, the daughter of a high-ranked courtier, and was married successively to two English men associated with the East India Company: William Hawkins and Gabriel Towerson. Mariam's life and experiences were the inspiration for John Dryden's character Ysabinda in his Southeast Asian-set play Amboyna, or the Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants (1673), although the character is "an almost unidentifieable re-creation," having been converted into an Indonesian princess. Mariam and her husband traveled to England during the same general period as the Sherleys' travels. Like Teresa, Mariam was highly unlikely to have had any volition in her marriage to a Englishman and appears to have been part of a bribe to keep Hawkins at the Mughal court. When Hawkins did finally leave two years later, Mariam's family tried to prevent her from leaving (again, it being unclear what her own feelings were on the matter). Hawkins died during the voyage back to England and Mariam promptly married another East India Company captain, Gabriel Towerson. Financial need was probably a driving force, though Mariam petitioned the Company on her own behalf for compensation as Hawkins' widow. Two years later, the couple returned to India after which her husband left her and died in battle and Mariam vanishes from the written record.

Andrea presents fascinating evidence that Teresa Sampsonia and her husband Robert, while sailing back to Persia in 1613 encountered the ship carrying Mariam Khanim and her husband, traveling form India to England, when both ships put in for supplies at the Cape of Good Hope. And for a further connection, correspondence to Teresa and her husband from a friend back in England notes that Mariam had visited their son Robert (who had remained in England). [This sort of detail is particularly interesting in the context of the "historic plausibility" of multiple marginalized characters interacting in historical fiction.]

Andrea's book also spends several chapters looking at how these women were represented or interpreted in English literature of the time (such as the Urania, but also including some of Shakespeare's works). If you have any interest in the general topic of diversity in European history, I recommend checking this book out.

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